If you had to be a 19th century slave in Lexington, a fate nobody would want, working for Joseph and Margaret Bryan at their Waveland plantation might have been one of the least awful possibilities.
The Bryans built solid housing for their 19 slaves, taught them to read and write, let them carry guns and allowed them to visit local markets and farms, according to June Madden, a Waveland tour guide. The plantation is now a state historic site off Nicholasville Road near the Jessamine County line.
On Saturday, Waveland celebrated Juneteeth — the commemoration of the June 1865 abolition of slavery in Texas — with free tours of the estate's slave quarters. The quarters, on the second floor of a brick structure that also housed the kitchen, were nicer than most white people in Lexington could have hoped for in the 1840s, Madden said. They had large windows for light and ventilation, wood-plank floors and furniture.
"Other slave quarters were one-room cabins (with a) dirt floor," Madden said. "The main thing for Joseph was to keep his slaves healthy, to keep his lifestyle. And more than likely, he knew that there was change coming."
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There was. Fifteen years after the Bryans built Waveland, Kentucky and the nation were engaged in the Civil War. In December 1865, the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, ending slavery. (The Kentucky legislature, not to be rushed, did not ratify the 13th Amendment until 1976.)
Freed by war, the Bryans' slaves remained at Waveland as rent-paying farm workers, having established roots in the community and not seeing better opportunities elsewhere, Madden said. It's likely many of their descendants live in Lexington today, though Waveland cannot say for sure, she said. A large marker near the Waveland parking lot is inscribed with the slaves' names and the epitaph "Their labor made Waveland possible."
"You've got to give credit to the slaves, their skills, and what they even came here with," Madden said. "You know that they would be a large part in creating the genteel, romantic, Gone With The Wind-type lifestyle that most whites would have had at that particular time."