PROXIMATELY 226,240 or 7.8 percent of the 2,900,000 people in Kentucky are Negroes. They live for the most part in the inner Bluegrass area, of which Lexington is the center, and in the better farming sections of the Pennyrile around Hopkinsville. Despite their relative numerical unimportance, Kentucky Negroes are an integral part of the State's life and have contributed notably to its development.
In 1751, when Christopher Gist came into the Kentucky country in search of lands for the Ohio Company, his only attendant was a Negro servant. Fifteen years later a mulatto slave was one of a party of five exploring this region. A few of the pioneers from Virginia brought their slaves when they migrated to the West, but as a rule the earliest settlers did not own slaves, since they were poor and slave property was a luxury. Such slaves as were brought into the Kentucky country in the early days were usually affectionately attached to the household through long years of service. In accounts of Indian raids slaves are reported as loyal and daring. One of them, Monk, owned by Colonel William Estill, was an expert in making gunpowder and a preacher of ability, listened to by both Negroes and whites.
Though slavery, as an institution, was slow in becoming established, there were more than 12,000 slaves by 1790, and their number increased during the next 40 years. In 1833, when a quarter of the total population was Negro, it was thought prudent to legislate against further importation of slaves. Thereafter the proportion of Negroes to whites decreased.
This was partly because of the profitable traffic with sections of the Deep South where cotton, cane, rice, and other crops dependent on slave labor were raised. Another factor was the Underground Railroad, so named -- according to one version of the origin of the term -- by a Kentuckian. Fostered by Northern money, directed by shrewd, resourceful men, it spirited fugitives across the Ohio River into the friendly shelter of Ohio and Indiana. Despite the reputedly mild and patriarchal character of slavery in Kentucky, Negroes took advantage