Share, Listen, Challenge | The Enslaved Interpretation Task Force At Locust Grove

Chris Padgett is the President of the Kentucky Genealogical Society and a member of Locust Grove’s Enslaved Interpretation Task Force. Here, he offers his perspective on our site and the work of our Enslaved Interpretation Task Force.  

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My first exposure to Locust Grove was during a grade school during a field trip in the 1980s. I recall touring the house and grounds and learning about George Rogers Clark and the Croghan family. I recall visiting a few years later with my parents and grandmother who was an artist. Later, when I was likely a teenager, I recall working at a table selling my grandmother’s handcrafts with my sister at an art fair. My sister and I sold all of my grandmother’s work that day.

Years later, I recall attending Gardeners’ Fairs with my mother and later as a volunteer working a community table for what was the time the idea that would become the Waterfront Botanical Gardens. Several noteworthy plants in my garden came from attending those events. I recall attending numerous book sales over the years and finding some of the most interesting and unique titles at these annual fundraisers for Locust Grove.

Locust Grove became a place my partner and I would bring guests who were visiting us from away. We found any time folks came to visit, the first place they’d mention wanting to see in Kentucky was Mammoth Cave. I’d often slip Locust Grove into a weekend itinerary as it was close to home and we knew about its link with the Cave.

I guess you could classify me as a cultural omnivore. I enjoy travel, history, art, culture, and all manner of museums, libraries, and archives. My parents and grandparents loved many of these same things. My maternal grandfather was a furniture maker and restorer and worked for several Louisville furniture companies such as Willett, Adler, and Strassel. My paternal grandmother, after raising 11 children, took up painting at the age of 50 and became an accomplished painter. My father was an outspoken leader in his trade union and used to take me in almost a ritual fashion to the local branch of the public library every week. My mother was a part time legal secretary who loved genealogical research. Being raised in a family that valued story, art, oral history, handcrafted objects, and fairness made me who I am today.

It was several years ago that something really started gnawing at me. When I would visit museums, cultural institutions, landmarks, and historic sites, I started to acutely notice how these places were completely filled with work produced and curated by white men like myself. Women’s work was limited and the work and curation of people of color, indigenous people, and immigrants were even rarer to view. This bothered me.
Several years after being more aware of these issues, I read an article in the June 27, 2018 issue of ​LEO Magazine ​ by Minda Honey titled,​ “The Plantation In Your Town: How We Handle the Vestiges of our Past.” ​ The author’s perspectives struck a chord with me as she wrote about historic places in Louisville including Locust Grove. Reading that article took me back to my first-grade school field trip to Locust Grove. I didn’t recall even a mention of enslaved people at Locust Grove during that class trip. I recall learning about the history, the furniture, and grounds, but don’t recall a mention of enslaved or what I would later learn was the outsized role the enslaved people had on building and running Locust Grove.

I knew I was descended from a Joseph Brown and Mary Ann Howard, a Catholic couple who came to Kentucky from Maryland and enslaved a male and female. I discovered records for these two enslaved people in probate records from the early 1860s.

While researching this couple, I learned it was not entirely uncommon for Catholics to come from Maryland to Kentucky to be slaveholders. Sister Catherine Spaulding, a figure cast in bronze outside the Cathedral of Assumption in downtown Louisville and the first statue of a historic women in a public space in Louisville,
founded and led a Catholic religious community, known as the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, which enslaved people.

I also grew up hearing stories from my paternal grandmother, the artist, about how one of her ancestors was actively involved in the Underground Railroad. It wasn’t until after she died and I started researching the validity of the story that I learned the extent of our ancestor’s involvement. My ancestor owned a hotel, saloon, and general store at the corner of Hancock and Jefferson in what is now the NuLu neighborhood, but at the time was a German immigrant neighborhood.

A first generation American with parents both born in Germany, Louis William Zweydoff, my 3rd great grandfather, actively worked with his brother-in-law, Charles Casper Rufer, to help enslaved people. Both Zweydoff and Rufer were station masters and used hotels they operated in downtown Louisville as places for enslaved people to stay before crossing the Ohio River to freedom.

All of these life experiences and bits of knowledge I’d pieced together over time converged when I chose to register for Joe McGill’s Slave Dwelling Project last August 23, 2019, at Locust Grove.

Envision an evening of about 40 different people of different ages, races, and perspectives coming together at dusk around a roaring campfire to share perspectives on race for several hours. It was an incredibly unique experience, perhaps the most engaging and meaningful experiential history program in which I’ve ever participated.

Participants came to share, listen, challenge, and brainstorm ways to improve the way history is accurately presented at Locust Grove and the role race plays in America today. Little did I know that evening how much race would be front and center this year with the killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville and George Floyd in Minneapolis.

As race has surfaced over and over again this year, I’ve often thought back to my experience at the Slave Dwelling program and wondered how our city may be better off if some of its positional leaders had taken the time to have attended that program.

As this historic year continues to unfold, I am constantly reminded by Napoleon who once said, “History is a set of lies that people have agreed upon.” This quote has been top of mind for me each time I see another statue fall that was erected during the period in which Jim Crow laws were being enacted.

I now find myself, as current president of the Kentucky Genealogical Society, participating in a Task Force to help advise Locust Grove on interpreting the lives of enslaved people.

The important and necessary work that is occurring at Locust Grove by Carol Ely and her extremely committed and competent team is really inspiring on many levels. There are some exciting developments occurring and I am blown away by the work the Locust Grove team is doing to accurately present the site. If you aren’t engaged in these efforts and these topics are important to you, I encourage you to learn more about Locust Grove and its commitment to interpreting the lives of enslaved who made the site and Louisville what they are today.

I can only imagine the impact the current efforts will have on the experience of school children who visit Locust Grove in the future.

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To learn more about the Enslaved Interpretation Task Force, please email Carol at ely@locustgrove.org.

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