I was born and raised in Kentucky and have always loved our state song - My Old Kentucky Home. Like most Kentuckians I was taught the myth of the writing of the story, that the song glorified the life of the ante bellum South and that Stephen Foster, a cousin of the Rowan family, wrote the song after a visit to what was called Federal Hill. Federal Hill was a brick mansion built by a federal judge name Judge Rowan. He owned slaves and used his slaves in the building trades because Federal Hill was not a plantation, When he died his finances were a mess and his son, John Rowan, had to sell slaves to pay off debts. Susannah fame. She is the one who visited and likely told these stories to her brother, Stephen in Pennsylvania. Stephen Foster was an abolitionist and read Uncle Tom's Cabin. The motivation behind the writing of the song was to tell the story of slavery in Kentucky, a border state, with few actual plantations. Federal Hill was not a plantation. Therefore, Foster wrote My Old Kentucky Home as a mournful tune to bring to light the way slaves were treated and sold with little regard for family and roots. The following passage in the Forward to my short story "Juneteenth" which is in a collection of short stories called "Finding New Pangaea" available on amazon.com. In a country where history has been so skewed even if it is taught, marginalized people can be swept up in movements to get rid of "racist" writings and documents and there is a move to do this to My Old Kentucky Home. Instead of getting rid of the song, teach its meaning and what it was all about in regard to slavery in Kentucky. It deserves to stay the state song and not only be played but have the lyrics with it, especially at the Kentucky Derby.
There was a time
in our history when people dehumanized others in return for profit. These
immoral acts were shrouded in secrecy and rationalized to maintain a status quo
that allowed many to be more equal than others. In the 1850’s
The legend of “My
Old Kentucky Home” grew from stories told by Madge Rowan Frost, the
granddaughter of Judge Stephen Rowan who built Federal Hill in 1793. Madge
considered herself a southern belle and fostered the story that her cousin
Stephen Foster wrote “My Old Kentucky Home” after a visit to Federal Hill in
the 1850’s. Using this legend helped her sell the property she had inherited to
the state of
When one hears all three verses of “My Old Kentucky Home” it becomes apparent that this song is more than a lyrical comment of the hoop-skirted life style surrounding a mansion in the antebellum South. Rather, the song is a lament for a young, black man who is being sold “down the river,” torn from his family still living in the Old Kentucky Home. In fact, research into Foster’s minstrel tunes from the antebellum South indicates that Foster was trying to humanize the dark skinned people in captivity and mourned the fact they were bred like horses to be beasts of burden and bought and sold like chattel.
Stephen Foster’s inspiration for “My Old Kentucky Home” was more likely an attempt to describe the sadness and grief felt by slaves who helped build the home, started families and then were forced from it. The slaves who actually lived in Federal Hill were the house servants who most likely lived in the attic or basement of the home. But whether living in a cabin, basement or attic, Rowan’s slaves worked side by side with Judge Rowan in building Federal Hill and this is where they and their children lived.
Like any human beings, the slaves longed to live surrounded by their loved ones in homes that they not only built but maintained daily. It is probable that the subject of “My Old Kentucky Home” is a slave who has been “sold down the river” who is voicing his sorrow over his separation from his home and family. “My Old Kentucky Home” has a mournful tone that echoes what any human being taken from home and family would feel. Tom’s feeling of pain and despair is no different than what his white masters would feel in similar circumstances. The blacks felt great joy and celebrated when they were freed. Foster didn’t live to see this but I’m sure he would have felt great joy for them as well.