By Robert Perry - 2001
In the late 1930s, a journalist employed by the Federal Writers Project came to Prestonsburg to collect facts about Floyd County slavery. He was hoping to find some ex-slaves, who could provide him with firsthand accounts of Floyd County slave life during the antebellum period. He didn't find any ex-slaves, but he did find a Floyd County man, who had once interviewed one.
Sometime around 1905, while working for a short-lived Prestonsburg newspaper (probably the East Kentucky Journal, published by John W. Wallen), Prestonsburg attorney, W. S. Wallen, interviewed "Uncle Charlie" Richmond, former slave of Judge William Richmond, of Big Stone Gap, Wise County, Virginia. Charlie was about 80 years old when Wallen interviewed him. When the old man died in 1910, Wallen published a feature story about him in the same newspaper.
Unfortunately, the newspaper's archives were
destroyed by fire in 1928, and as a result, when the Federal
Writers Project journalist arrived in Prestonsburg a decade later,
copies of the article were no longer available. However, Wallen
was able to provide him with the notes he had taken during the
In 1955 Floyd County historian, Henry Scalf, discovered a copy of the newspaper dated December 14, 1905. The copy was brittle with age, and as he was reading it, it crumbled in his hands. As a consequence, he was unable to preserve it. Among other things, it carried this announcement: "With this issue, the Journal has completed the first round of one year." According to Scalf, Wallen published his newspaper on a press located in the Floyd County Courthouse.
During the early years of the 20th century, W. S. Wallen was one of Floyd County's most popular attorneys. Following service with the U. S. Army during World War I, he was elected Floyd County State Representative and served in the Kentucky Legislature from 1922 to 1926. Appointed to the Normal School Commission, Wallen was one of the men who helped choose the site for a new teachers' college. Though he lobbied long and hard for Prestonsburg, his fellow commissioners finally decided to locate the college at Morehead, Kentucky. The decision keenly disappointed local voters, and as a result, Wallen became known as "the man who sold his vote and lost us the teachers' college," despite the fact that no evidence of wrongdoing was ever produced.
Though his legislative career ended in disappointment, we should be grateful to Mr. Wallen for preserving an important piece of Floyd County history. His account of Charlie Richmond's recollections was subsequently included in Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States, an unpublished collection housed in the Library of Congress. Several months ago, my friend, Mack Horn, of Hueysville, discovered Charlie's narrative while researching the various genealogical databases at http://www.ancestry.com. Thanks, Mack, for bringing this document to my attention.
Here are Wallen's notes of his interview with "Uncle Charlie" Richmond, as they were recorded by the unidentified Federal Writers Project journalist:
"The last ex-slave of Floyd County, says Mr. W. S. Wallen, of Prestonsburg, was "Uncle Charlie" Richmond of Prestonsburg. "Uncle Charlie" was brought to the county by old Judge Richmond, father of Isaac Richmond, of the Richmond Department Store of Prestonsburg, about the time of the Civil War. When the war was over, Charlie worked at Richmond's for hire and lived as a member of the family. Sometime before 1910, while working on a Prestons-burg newspaper, Mr. Wallen interviewed this old ex-slave and worked him into a feature story for his paper. These old paper files were destroyed by fire about 1928.
"We are unable to interview ex-slaves in Floyd County, so far as anyone we are able to contact knows. There are no living ex-slaves in the county. There are several colored people. The majority of them reside at Tram, Kentucky, Floyd County, in a kind of colored colony, having been placed there just after the Civil War. A small number of colored people live in the vicinity of Wayland, Kentucky, the original being the remains of a wealthy farmer of Civil War days, by the name of Martin. The colored people were identified as Martin's Negroes.
"Mr. Wallen remembers that "Uncle
Charlie," as the old ex-slave was called, died in 1910,
was buried in Prestonsburg, and that he, W. S. Wallen, wrote
up the old Negro's death and funeral for his newspaper. This
is the same paper whose files were destroyed by fire and whose
papers no longer exist. Old Judge William Richmond brought this
old slave from Virginia about 1862, along with a number of other
slaves. "Uncle Charlie" was the only ex-slave who remained
in the family as a servant after the Emancipation Proclamation.
"The Negro dialect of this county is
a combination of the dialect white folks use, plus that of the
Negro of the South. The colored population is continually moving
back and forth from Alabama, Georgia, and North and South Carolina.
They visit a lot. Colored teachers, so far, have all been from
Ohio. Most visiting colored preachers come from Alabama or the
Carolinas. The Negroes leave out their Rs and use expressions
like 'an't,' 'han't,' 'gwin,' 'su' for 'sir,' 'yea' for 'yes,'
'dah' for 'there,' and such expressions as 'It's ye!'
