On Christmas Eve, 1866, Edmund Giles married Mary Clay in Fayette County.
Unremarkable, perhaps, except that Giles and Clay were former slaves, and their union was among the earliest black marriages recorded at the Fayette County Clerk’s office. Before that time, slave marriages were not recognized as legal, and nearly the only times that their names were recorded were in property deeds and wills of the white people who owned them.
For historians and genealogists, the “Colored Marriage Registry” has long been a first stop to find the names and dates of black marriages recorded in Lexington before 1969. Now, a joint project between the University of Kentucky and the Fayette County Clerk’s office has created searchable online records of the registries from 1866-1882 and 1900-1968. There is no overall index for marriage records from 1883 to 1899.
Before, researchers had to look through page after page of beautiful and often unreadable calligraphy to find their targeted names. Now, they can type a name to find the location of individual certificates that still sit in the County Clerk’s office on Main Street.
“We have people who come in from all over the country to look for records,” said Meredith Nelson, deputy county clerk, who oversees the vast trove of historical documents in that office. “Now they can look online to see if we have what they need before they make the trip.”
As with much black history in Lexington, the story begins with historian Yvonne Giles. She had long worried about the state of the original documents in the clerk’s office as she researched her own family and others. Last April, she was showing the trove to Reinette Jones, a UK Special Collections Librarian, who is trying to build up the center’s collection of African-American history.
Jones was also looking for a relatively small pilot project to test a software program developed by Eric Weig in the Special Collections Research Center. The program, Libscribe, is being used to transcribe the handwritten names and dates into electronic type, and once the transcription is completed, the text can be searched online. This will make it easier for researchers to find and read the names, and there will be less wear and tear on the original documents.
Because of legalized segregation, the marriage registry was kept separate from the white marriage registry, said deputy clerk Shea Brown. In 1958, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision that ended legalized segregation, the Kentucky legislature passed a law to incorporate all government registries, but Fayette County officials did not actually do so until 1968.
Jones noted that the registry is crucial to understanding Kentucky and U.S. history.
“When slaves were brought over here, they got a new name, often that of their owners,” she said. “Each time a slave was sold, they might get a new name, so there’s a break trying to track who is related to who.”
The registry represents the first time that the government recognized slaves as citizens instead of property, Jones said. “African-Americans are being woven into this established system of names, of birth dates, of family ties,” she said. “It’s a huge thing that didn’t exist before.”
Slaves were not named in the U.S. Census prior to the 1870 Census; instead they were listed under the names of their owners. In addition, slave families were frequently broken up when a member was sold; the registry represents the first time marriage was a legal status for black couples. The registry also allowed those who were married as slaves to record the names of witnesses, such as the ministers who married them, to help confirm their status.
As Giles pointed out, marriage allowed former slaves to legally leave their property to spouses or their legal children.
“The legalization of marriage said your children are legitimized and hold legal title to property you leave them,” Giles said. “Otherwise it would have been up for grabs.”
Giles, the primary preserver of the African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street, has found other valuable information in the “Colored Marriage Registry.”
For example, Humphrey Allen, who is buried in African Cemetery No. 2, recorded his 1840 marriage 26 years later and included the fact that he had fought with the 119th U.S. Colored Troops in the Civil War.
Jones said she’d like to see more collaborations between UK and government agencies, which hold valuable historical collections. She’s already receiving calls about other possible digitization projects.
After centuries of neglect, Kentucky’s black history needs plenty of preservation, she said.
“There are lots of things we don’t have that I know we need,” she said.