Slave Trading in Louisville

The site at 2nd and Main documented by historical marker #1990 was among the most notorious in the city even during the height of its lucrative traffic in human beings before the Civil War.

During the antebellum era, Kentucky, like the other border and upper-South states, served as an exporter of enslaved laborers to the Deep South cotton states. Upper-South urban areas, including St. Louis, Missouri, Richmond, Virginia, and Lexington and Louisville, Kentucky were hubs for the sale of human beings. Louisville’s position on the Ohio River allowed the city to grow on the profits of the sales of enslaved men, women, and children.

Jefferson County sheriff’s sales of captured, self-emancipated formerly enslaved individuals and county commissioner sales that settled deceased enslavers’ estates put thousands of enslaved people on the market. Like the interstate sales, intrastate trading often separated wives from husbands, parents from children, and relocated people to new and unfamiliar locales.

Human traffickers advertised in local newspapers for purchases. For example, in the January 14, 1851, issue of the Louisville Daily Democrat, dealer Matthew Garrison ran a notice that read “NEGROES WANTED, I wish to purchase, specially for a tobacco farm several Negroes, both male and female, between the ages of 14 and 24; also a few house servants,” and noted his address as “Second st., between Main and Market.”

Matthew Garrison joined many other white Kentuckians in enthusiastically selling people into the profitable cotton and sugar regions of the old southwest — thereby guaranteeing family separation, homesickness, and dramatically increasing the likelihood of death from tropical disease and overwork. Yet they would also “often travel through the State of Kentucky to buy up the handsomest mullato female slaves,” and developed a sordid reputation for doing so.

Shelby County native Henry Bibb knew of Garrison’s cruelty personally. After escaping from slavery himself, Bibb returned to Kentucky to free his wife, Malinda, and child in 1839. All three were captured. While Bibb was housed in the city workhouse awaiting sale further south, Garrison took Malinda “to a private house where he kept female slaves for the basest purposes. It was a resort for slave trading profligates and soul drivers, who were interested in the same business.” They were separated for nearly three months before both being sold to Louisiana. Henry Bibb eventually escaped bondage and published a newspaper for the fugitive community living in exile in Canada. He never saw Malinda or their daughter, Frances, again.

In the 1850 census, Matthew Garrison was shown as living alone, with his occupation listed as a “Negro Dealer.” The 1850 slave schedules — the first government document to systematically record information on enslaved people across the United States — echo the observations that Bibb made about the way the Garrisons conducted their business. Of the twenty-eight people over whom Garrison claimed ownership, thirteen were women and girls between 11 and 37 years of age. Most were in their late teens and early twenties. Seven children belonging to these women were held — as Frances Bibb had been ten years before — hostage to ensure the compliance with the sexual violence to which they were subjected.

Garrison seems to have trapped two enslaved women in long-term, non-consensual sexual relationships with him. The first, Sarah Ann, had four children with Garrison — Andrew Leslie, Gory, William, and Lucy Jane — from 1849 to 1855. At nearly the same time, a woman named Charity had Virgil and Mary in 1853 and 1855, the first when she was just sixteen years old. In what he must have considered an act of kindness, Garrison provided for the emancipation of Sarah Ann and Charity in a will he wrote in 1856. Of course, the freedom was only to have been granted upon Garrison’s death, which did not occur until 1863. Garrison thus dangled the prospect of liberation over Sarah Ann and Charity in exchange for their continued acquiescence to his demands on their bodies until the moment when national emancipation and freedom were on the horizon.

Garrison divided his properties between the victims of his long-term abuse and their children. For those children he considered worthy of it, he provided for the funding of their education, especially “the four boys” who he directed receive “a first class business education.” He directed that his estate be liquidated and the proceeds divided among his children, though because so much of his wealth had been in the form of human beings who were now pursuing freedom for themselves in the post-Emancipation Proclamation United States, much of Garrison’s supposed wealth had collapsed by the time of his death. The property at 2nd and Main descended to Charity’s daughter Mary. She and Virgil quarreled over the division of the estate, and the property left their hands in 1879 due to inability to pay property taxes.

The trade in enslaved humans was a reality in Kentucky that lasted until it was outlawed by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in December 1865.

Marker Text
By the 1850s, Kentucky was annually exporting between 2500 and 4000 of its slaves down river to the large plantations farther south. To prevent runaways, traders operating near the Ohio River kept slaves shackled together in pens when not being displayed to buyers. Slave traders were often social outcasts avoided by all but fellow traders. (Reverse)

Garrison Slave Pen Site - Matthew Garrison was a well known Kentucky slave speculator in the Deep South. A white abolitionist leader, Rev. Calvin Fairbank, wrote in 1851 that four slave markets, including Garrison's and Arterburn's, sold men, women, and children "like sheep." Slavery abolished by 13th Amendment, 1865.

Presented by Louisville and Jefferson County African American Heritage Committee, Inc.

Dedicated Feb. 22, 1998