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February 18, 2009

The brink of freedom

In 1841, Abraham Lincoln spent three weeks in Louisville visiting his friend Joshua Speed. The men first met about four years earlier in Springfield, Ill. — Speed was operating a general store, and Lincoln, at the time a burgeoning, penniless lawyer, came in to inquire about buying a mattress on credit. The two became friends and roommates.

After Speed returned to his hometown of Louisville following the death of his father, Judge John Speed, Lincoln traveled to visit his friend’s family estate of Farmington.

The Speed family owned 550 acres of land, including parts of what are today Bardstown and Taylorsville roads, as well as nearly 60 slaves, who handled domestic chores and hemp production on the plantation. Although Lincoln was born in Kentucky, he grew up in the free states of Indiana and Illinois. Until his visit to Farmington, the future president had never experienced Southern slavery. He later described it as “a continual torment,” and most historians believe his experience at Farmington played a part in his staunch opposition to slavery.

On Saturday, Feb. 21, Farmington Historical Plantation will explore its past with “Focus on Slavery: American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission,” a lecture by archivist Jennie Cole and re-enactment of an interview of James Speed conducted by the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission in 1863. Most of the information about the slaves at Farmington comes from written accounts by visitors and the probate records filed after John Speed’s death in 1840. The court documents list each slave by name next to how much they were worth. Amanda Pridham, Farmington’s executive director, says James Speed’s testimony adds a more personal dimension to the record.

“The interview with James Speed is one of the most important documents we have for learning about slave life at Farmington,” says Pridham. “He talks about the slaves living in cabins on the property and each slave family having its own garden. He gives us these pieces of information that we would otherwise not know.”

During the Civil War, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton commissioned the American Freedmen’s Bureau to study the impact of emancipation on newly freed slaves. The Emancipation Proclamation, issued Jan. 1, 1863, had freed slaves “in rebellious states,” but not border states like Kentucky and Missouri, or Southern states then under Union control. Stanton wanted to see if African Americans as a whole were “ready” for freedom, so he sent the bureau to interview slave masters and former slaves.

James Speed, for whom the Speed Art Museum is named, was raised at Farmington and worked alongside slaves when he was young. He became a strong abolitionist, although he also believed in gradual emancipation. In his interview with the Freedmen’s Bureau, Speed discussed the family life of slaves, their ability to manage money and their work on the plantation.

“You are hit over the head with the racism and the bias of the interviewer,” Pridham says. “It really is striking to see what the general population, at that time, thought of the ability of African Americans. Clearly, there was a notion there that slaves could not take care of themselves. That is one aspect of it. The other is James Speed’s answers.”

The great irony is that while James Speed was an advocate of emancipation, his brother Joshua, a good friend to Lincoln, opposed it. In fact, Joshua also did an interview with the Freedmen’s Bureau, but it is only one page and consists of two anecdotes about the laziness of slaves.

“James and Joshua were incredibly different,” says Cole, an archivist at the American Jewish Archive in Cincinnati, who wrote her master’s thesis on James Speed. “It’s amazing to think that two brothers fairly close in age and background would have such different views. Joshua owned up to 18 slaves, sold slaves for a while and never seemed to have this internal struggle that James had. This is something I’ll talk about in the program. It really mirrors the divide that was going on within the nation as a whole.”

“Focus on Slavery: American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission” takes place at Farmington Historical Plantation, 3033 Bardstown Road, at 10 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 21. Tickets are $10. Michael L. Jones is the 2009 Arts and Culture Partnership Initiative Intern at Farmington Historical Plantation.