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KYGMC opens Black History Month exhibit

By Rachel Adkins,


Kentucky Gateway Museum Center in Maysville is celebrating Black History Month with an exhibit centered around the Ohio River Valley area.

In February, Black History Month is celebrated annually. February was chosen because it is the month in which Frederick Douglass, a social reformer and abolitionist, has a birthday. Black History Month is in place to serve as a celebration of Black history and a reminder to the modern-day culture of the struggles that were endured in past decades.

This year, KYGMC is showing an exhibit featuring various pieces of history in the Ohio River Valley and surrounding areas. Dr. Cheryl French, the exhibit’s curator, is responsible for how the exhibit is set up. She has carefully arranged the information plaques in chronological order so they will convey a proper series of events in history.

“I wanted to do a timeline focusing on the history of our region,” said French “It’ll make it a little more personal for everybody.”

The exhibit begins with a section dedicated to enslaved people from Africa. The items and information displayed lean toward western Africans and the ethnic groups that were involved in slave trading through colonizers. Most items displayed in this exhibit belong to KYGMC or Bill Boggs but items put on view in this section belong to French.

There is further history from the state throughout the exhibit. On display, French has placed a copy of the constitution Kentucky signed to become the first state to legalize slavery. Furthermore, there are informational pieces about the first slaves in the Ohio River Valley.

“It appears that all of the earlier explorers that went to the Ohio River Valley had an enslaved person with them,” said French “Simon Kenton was a slave owner. So it is likely that he had enslaved people with him while he was exploring as well.”

Other sections go on to discuss escaped slaves and the history of their locations and impacts. According to French, a lot of enslaved people from the Atlantic slave trade ended up with Native Americans. One slave that escaped in later years was Thornton Blackburn, a man considered one of the more interesting featured escaped slaves by French.

In 1814, Blackburn was born in Maysville. In his life, Blackburn came to be a self-emancipated formerly enslaved man whose situation brought on a principle in Canada in which escaped slaves could not be returned to their masters in the United States.

Blackburn was sold later in his life to a plantation in Louisville. Here, he met his wife. Together, they escaped in 1831. Two years later, Blackburn and his wife were captured by slave hunters in Michigan and put in jail until they were meant to be transported back to Louisville. The day before this was meant to happen, black community members in Detroit started a protest, which became the first race riot in Detroit and would lead to the first Riot Commission to be formed in the United States. After escaping again, Blackburn and his wife found themselves in Canada where he opened a successful taxicab company.

In addition to a general slave history of Maysville, there is a personal connection between French and the exhibit.

“I have my family tree up there. My great-grandfather was a slave on Pepper farm in Fleming County and so was my great-grandmother,” French said “A picture of their children is shown below them, as they were the first generation who had not been enslaved.”

Near this part of the exhibit, there are images of unknown slaves. French said the museum would like for community members to see the images and identify these people, as they would like for their exhibit to be complete to every detail.

There are many more informative plaques in the exhibit. Community members are encouraged to view items on display, according to French. KYGMC will show the exhibit for the entirety of Black History Month.

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