"Adam Gearhart was a sportsman and used Negro jockeys. His best jockey, Dennis, was sold to Morg Clark of John's Creek. The old race track took in part of the east end of present-day Prestons-burg, from Gearhart's home east in Mayo's Bottom, one mile to Kelse Hollow. Jimmie Davidson now lives at the beginning of the old track, near Maple Street. Mike Tartar of Tennessee, Gearhart's son-in-law, brought horses from Tennessee and ran them here. Tartar was a promoter and bookmaker, also. Penny J. Sizemore and Morg Clark were other sportsmen. This was as early as 1840, up to the Civil War.
"Slaves were traded, bought, and sold between owners, just as domestic animals are today. If the slave owner owned only a few servants, they lived with him in the big house. Otherwise, they lived in slave quarters; little cabins located nearby.
"Billy Slone had two female servants. He bought them in Virginia, when they were 15 years old, for $1,000, sound. Many folks went over to Mt. Sterling or Lexington to auctions, where they could buy or trade servants. Slave traders came into the county to buy up slaves for the Southern plantations and cotton or sugar fields. Slave families were very frequently separated. Mean, thieving, or runaway Negroes were the first slaves to be sold down the river. Sometimes good servants were sold for the price, the master being in a financial strait or in dire need of money. Traders handcuffed their purchased servants and took them by boat or horseback down the river or over in Virginia and Carolina tobacco fields. Good servants were usually well-treated and not overworked. Mean or contrary servants were whipped or punished in other ways. Runaways were hunted, dogs being used to track them, at times.
"The list of people who owned slaves in Floyd County included: Sophia Layne, Laynesville; Jim Layne, Laynesville; John Preston Martin, Prestonsburg; Jacob Mayo, Sr., Prestonsburg; William Mayo, Jr., Prestonsburg; Johnny Martin, Wayland; Thomas Johns, Dwale; Isom Slone, Beaver Creek; John Bud Harris, Emma; Billy Slone, Caney Fork of Right Beaver; Penny J. Sizemore, Prestonsburg; Samuel P. Davidson, Prestonsburg; Isaac Richmond, Prestonsburg; Valentine Mayo, Prestonsburg; and Adam Gearhart, Prestonsburg. This list is as remembered by the oldest citizens, and one Thomas Jefferson "Uncle Jeff" Sizemore, a 94-year-old Civil War veteran and citizen of Prestonsburg. The list was dictated to the writer in just this order.
"The nearest auction blocks were at Mt. Sterling, Kentucky, and Gladesville, Virginia. Most slaves from the present Floyd County territory were bought and sold through auctions in southwestern Virginia. Other auction blocks were located at Abingdon and Bristol, Virginia."
During his stay in Prestonsburg, the journalist interviewed several other local people about Floyd County slavery, in addition to Mr. Wallen. One of those was a local minister, Rev. John R. Cox, who related the following story:
"A slave owner in western Virginia bought a 13-year-old black girl at an auction. When this girl was taken to his home, she escaped. After searching everywhere without finding her, he decided that she had been helped to escape and gave her up as lost. About two years after that, while a neighbor on a nearby farm was in the woods feeding his cattle, he saw what he first thought was a bear, running into the thicket from among his cows. Getting help, he rounded up the cattle and began searching the thick woodland. He finally found what he had supposed to be a wild animal. It was the long lost fugitive black girl. She had lived all this time in caves, feeding on nuts, berries, wild apples, and milk from cows that she could catch and milk. Returned to her master, she was sold to a Mr. Morgan Whitaker, who lived near Prestonsburg, Kentucky."
There is no denying the fact that slavery is a stain on the American conscience, as this last story so vividly illustrates. However, when discussing the subject, we need to remember that nothing in life is reducible to easy formulas. As Charlie Richmond's story proves, there were slaves who chose to remain with their masters following the Emancipation Proclamation.
My friend, John B. Wells, of Paintsville, who with Paintsville lawyer, John David Preston, shares the distinction of being the region's leading authority on the Civil War in Eastern Kentucky, likes to point out that there were slaves who served alongside their masters in the Confederate Army. Two Floyd County slaves, for example, served in Colonel Jack May's 10th Kentucky Cavalry. Their names were William Davidson (born 1840) and Woodson Davidson (born 1842). Their masters were Greenville R. Davidson, Second Lieutenant, Company A, and son of Samuel P. Davidson of Ivel, Kentucky. William and Woodson were captured at Saltville, Virginia, on November 2, 1864, probably by a Union scouting party. A Pike County slave by the name of George Honaker served in Company D of the 10th Kentucky. His master was James Honaker, Captain of Company D.
Robert Perry, 130 South Circle Drive #4, Prestonsburg, KY 41653, shares this story and photographs with our readers.