Cheapside Slave Auction Block

Historical Marker #2122 remembers Lexington’s Cheapside slave auction block and the thousands of enslaved Kentuckians sold here.

For decades before the Civil War, Lexington was the center of the slave trade in Kentucky. Located in the heart of the Bluegrass Region, one of the most heavily enslaved portions of the state, Lexington’s Cheapside slave auction block served both local and regional markets. The African Americans who were offered for auction faced frightening uncertainty. They were virtually powerless to influence whether their sale took them across the county, to the other end of the state, or “down the river” to the cotton-producing states farther south.”

Slave auctions were often cataclysmic events for the men, women and children who were sold. Sales could shatter families and rip an individual away from the lives and communities they knew. No enslaved person was immune from the possibility of sale and the auction block at Cheapside was the spot where this fear became a reality for thousands of Kentuckians.

Slave sales resulted from a variety of circumstances. In some cases, the sales occurred by order of the Fayette Circuit Court to settle their enslavers’ outstanding debts. In other instances, sales followed the death of their enslaver, if the enslaved were not willed directly to their next owner. Many sales occurred simply because one or more black Kentuckians were deemed “surplus” to the labor requirements of a particular farm or commercial enterprises. Slave sales were a common, every day, aspect of life in Lexington during the antebellum years, yet their frequency should not obscure the magnitude of each event for the enslaved people touched by it.

Antebellum advertisements publicizing sales on the courthouse square give an idea of the skilled men and women who were sold at the Cheapside auction block. To pick a few examples among the thousands: there was the 22-year-old man who was “well qualified to attend a steam engine,” the 52-year old “good Kennel Man,” Sallie, a 42-year old “Excellent Cook,” 23-year old Lize along with her “6 mo. old Picinniny,” “men accustomed to work in a Tan Yard,” “a good Factory hand” and farm laborers.

Specialists in the Kentucky slave trade often located their operations near the Cheapside auction block. These included the pens and “jails” where slave traders held the enslaved before they were sold at the monthly court day or transported to markets in the Deep South. Slave traders operating from Lexington, such as Silas Marshall, William Talbott and Lewis Robards, formed extensive connections with dealers in New Orleans, Memphis, and Natchez. Their firms connected the white Bluegrass enslavers, and the “surplus” men, women and children they held in bondage, with the rapacious appetite for slave labor in the cotton states to the south.

The opposite side of the marker addresses the experience of slavery in Fayette County more generally. It notes the nearby site of a whipping post established in 1847 to punish the black Kentuckians, both enslaved and free, often for trivial “offenses” such as being on the streets after 7 pm. This whipping post, located at the site of governmental authority, reinforced the institution of slavery in the Bluegrass in combination with the nearby Cheapside slave auction block. Backed legally and symbolically by the power of the state, the duel threats of whipping and sale helped sustain slavery in Fayette County.

Marker #2122 was dedicated in 2003 through the efforts of the Lexington Alumni Chapter of the Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity.