Kentucky Historical Society Statement on Protests
In September 1864, an enslaved Kentuckian named Elijah Marrs escaped from servitude and joined the Union army at Louisville.
Marrs believed that being a soldier “is better than slavery . . . I felt freedom in my bones, and when I saw the American eagle, with outspread wings, upon the American flag, with the motto, "E Pluribus Unum," the thought came to me, ‘Give me liberty or give me death.’” Marrs was inspired by that Latin motto, which means, “out of many, one.” Today, nearly 156 years later, those words ring hollow for many Americans. The national protests following the deaths of African Americans across the country have shown that the phrase stands as an unfulfilled promise. While Marrs felt freedom in his bones, today we have fellow citizens who are hobbled—or even killed—by racial inequality and injustice. Among the “many” referenced in that motto, there remains a grim and glaring imbalance.
Our history reveals that the Bluegrass State has consistently been slow to respond to racial injustice. Our past is riddled with slavery, lynchings, segregation, prejudice, and discrimination. It is evident that the foundations of our state rest upon a fractured history of racial inequality. It wasn’t until 1976, for example, that Kentucky finally ratified the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States. As the recent protests have shown, time has passed, yet injustice remains.
Elijah Marrs was just one of many African Americans who risked their lives for freedom. Marrs was willing to die for the dream of equality, and, like many Kentuckians, he did not silently stand by. Today, we see the reflection of Elijah’s legacy as thousands of Kentuckians protest racial inequality and injustice across the commonwealth. This includes a recent Black Lives Matter march past the Kentucky History Center and to the steps of Kentucky’s Capitol. Widely supported by the Frankfort community, this protest began at the Old State Capitol. As a site that has grappled with contentious and unresolved issues from our past, the Old State Capitol provided a historical backdrop during an incredibly meaningful call to change the future.
At the Kentucky Historical Society, we look to our past to empower us to action. In doing so, we understand that a constant pattern of racial inequity stands out in the history of our commonwealth. As our nation wrestles with what our future will look like, we believe that our past will ultimately reveal solutions to these problems while nurturing unity and compassion for all Kentuckians.
As Kentucky reopens from the COVID-19 pandemic, we hope museums and cultural centers will serve as safe spaces for dialogue centered around these critically important issues. We must give voice to the silenced, and, as trusted institutions, we can be a forum to address injustice and inequality through the lens of Kentucky history. We also hope to weave together the disparate parts from our individual histories to show that our differences make us stronger. Just as “out of many, one” moved Elijah Marrs, KHS supports the struggle for justice and a more equitable and united future.
Kentucky Historical Society