Early African American Communities in Jefferson County
Information provided by Pen Bogert
Others, such as the Petersburg community, were established shortly after the end of the Civil War. Although many of these communities no longer exist, others, such as Berrytown, Griffeytown, Petersburg (now known as Newburg) and Harrod’s Creek, continue to thrive.
The histories of these communities, excluded from the standard surveys of Jefferson County history, remain largely hidden from view. There is a wealth of information to be found in court records, censuses, maps and other documents, but the “hidden history” of these communities is to be found in the stories and traditions of the residents.
Two years ago The Filson Historical Society began a project to research the history of several of these early African American communities. The goal of this project is to provide the public and other researchers with a preliminary survey of accessible historical information that can be used for further research and study. It was decided that gathering oral histories and supplementing these stories and traditions with data from other historical sources could best accomplish this. The Filson asked Carridder Jones, who had previously completed a much larger project (“Black Hamlets in the Kentucky Bluegrass”), to direct the project, and she and Pen Bogert, Filson reference specialist, began a collaborative effort to develop a research plan, identify the communities to research and to conduct the interviews. Funding was secured from The Kentucky Humanities Council.
Jones decided to concentrate on the communities of Harrod’s Creek, Prospect, Berrytown, Griffeytown and Newburg, all of which had their origins in the 19th century. She interviewed over 20 residents and recorded their recollections on tape. Most of these residents are direct descendants of the founders of their communities and they provided new information about historic landmarks as well as information about neighborhoods, community life, and buildings and roads that no longer exist. For example, Mary Kellar provided new details about the historic Merriwether House in Harrod’s Creek and her husband, William Kellar, shared his wealth of knowledge about the history of the Harrod’s Creek and Prospect communities; Laura Brooks recalled long-forgotten schools and neighborhoods in Prospect, including the Happy Hollow neighborhood where her father, Simon Brooks, lived; and Sarah Frances Jones related stories about her grandfather, Richard Lilly, who served in the U. S. Colored Troops and was one of the founders of Berrytown. In addition to sharing their stories, many residents shared their family photographs and allowed copies to be made as a permanent part of this project. All of the persons interviewed recalled the day-to-day activities of their vibrant communities and the importance of local churches and schools. Many recalled their struggles against racism as they lived in and built their communities.
In addition to the many oral histories and photographs collected by Jones, Pen Bogert researched the many sources available at The Filson, including maps, censuses, deeds, marriage records, death certificates and other records. All of these materials are now available to the public and some of them will be incorporated into The Filson’s website. Jones and Bogert presented a visual presentation of the project at The Filson this fall, and Jones will also be available to give this presentation elsewhere in the community.
The Filson Historical Society