From the time Farmington was built in 1816 until John Speed’s death in 1840, between 45 and 64 enslaved African Americans worked on the plantation. The average Kentucky slaveholder owned fewer than five slaves, but Farmington, with its large slave population, resembled the large plantations of the state’s Bluegrass region.
Although for generations, the family proclaimed emancipationist ideology, slavery for most members of the Speed family was an accepted way of life. Slave labor was essential to the profitable operation of the plantation. Profits derived from the labor of enslaved African Americans at Farmington, as well as income received from hiring out slaves, paid for luxury goods and education for the children, in addition to the family’s necessities.
There is a limited amount of information about slave life at Farmington. Much of this information is found in oral histories, court records, newspapers, and family letters. An interview of James Speed by the American Freedman’s Inquiry Commission provided his perspective on life at Farmington.
Enslaved men and women had different responsibilities. In addition to myriad other tasks, men performed the backbreaking labor of harvesting hemp, which entailed cutting, hauling, and then pounding open hemp stalks on a hemp break. Each man was required to break 80 to 100 pounds of hemp per day. James Speed stated men who exceeded the quota were paid for “extra work”.
Women labored outside the house milking cows, driving them to pasture, and carrying loads of wood and water to the house. They were responsible for the house garden, as well as other tasks in the house yard. Enslaved African Americans who worked in the house, primarily women, did the cooking and cleaning, lit fires, sewed clothes, churned butter, and performed other household tasks.
In commenting on the conditions of enslaved people at Farmington, James Speed said, “each man and his wife had a comfortable room, with a fire in it, a bed and bed clothes, chairs, tables, and cooking utensils”. Slave life, however, was not comfortable at Farmington, and there are several cases where enslaved people resisted. In 1826, John Speed advertised for the capture of two skilled men, Harrison and Frazier, who escaped from Farmington. There are other accounts from the period following his death. Dinnie Thompson often told the story of how she and her mother, Diana Thompson, escaped from two Speed daughters, Mary and Eliza, only to be captured in a skiff as they were preparing to cross the Ohio River to freedom.
After John Speed’s death in 1840, change came to Farmington. That same year, a 15-year-old enslaved boy named Bartlett was accused of setting fire to Farmington’s hemp factory. James Speed, as the administrator of his father’s estate, sold Bartlett to W.H. Pope & Co. for $575, “to be taken from the state”. When the estate was split among the Speed children, the slaves were divided among them. Sometimes families were separated in order to achieve equity for the Speed heirs.
James Speed was raised with emancipationist values, but became an abolitionist. He inherited slaves in 1840, but by the early 1850s he was no longer a slave owner. Lucy Fry Speed emancipated Rose, Sally and her son, Harrod in 1845. Some family members continued to own slaves until the end of the Civil War.
Because families were divided, and the 1840 inventory only listed first names, it is difficult to trace many of the formerly enslaved after emancipation. We know that Diana Thompson lived and worked in Louisville until her death in 1895. Her daughter, Dinnie, moved to the African-American neighborhood of Smoketown and worked at Neighborhood House. Fortune Smith worked as a drayman. David and Martha Spencer moved to the Petersburg community of freed slaves, located near Farmington. We are honored that descendants of the Spencer family are involved with Farmington Historic Plantation today.
Adapted from text by Pen Bogart and the Farmington Interpretations Committee
Devin Payne Serke, Associate Director