Live Free or Die” is the official state motto of New Hampshire. According to Wikipedia: “The phrase was adopted [in 1945] from a toast written by General John Stark, New Hampshire’s most famous soldier of the American Revolutionary War, on July 31, 1809. Poor health forced Stark to decline an invitation to an anniversary reunion of the Battle of Bennington. Instead, he sent his toast by letter: ‘Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils.’ ”
Sadly, while the Revolutionary War brought freedom and independence from Britain to white American colonists, millions of black Americans remained enslaved. According to teachinghistory.org: “By 1776, African Americans comprised about 20% of the entire population in the 13 mainland colonies...slaves comprised about 60% of South Carolina’s total population and 40% of Virginia’s.”
Kentucky became the 15th state on June 1, 1792. According to Wikipedia: “The history of slavery in Kentucky dates from the earliest permanent European settlements in the state, until the end of the Civil War. Kentucky was classified as the Upper South or a border state, and enslaved African Americans represented 24% by 1830....”
Margaret “Peggy” Garner, was born a house slave to the Gaines family of Maplewood plantation in Boone County, Kentucky, (near Covington) sometime around 1833. She was described as a mulatta — a female person of mixed white and black ancestry. According to Wikipedia, “She may have been the daughter of the plantation owner John Pollard Gaines himself.
“Margaret married one of her fellow slaves, Robert Garner, in 1849. That December, the plantation was sold along with all the slaves to John P. Gaines’ younger brother, Archibald K. Gaines. The Garners’ first child, Thomas, was born early in 1850. Three of Margaret’s later children (Samuel, Mary, and Priscilla) were described as mulattoes; each was born five to seven months after a child born to Archibald K. Gaines and his wife. These light-skinned children were likely the children of A.K. Gaines, the only adult white male at Maplewood. The timing suggests they were each conceived after his wife had become pregnant and was sexually unavailable to him.
“On January 28, 1856, Robert and a pregnant Margaret, together with family members, escaped and fled to Cincinnati, Ohio, along with several other enslaved families...In the coldest winter in 60 years, the Ohio River had frozen. The group crossed the ice just west of Covington, Kentucky at daybreak, and escaped to Cincinnati....
“Robert and Margaret and their four children, with Robert’s father Simon and his wife Mary, made their way to a former slave, Margaret’s Uncle Joe Kite, who lived along Mill Creek, below Cincinnati....
“Slave catchers and U.S. marshals found the Garners barricaded inside Kite’s house...They surrounded the property, then stormed the house. Robert Garner fired several shots and wounded at least one deputy marshal. Margaret killed her two-year-old daughter with a butcher knife rather than see the child returned to slavery....
“On the closing day of the trial, the antislavery activist Lucy Stone took the stand...She spoke about the interracial sexual relationship that underlay part of the case...Stone told the packed courtroom: ‘The faded faces of the Negro children tell too plainly to what degradation the female slaves submit. Rather than give her daughter to that life, she killed it. If in her deep maternal love she felt the impulse to send her child back to God, to save it from coming woe, who shall say she had no right to do so?’
“Margaret Garner’s actions were driven by her master’s abuse and the well-known abuse slaves faced nationwide. Women were known to practice infanticide to alleviate the burden of slavery from their children; however, in Garner’s case her children faced even more opposition due to their being mulattoes. Mulattoes were seen as a threat as well as a disgrace...[and] were often beaten or sold....”
David Wark “D.W.” Griffith was born in 1875 in Oldham County, Kentucky, the son of Jacob “Roaring Jake” Griffith, a Confederate Army colonel in the Civil War, and later a Kentucky state legislator.
In 1915, D.W. Griffith directed, co-wrote, and co-produced the epic silent film, The Birth of a Nation, originally called The Clansman. According to history.com: “In just over three hours, D.W. Griffith’s controversial epic film...depicted the Ku Klux Klan as valiant saviors of a post-war South ravaged by Northern carpetbaggers and immoral freed blacks. The film was an instant blockbuster...The Birth of a Nation also helped rekindle the KKK.
“Until the movie’s debut, the Ku Klux Klan...was all but obliterated due to government suppression. But The Birth of a Nation‘s racially charged Jim Crow narrative, coupled with America’s heightened anti-immigrant climate, led the Klan to align itself with the movie’s success and use it as a recruiting tool.”
In the film, the lovely young white Flora goes off alone to fetch water. She is followed by the sinister Gus, a black captain in the Union Army (portrayed by a white actor in blackface). Gus tells Flora he wants to marry her. Horrified, Flora runs to the edge of a cliff and says she will jump if Gus comes any closer. Gus advances; Flora leaps to her death. The Klan captures Gus and lynches him.
(In September 1913, a black man named Joe Richardson was accused in The Leitchfield Gazette of a “dastardly attempt” on a 10-year-old white girl. Although the girl was unharmed and unmolested, a mob of masked men dragged Richardson from the jail and hanged him from a tree in the courthouse square in Leitchfield.)
Black women were far more likely to be raped by white men than white women were by Blacks. A report published by PLOS Genetics states that “...82% of African Americans’ ancestors could be traced to Africa and nearly 17% to Europe. Within the US...mixing between African Americans’ ancestors and European [white] Americans largely took place in the pre-Civil War South.”
According to PBS’ THIRTEEN: Slavery and the Making of America: “Within the bonds of slavery, masters often felt it their right to engage in sexual activity with black women. Sometimes, female slaves acquiesced to advances hoping that...they or their children would be liberated by the master. Most of the time, however, slave owners took slaves by force.
“For the most part, masters made young, single slaves the objects of their sexual pursuits. However, they did on occasion rape married women.”
Infanticide, the killing of one’s own child, is one of the most horrible crimes imaginable. And yet Margaret Garner imagined something worse: Her daughter serving as a sex slave to her master, just as she had.
Margaret Garner, aged around 25, died in 1858 of typhoid fever. Before she died, she told her husband Robert “to never marry again in slavery, but to live in hope of freedom.”
Learn more about Margaret Garner in the PBS series: The African Americans—Many Rivers to Cross, Part 2, The Age of Slavery (1800-1860).