Sunday, January 30, 2011

Kentucky's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" Law

While reading Creating a Confederate Kentucky: The Lost Cause and Civil War Memory in a Border State, by Anne Marshall, I have read a lot of fascinating information and am really enjoying this book. I will post a full review soon, but something I read today, in chapter 7, really struck me as being an especially sad episode in my state's history and I felt the need to comment on it.

The controversy was in the early 1900s in Lexington, where an opera house in Lexington showed a play called Uncle Tom's Cabin, a traveling play based on Harriet Beecher Stowe's famous novel.

A local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) decided they were offended by this book, which they claimed offered a false portrayal of slavery, and did not show the true nature of the institution and the happiness it created for both slave and master. They believed that seeing props of slaves in chains would have a negative effect both on their children, whose ancestors were supposedly being insulted by this mis-portrayal of slavery and on young blacks who would get a false impression of how their parents and relatives thought of their bondage (and thus might become angry and make the UDC's perception of racial harmony in Lexington disappear.)

The UDC started a public protest, trying to pressure the opera-house owner to stop hosting this play, and other chapters of this group, from other cities in Kentucky and from other states, became involved in it. This play, however, was very popular, playing in front of large audiences, and was quite profitable for this gentleman, despite the protests, and he resisted this pressure and continued to let this show take place in his building. 

After realizing their protest had failed, the UDC adopted a different tactic a couple of years later, and started pressuring legislators around the state to do that. By this time, Kentucky had been well-established in people's minds and memories as a Confederate state, and many former Confederates and Confederate supporters held key offices, so the UDC had a significant amount of influence in powerful places.

In 1906, the state passed a law, stating in part that it would be illegal for any theater or similar building to present a show that "is based upon antagonism alleged formerly to exist, between master and slave, or that excites race prejudice." (See page 170 of this book.)

Basically, the UDC, the supporters of the Confederacy, and those who remembered slavery and the antebellum times as being all happy and gay, made it illegal to have any show that portrayed slavery negatively or that may be seen as insulting their ancestors and lifestyles. Thus, even though slavery had been banned for about 40 years, its supporters were able to have the 1st Amendment abolished within Kentucky, at least on this one subject dear to their hearts and memories.

As the book shows, however, any show that portrayed blacks negatively or based on stereotypes the UDC favored, were permitted to be performed even with this law in effect. (For instance, years later the controversial film Birth of a Nation was allowed to be shown in a theater, apparently largely due to it being a new medium that did not truly exist when the law was passed.)

Frankly, though I'm upset I did not know this had happened, I find it quite embarrassing that my state, in which many of my ancestors were living at this time, could pass such a terrible law. It is also interesting, perhaps fascinating, that slavery created so much controversy four decades after its demise that its defenders had to resort to violating the US Constitution in order to pursue their pro-southern and pro-Confederate agenda, as they pretended that  Kentucky had been a happy-go-lucky, unanimously southern-supporting commonwealth of people, where masters happily ruled and slaves gladly served,  although such a place never existed except in their minds, literature and dreams. (Sorry for the run-on sentence, but it's the best way I can think to express how the UDC was trying to imagine Kentucky's past.)

I've always realized that Kentucky has always had troubles regarding racial equality and has never been progressive at all in this area, but it still surprises me to see such an action taken by the state itself.  I guess it's not much different than other laws requiring segregation, but its so clearly a violation of the most basic American right that it stuns me that this law passed and went into effect.

Previous controversies like the gag order in Congress in the 1830s, or whether the US Postal Service would deliver copies of Stowe's book or other novels are somewhat understandable in that they occurred while slavery existed, but to see such censorship decades after slavery's demise really caught me off guard and, frankly, is a bit upsetting.I do not know if it is totally appropriate for me to admit to such an emotional reaction to this, but this revelation really disgusts me.

I am also surprised that I had not heard of that law before and that a quick google search shows no results for this law, though the novel itself is a popular topic. Even my copy of the The Kentucky Encyclopedia fails to include an entry about this statute.

If anybody knows of more information about this law or how long it lasted, please let me know about it. Marshall's book only mentions it on pages 170 and 171. I will try to find the source listed in her notes section as a starting place for this search.


  1. I don't have anything on the Kentucky law, but there are some good recent books on the subject in general including Race and Reunion by David Blight. (You probably know about it anyway)

  2. Thanks. I have heard of that and it is one that I'll have to get.

  3. Thanks for this post! I stumbled across this phenomenon when I was doing some research in Owensboro--I found a newspaper article suggesting that this law had been the basis for banning a /silent movie/ of Uncle Tom's Cabin. And, around the same time, an article about how black folks in town had asked for Birth of a Nation to be censored--the town fathers basically said "we can't, and even if we could, we wouldn't; the movie makes black people look great, and we think more of them should see the film." So, thanks for helping me understand the context of that.