FRANKFORT — The Rev. Calvin Fairbank spent 17 years in a Kentucky prison — suffering beatings and brutal labor — for committing the felony of helping slaves escape to freedom. Released in 1864, a broken man, he kissed the dirt of Ohio upon reaching that free state.
"Out of the jaws of Hell!" Fairbank cried, according to his autobiography.
In the 19th century, Kentucky convicted at least 58 people for "seducing or enticing slaves to leave their lawful owners." Defendants faced 20 years in the Kentucky State Penitentiary, where some died. One, David C. McDonald, was forgotten and languished in prison until 1870, five years after slavery was abolished.
Now, several men are working to clear the names of those — men and women, black and white — whose "crimes" today would be recognized as among mankind's finest acts.
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They want Gov. Steve Beshear to issue pardons for the slave rescuers, albeit posthumously.
"I want to resurrect their names and deeds and give them their proper place in history," said James Prichard, 56, a retired state archivist who spent much of his career studying slavery in Kentucky.
Prichard is working with public defender Rodney Barnes and Barnes' intern Jared Schultze, both of whom are volunteering their time.
It was Barnes who first got the idea for pardons a few months ago after seeing a display at Frankfort's Capital City Museum that mentioned the crime of slave stealing. The Kentucky State Penitentiary, where most slave rescuers served their time, was in Frankfort, under the current State Office Building, until it was razed early in the 20th century.
Curious, Barnes contacted Prichard for his historical knowledge. With Schultze, poring over yellowed records, they have tried to assemble as much information as they can about the convicts — names, and if possible, ages, addresses and occupations.
Prichard said he dropped anyone from his list who seemed to have absconded with slaves not to take them to freedom but to resell them into bondage elsewhere. It happened, he said.
"I'm looking for people with pure intentions," said Prichard, who is writing a history of Frankfort during the Civil War for Frankfort Heritage Press.
There are hurdles. Everyone for whom they're seeking a pardon is dead, and no living descendants have announced themselves, so the usual application process to the governor's office must be amended, Barnes said.
Currently, convicted felons must apply to the governor for a pardon. But the Kentucky Constitution doesn't require that people ask for their own pardon. As long as somebody files an application, the governor has the power to grant it.
"This is such a neat project, I wouldn't want to meet the person who objected to it," Barnes said. "We may end up being the first slave state to do anything like this, which would be terrific."
Ellen Hesen, the governor's general counsel, this week said she is "intrigued" by the project and looks forward to receiving the completed pardon request in her office for review.
Further muddying the legal waters, records suggest that some slave rescuers either were pardoned by governors at the time or at least had their sentences commuted. But a few charged right back into the abolitionist fray and were convicted again.
Fairbank, for example, helped a family of Kentucky slaves escape to Ohio, got caught and spent nearly five years in prison until Gov. John J. Crittenden pardoned him in 1849. By 1851, he evidently was back on the job. He sneaked a Kentucky slave into Indiana, where Kentucky law enforcement seized him. This time, he toiled in prison from 1852 to 1864, when Gov. Richard T. Jacob pardoned him.
Sixteen of the 58 prisoners appear to have received pardons during their lives, but given the uncertainty of their final legal status, it would be appropriate for Beshear to pardon the entire group, Prichard said.
Each of them represents a story of courage and sacrifice in the face of a legal system — and a state — fiercely devoted to keeping black people in chains, Prichard said.
"For them to be buried alive in this 19th-century prison, to be treated as they were, but also to be totally forgotten — where nobody today even remembers their names — it seems like an incredible injustice," he said.