Slavery at Liberty Hall
For nearly 65 years, Liberty Hall Historic Site was the home to many enslaved people, working as servants for the Brown family. According to Margaretta Brown, when the family moved to Liberty Hall in 1801, they were in possession of no slaves; she references instead a baby nurse, named Kitty and Old William, a man who took care of the property.
Margaretta Brown was from New York and her family did not own slaves. Of the practice in Kentucky she wrote in 1811,
Indeed I cannot repress my apprehensions on our own account; if the Monster slavery does not destroy the people of Kentucky before long, it will grant them the same favor that Polyphemus granted Ulysses.
Despite her discomfort with the institution of slavery, by 1810, the census record for John Brown at Liberty Hall shows that there were nearly twice as many enslaved African Americans on the property (9) as there were Browns (5). By 1830, the number of enslaved persons had increased to 13, while the number of Browns stayed the same. In addition, John Brown held approximately 30 more people in bondage at his farms outside Frankfort. Some of these people, including young women such as Malinda and Julia, were hired out to other families.
When John Brown’s children, Orlando and Mason, became adults they also owned slaves. In 1833 two years before his home was built, Orlando was taxed for 7 slaves; Mason, who lived away from Frankfort, was taxed for one slave. After their parents’ death, both sons continued to accrue slaves. Though Unionists, both sons kept their slaves through the Civil War, with Orlando not relinquishing his slaves until the passage of the 13th amendment in December 1865.
Among the enslaved persons, there was a family that lived at Liberty Hall, the Stepney family. Miles Stepney, born in Perquimans County, North Carolina, in 1770 is first mentioned by the Brown family in 1811. His wife was Hannah; her birth date is not known. Miles was likely in charge of the grounds and/or horses, and it is possible that Hannah served as the cook for the household. In their time at Liberty Hall, Miles and Hannah had eight children; six sons, and two daughters, one of whom was physically handicapped from birth.
Little is known about the lives of the enslaved people at Liberty Hall and the Orlando Brown House, but period documents have produced a list of their names:
Miles Stepney, Hannah Stepney, Joseph Stepney, Mary Stepney, Mourning Stepney, George Stepney, Edwin Stepney, James Stepney, Henry Stepney, Selim Stepney, Franky, William, Robert Brown, Millie, Malinda, Julia, Big Fanny, Little Fanny, Rose, Joe, Moses, Wesley, Ashtin, Jim, Ned, Martha, and Bell.
With continued research, we hope to learn more about the enslaved persons who lived and worked at Liberty Hall and for the Brown family.
John Brown on the Institution of Slavery
John and Margaretta Brown were gradual emancipationists. They gave money to the American Colonization Society and in 1836 John Brown was a principle member of a committee of 10 which authored An Address to the Presbyterians of Kentucky Proposing a Plan for the Instruction and Emancipation of their Slaves. This 64-page essay on the evils of slavery did not reflect the beliefs of the Synod at large or the feelings of the slaveholding Presbyterians of Kentucky, rather it was entirely the opinions of the 10 men who wrote it. This is indicated by the fact that the address was not adopted by the church. Still, it was the most significant formal statement to date on the elimination of the system of slavery in Kentucky. In the Northern United Sates it was viewed as a well-argued piece of anti-slavery literature. The fact that it was published in a slaveholding State and written, in part, by Brown, one of the foremost citizens of Kentucky and a principal slaveholder himself, gave the document national credence. Brown’s participation in addressing the system of slavery and his willingness to freely voice his opinions on the matter are significant and reveal the growing sentiment against the institution of slavery in Kentucky.
Excerpt from An Address to the Presbyterians of Kentucky Proposing a Plan for the Instruction and Emancipation of their Slaves:
Can any man believe that such a thing as this [system of slavery] is not sinful—that it is not hated by God—an ought not to be abhorred and abolished by man?
Not only has the slave no right to his wife and children, he has no right even to himself. His very body, his muscles, his bones, his flesh, are all the property of another. The movements of his limbs are regulated by the will of a master. He may be sold like a beast of the fields—he may be transported in chains, like a felon. Was the blood of our Revolution shed to establish a false principle, when it was poured out in defense of the assertion that, all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?
The sinfulness of slavery places it beyond all doubt, that it is the duty of every individual connected with the system to aid, vigorously and efficiently in its abolition, and thus free himself from all participation in its criminality.
Although mostly intent on laying out the evils of slavery, the address concludes with a gradual plan for emancipation, and from John Brown’s will, and other written records, his private actions were consistent with his public statements, at least with regard to the Stepney family. In his will, John Brown provided to his old faithful Servant, & Friend, Miles Stepney & to his wife Hannah an annuity of One hundred & twenty Dollars to be paid to them out of my estate by my Executors annually during the remainder of their lives and life-time use of their house on the Liberty Hall property. Senator Brown also provided for the freedom of each of the Stepney children upon their 25th birthday.