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History in hiding

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By Steve Doyle

February may be Black History Month, but to celebrate African-American history in Shelby County is no easy task.

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There is no museum, no dedicated volumes and in many cases few preserved artifacts.

Most of what is known has been an oral history, passed down through generations and dutifully recorded and preserved at various stops along time’s line.

At the Shelby County History Center, African-American information is kept in a large file, filled with clippings, audio tapes, transcribed notes from interviews and spiced with the images and faces of the forbearers of Shelbyville.

Most know the stories of Martinsville, Lincoln Institute, of Montclair, of the heroic Elijah Marrs and the Saffell family.

In fact, Saffell was perhaps the most enduring name. That family were invested in so many aspects of Shelbyville, from a hospital in Martinsville named to honor Daisy Saffell, to a funeral home on Henry Clay Street, to a cemetery on near Seventh Street and into many other business and development issues.

But so much of the county’s African-American history has been kept in minds and brewed in conversation, and it’s a lode that has not been fully mined.

Gail Reed, the history center’s executive director, says that most people know certain aspects about that history, but the details aren’t apparent.

For instance, there’s area called Bunker Hill. It’s hard to find, a small group of aging houses just north of the L&N railroad track off Rose Street, which extends from the northern extremity of Lee Nor Mack Street.

“A few years ago, the city wanted to tear this down,” she said. “But the Kentucky Heritage Council determined that it was historically significant, and that plan was stopped.”

Bunker Hill just reeks of history, not just because its houses are old – built in the early 1900s – but because of the way they are isolated and grouped, separated by what was then probably a mile of dirt road from the main streets of Shelbyville.

But not all of Shelbyville’s significant locations of African-American history are so obscure and forgotten.

For instance, few probably realize that the Cardwell House, the restored home on east Main Street that now houses the Chamber of Commerce, the Industrial & Development Foundation, the Visitors Bureau and others actually is perhaps the most interesting African-American piece of history of all.

That building – on two lots first deeded in 1795 to John Shannon, one of Shelbyville’s principal developers – was built in 1821 and held in the family of George Cardwell.

And in his will, in 1849, George Cardwell bequeathed that house to one of his slaves, Sarah, granting her freedom and ownership as long as she wanted to live there.

This was an unheard of development in those years, and it placed an African-American woman in house right in the heart of Shelbyville.

Sarah closed the deal with Cardwell’s nephew, William Hickman, and, as the story goes, lived in that house until she died in 1877.

Reed has kept many accounts of this story, and she has sought to supplement its significance by adding to the stories of the Cardwell House, of the Saffells and other families by creating an African-American Heritage Trail in Shelbyville.

A brochure at the history center details some of the most important individuals and locations in the history of African-Americans in the city.

It lists a dozen locations of sometime surprising history.

Today, we share just a few of them with you.