©2000. The Maysville Ledger-Independent. Permission to reprint and post granted by Mr. Robert L. Hendrickson, Publisher and Mr. James Mulcahy, Managing Editor.
Former slave Arnold Gragson made a some 200 crossings of the Ohio River helping slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad.
On one stormy crossing with the water lapping at the heavily loaded boat, Gragson's new bride said she was so frightened she was about to scream. Gragson told her if she did he would kill her because her life wasn't as important as the lives of the many people they were trying to free. The story of Arnold Gragson is just one of the heroic tales Carolyn Miller of Augusta discovered in research for African-American Records in Bracken County: 1797-1999.
"There were so many stories of brave people - slaves, whites, free people of color," Miller said. Miller, who is originally from Ohio, said she has learned a lot about Bracken County.
For example, Asbury Pike Road from Chatham to Germantown was a hotbed of the abolitionist movement, Miller said. The severity of the Battle of Augusta during the Civil War was probably in retribution for the abolitionist stance of Augusta Methodist College, which had its charter revoked by the legislature for the same reason. The seeds of the idea for African-American Records in Bracken County: 1797-1999 were planted in Miller's mind about eight years ago when a couple of professors from Morehead University were talking about doing a record book of African Americans in eastern Kentucky.
"I joked with them that they probably wouldn't do Bracken because it isn't included in eastern or northern," Miller said. The professors ended up not doing the book at all, but Miller didn't forget about it. She began gathering the records about a year and half ago and has been working on the book intensively for about six months. Miller, an English teacher at Bracken County High School, said she gets home from school in the afternoon and types until 10 or 11 o'clock every night.
Miller is quick to point out that she is not writing the book. She only wrote the two-page preface. She's simply compiling records. "I'm no historian. I'm no writer," she said. "The records stand on their own." The book is being published by the Bracken County Historical Society through a local printer. Eighty-five of the planned 100 copies are already spoken for - mostly by libraries and schools. Miller received a $3,000 grant from the Kentucky Heritage Council to cover the cost of printing. "We decided not to try to use a publisher because the book's just too big to sell. It would be too expensive," Miller said. In fact, African American Records in Bracken County: 1797-1999 is more than 1,000 pages in two volumes. Miller has indexed about 7,000 names - 3,500 of those African-American. Miller said 99 percent of the book is about Bracken County, but a few narratives cross over into surrounding counties. "Except to genealogists it would be pretty dry reading," Miller said. Miller is considering printing a softcover copy of the book with just the narratives from newspapers and other sources which would be more affordable and of more interest to the average reader. About 110 manumission, or emancipation, records exist in Bracken County. Miller said all the records for Bracken County survive. "We've never had a fire," she said. "No records have been destroyed or thrown out. It was just a matter of bringing them all together." According to Miller, three to four women have been cataloguing records at the Bracken County Courthouse for about four years. The original copies of the manumission records are kept under lock and key, but they've made copies of them for public use.
The manumission documents can be interesting, Miller said. They usually include a physical description of the slave being freed, sometimes where the slave was from and in what kind of work he or she specialized. Perhaps most important, the manumission record usually included a first and last name for the individual which can be valuable to families doing genealogical research. Besides the manumission documents, Miller went through all manner of public records, including census reports and old newspaper accounts. However, Miller said, "I can't stand for the veracity of the newspaper accounts."
About 1,000 African Americans lived in Bracken County at one time. The population began to drop off in the 1910s and 1920s, according to Miller. Only about 25 African Americans live there today. "There are really very few records after 1950," Miller said. For those interested in further reading on the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad, Miller recommends Bullwhip Days: the slaves remember: an oral history by James Mellon, which includes a 5 1/2-page interview with Arnold Gragson, and the children's book The People Could Fly: American Black folktales by Virginia Hamilton. Although there's light at the end of the tunnel for Miller on the book project, she may not have had enough. "I don't think I'll stop," she said. "I wouldn't mind helping another county do it,. Mason or Fleming must have a lot of records."
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