Historical Marker #2238 in Fayette County notes the origins of Maddoxtown, a rural freedman’s community that developed during Reconstruction.
For its first seventy plus years slavery was the dominant labor system of Kentucky. And while the Civil War significantly damaged slavery in the Bluegrass State, it was not until several months after the war that the Thirteenth Amendment officially abolished slavery. However, the racial prejudice which was the foundation and that had legitimized slavery in many white Kentuckians’ eyes, remained long after the institution’s death.
With freedom came questions—often from very different perspectives depending on who was asking them. For example, what will be the political, social, and economic relationship between blacks and whites?; where will the former slaves choose to live?; what work will the former slaves be willing to do and not do?; what responsibilities and obligations do former owners have toward their former property?, as well as many others.
After the Civil War, many former slaves flocked to Kentucky’s urban centers looking for work, seeking to reunite with separated family members, wishing for a sense of solidarity and protection, and searching for educational opportunities for their families. Those former owners in rural districts worried about the loss of their source of labor to Kentucky’s cities and thus devised ways to keep freedmen and freedwomen on the farm.
One measure to encourage former slaves to stay was to give, sell, or “lease to own” land. Land was a commodity that most former slaveowners had in abundance and land ownership was viewed by the majority of freed people as the best means for socioeconomic advancement. Such a partnership seemingly benefitted both parties: owners kept their laborers and former slaves became property owners. But it must be remembered that at this time blacks had just received their citizenship through the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) and their numbers were often too few in the rural districts to develop advantages from the Fifteenth Amendment, which provided the right for black men to vote in 1870. In most instances wages and working conditions were set by white employers.
Many communities such as Maddoxtown developed when multiple family units settled in the same area for work. However, a certain sense of community developed as members of these villages shared knowledge and skills, which strengthened their mutual locale. Being part of a black community allowed for social outlets such as schools and churches and afforded a level of protection if and when threatened with extralegal violence.
The black hamlets remained a part of Kentucky’s rural landscape long beyond the years of Reconstruction and served as a point of transition on the long road from slavery to freedom and equality.