Free blacks in Upper Cumberland topic at history conference at TTU

From the Civil War to African history and to Latin nationalism, the 15th annual Ohio Valley History Conference, slated to be held at Tennessee Technogical University on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Oct. 21-23, promises to have something for everyone.

"There will be about 69 papers presented and 32 panel discussions, and we're expecting 150 people for the conference," said Jeff Roberts, TTU associate professor of history and organizer of the conference.

"This conference gives historians a chance for feedback from peers on their studies that they might not get anywhere else," Roberts said. "There will be some cutting edge stuff at the conference and historians have the opportunity to test their theories and opinions to see if and what more can be done."

One historian seeking such feedback is TTU's own Wali Kharif, who has taught at Tennessee Tech for nearly 12 years.

His topic, "To Be Free and Black in the Upper Cumberland," is one that has never before been discussed and is an outcropping of a book he is working on with noted author William Lynwood Montell, a retired professor at Western Kentucky University who wrote, among other things, Don't Go Up Kettle Creek, a verbal legacy of the Upper Cumberland.

"The book we're working on is the first shot at looking at blacks in the Upper Cumberland, from the Colonial Period to the 1980s and into the early 1990s," Kharif explained.

"The Upper Cumberland (which includes Putnam and surrounding counties as well as some counties in southern Kentucky) has not been studied before and since this area is so different from the more metropolitan areas, we wanted to find out what is it that makes it so different," Kharif said. "The main reason we wanted to do this is because it hasn't been done before, and we think it can contribute to the state's history in that sense."

Kharif's talk at the TTU History Conference will focus on what it was like to be free and black in the rural Upper Cumberland region during the antebellum period (before the Civil War).

"And what I found is that freedom was relative Ñ there was a lot of obstruction. To be free and black was against the norm; they were essentially 'quasi-free,'" he added.

Interestingly, free blacks in the Upper Cumberland for a while were allowed the same rights as free whites, including voting rights and the right to bear arms.

However, in Kentucky, when the state constitution was revised in 1799, free blacks were discriminated against and excluded from enjoying key citizenship rights, including being prohibited from voting, holding public office, serving in the militia and from bearing arms, Kharif explained.

In Tennessee, it wasn't until after the state revised its constitution in 1834 that free blacks weren't allowed to vote, serve in the military and bear arms.

"When Tennessee and Kentucky were formed, there were no restrictions on free blacks. But after the state legislatures revised their state constitutions, then discriminatory language was included against blacks, mulattos and Indians," Kharif said.

According to Kharif's research of old newspapers and census records as well as interviews, he found that in the 1830s, there was a total of 74 households in the Upper Cumberland, containing 363 family members, with free blacks the heads of the families. The highest number of families headed by free blacks were located in Tennessee's Jackson, White, Smith and Overton Counties and in Kentucky's Cumberland, Adair and Pulaski Counties.

Other legal acts excluding blacks from white society included forbidding blacks the right to organize and striking a white person under any circumstance, even in self-defense, Kharif said.

In Kentucky and Tennessee, free blacks were required to carry a "certificate of freedom" at all times and in Kentucky, in 1825, the legislature gave the state power to "apprentice free black children without the consent of their parents."

"At times, free blacks may not have fared as well as urban slaves hired out by masters," Kharif writes in his research paper. "

Free blacks at the time, though reduced to a status just a degree above that of slaves, could legally marry, have and raise families, own property, choose their own clothing, determine their own meals, engage in some trade and keep earnings and enjoy something akin to normal family lives, Kharif said.

Some free blacks married slaves, but since freedom depended on the status of the mother, free black men who married slave women did so knowing their children would be enslaved.

Kharif did note in his studies that, perhaps because of the remoteness of the Upper Cumberland, there seemed to be little difference between whites and blacks.

"There weren't a whole lot of slave in the Upper Cumberland anyway, as there were in more contemporary times (the 1880s) Ñ and maybe because of the remoteness, people really depended on each other, no matter their race," he said.

But free blacks still faced a difficult time and heavy discrimination. Laws even excluded them from smoking tobacco on public streets.

"In the Upper Cumberland, as in the South generally, freedom and full citizenship was inextricably bound to race. To be free was to be white; to be free and black was an aberration: not a slave, yet closer to enslaved than citizen," Kharif said.

The conference is open to the public and cost is $40 with registration from 8 a.m.-3 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 22, in the OVC Room of the Roaden University Center on TTU's campus. However, if a person wants to sit in on only one talk, there is no charge.

Kharif's talk is scheduled for Friday, Oct. 22, at 1:45 p.m. in room 205 of Henderson Hall.

For more information about the History Conference, call Jeff Roberts at 372-6254.