During the debate over the Confederate statue on the courthouse lawn, we hear a lot about Daviess County’s slavery heritage.
But there were abolitionists here too, although most moved on to more hospitable climates.
In her 2009 biography “Sojourner Truth’s America,” Margaret Washington writes that Olive Gilbert, the feminist-abolitionist who helped Truth write her autobiography — “Narrative of Sojourner Truth, a Northern Slave, Emancipated from Bodily Servitude by the State of New York, in 1828,” — claimed to have “more knowledge of slavery than most Northern abolitionists and had witnessed it first-hand” in Daviess County.
Gilbert’s brother, George Scarborough, was an early Owensboro educator who gave his name to a section of the city between the Owensboro Convention Center and English Park.
In case her name doesn’t ring a bell, Sojourner Truth — Isabella “Belle” Baumfree — was one of the most famous abolitionists and women’s rights activists of the 19th century.
William Lloyd Garrison, one of America’s best-known abolitionists, had Truth’s book privately published in 1850.
He wrote that he believed it would “stimulate renewed efforts to liberate all those still in slavery in America”.
Washington’s book says that in Owensboro, Scarborough was headmaster of an elite school owned by a wealthy slave owner.”
That would be Phillip Thompson, a lawyer who was also a congressman from Owensboro from 1823 to 1825.
Local histories say Scarborough first taught at Thompson’s Daviess County Seminary, on the downtown site now occupied by Wax Works/Video Works.
They say Scarborough built a large home — Snowden Castle — in 1847 at the foot of Elm Street, which he also used as a school.
Washington’s book says that “more than one-third” of Daviess County’s population was enslaved.
The 1850 “slave schedule” for Daviess County shows 585 slave owners, 2,359 black slaves, 524 mixed-race slaves, 17 free blacks and nine free mixed-race people in Daviess County.
The 1860 report shows 669 slave owners, 2,856 black slaves, 611 mixed-race slaves, 22 “colored” slaves, 75 free blacks and 16 free people of mixed race.
“Slavery was harsh in Owensboro,” the book says. “Blacks could not buy, sell or own so much as a chicken or a dog. Fear of the underground railroad was rampant. Black mobility was heavily restricted and slave patrols were constantly active.”
Washington describes Scarborough as an abolitionist who “held his peace.”
But she says his sister was more outspoken when she came to visit him and friends in the North feared for her safety.
Washington writes that Scarborough married his employer’s daughter and that Thompson’s death made Scarborough a slave owner.
He hired out his slaves, “ordering proper treatment, accommodations and clothing,” she writes.
When Scarborough’s wife died, Washington writes, he left Kentucky.
“Whether he freed his slaves is unknown,” she writes.
But there’s a problem with that story.
Philip Thompson died on Nov. 25, 1836, at age 47.
A genealogical website says that Emily Thompson and George Scarborough were married on Dec. 4, 1838 — more than two years after her father’s death.
An 1889 biography of Scarborough says that in November 1835, “he started for New Orleans, but when the steamboat, on which he had taken passage at Pittsburgh, reached the mouth of the Ohio, the Mississippi was so blocked with ice from its more northern tributaries that the captain felt obliged to retrace his way as far as Cincinnati.
“On this return trip, Mr. Scarborough left the boat at Owensboro, Kentucky. On conversing with some of the most intelligent citizens, he found that the town offered an opportunity for an earnest and persistent teacher. He immediately opened a school for girls and boys, in which he gave instruction in English literature, the classics, mathematics and in natural science and natural history.
“The school was of high order, the instruction very thorough, the discipline firm and kind, entirely without corporal punishment, and the whole mental and moral influence such as to win the gratitude and command the respect not only of the pupils but of the whole community. For twenty years Mr. Scarborough continued this admirable school.”
Emily Thompson Scarborough died on March 10, 1846, at age 28.
Scarborough’s biography says he didn’t leave Owensboro for another decade.
In 1857 and 1858, it says, “he made a long tour abroad, traveling through most of the central and southern countries of Europe, visiting Egypt, Palestine and Syria, and returning through Greece.”
He then returned to Owensboro where he lived until 1860, when he moved to Atchison, Kansas.
Keith Lawrence 270-691-7301 email@example.com