Skip To Content
We’ve Taken Down the Forward Paywall: An Open Letter to Our ReadersRead Now

Which Side Were We On? Kentucky Slavery, Mine Wars and Segregation

1. Bat Shit on the Cave Floor

In a forest in Kentucky there’s a hole in the ground that was once full of bat shit.

The bats are mostly gone now. A bat plague hit here last year, and when you follow the sloping sidewalk down into the hole today, you step into a silent cavern like the inside of a drowned aircraft carrier. There is no sonar squeak, no flap of bat wings, just a high limestone ceiling and a hundred quiet tourists and, off in the darkness past where the rangers in Smokey the Bear hats have switched on the lights, a tunnel as wide as a subway tube stretching out into the blackness.

In 1812, a Jew from Philadelphia named Hyman Gratz bought part of this hole, now called Mammoth Cave. British Royal Navy ships had cut off the nation’s supply of saltpeter, without which there would be no way to shoot cannonballs back at the Royal Navy. The shit from millions of bats had helped turned the dirt on the floor of Mammoth Cave into one of the few domestic sources of saltpeter, so Gratz and his partner sent nearly 70 black slaves into the depths to extract it. The slaves carved pipes to bring water into the cave, led oxen down to lug dirt through the caverns, then pumped the cave slop back to the surface. It was dangerous work, and it made a nice profit for Hyman Gratz.

Artistocrats: Rebecca Gratz (1781-1869) is remembered as the patron saint of Philadelphia Jewry. Image by Wikimedia Commons

Not that he needed it. Hyman Gratz was a member of one of the founding families of American Jewry — his father and uncle were wealthy merchant adventurers and colonizers of the West, and his siblings were some of the most prominent Jews of their day. In the North, these early Gratzes were paragons of an enlightened Jewish aristocracy: His sister Rebecca is the patron saint of Jewish Philadelphia, a philanthropist and intellectual whose published letters are still read today; a brother,Simon, was a founder of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts; Gratz College, meanwhile, was built with money Hyman left in his will.

Yet in Kentucky, the Gratzes were slavers. Years after Hyman sent slaves to risk their lives in his cave, his brother Benjamin, a Lexington patrician, had 75 slaves working in his rope factory.

We don’t like to admit to this part of the American Jewish past. Slave mines don’t comport with the story we like to tell, which goes: Once we were slaves on the Lower East Side, then we marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. across a bridge in Selma, now we walk free down Fifth Avenue on the first Sunday in June at the Celebrate Israel Parade. We were oppressed, and now we’re friends of the oppressed, and when blacks march in New York protesting the death of Eric Garner, or in Baltimore protesting the murder of Freddie Gray, it’s the other sort of white people they’re protesting, not us.

There’s a famous old union song from 1930s Kentucky, when Jewish communists joined coal miners in a deadly war against the mine companies in Harlan County. Pete Seeger sang a cleaned-up version that became a civil rights standard; the original, written and sung by a Harlan County woman named Florence Reece in a fed-up East Kentucky twang, went like this: “You go to Harlan County, there is no neutral there/ You’ll either be a union man or a thug for J.H. Blair.” (John Henry Blair, Harlan’s sheriff, was a mine company tool.) And then the refrain: “Which side are you on, which side are you on?”

Aristocrats: Benjamin Gratz (1792-1884) moved to Lexington, Kentucky, where he sold hemp and owned slaves. Image by Thomas Sully portraits of Rebecca and Benjamin Gratz. Gifts of Henrietta Gratz-Clay to the Rosenbach Free Library of Philadelphia. Accession number 1954-1936 and 1954-1937

American Jewry is pretty sure about which side it’s on. It’s not that we don’t know that Jews owned slaves; that thousands of Jews enlisted in the Confederate Army; that a Sephardic Jew named Judah P. Benjamin was Jefferson Davis’s secretary of state. But these Jews are seen as outliers, as historical dead-end streets.

The Gratzes are harder to write off.

If Judah P. Benjamin is a speck of a raincloud on the Doppler radar of American Jewry, the Gratzes are a hurricane-sized blob. The Gratzes helped invent what it means to be rich and Jewish in America. As anyone who’s taken 15 minutes’ interest in American Jewish history is dying tell you, Rebecca Gratz was the model for the character Rebecca in Sir Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe.” (Washington Irving told Scott about Rebecca, and Scott was so impressed he put her in his book.) Schools carry the Gratz’s names, museums display their portraits, philanthropic institutions they founded still exist. Even an American Jew whose great-great-grandfather was peddling pitchforks in Bessarabia when Rebecca Gratz was lounging on Washington Irving’s fainting couch owes something to their legacy.

So which side are we on? If the Kentucky Gratzes owned slaves, is our imagined narrative incomplete? What else are we ignoring, in Kentucky alone? Which side were Jews on in the union battles in Harlan County in the 1930s? In the fights over desegregation in Lexington in the 1960s?

In early May, I went to the place where Benjamin Gratz and his slaves lived and died to ask my own version of Florence Reece’s question. The answer was that Jews were on both sides, though it took a thousand miles of asphalt on Kentucky’s highways and back roads to get there.

2. Squirrel Hunting

In the spring of 1931, a Harlan County Jew named John B. Gross told the striking coal miners of Evarts, Kentucky that it was time to start killing.

“Things have come to pass where you can’t get justice in Harlan County,” Gross said, according to testimony at a trial that fall. “Sheriff Blair has unloaded five machine guns and a thousand rounds of high-powered ammunition. Other men are taking our places… The leaves are getting green and now is a good time to go squirrel hunting. Get your guns out and go squirrel hunting.”

Eastern Gray Squirrel: State Wild Animal Game Species of Kentucky Image by Kurt Hoffman

J.H. Blair’s men rode into Evarts carrying sawed-off shotguns a few weeks later. The strikers were there, blocking the road to keep company scabs from getting up to the Black Mountain mine. The two sides battled, and the strikers killed three deputies. Only one union man died.

I rode out to Evarts in an old Pontiac with Jerry Asher, a local history buff with a work history that reads like a lament for the decline of American heavy industry — steel mill, coal mine, railroad. Asher had thick features and a thicker accent, and carried the same sort of indignation against the coal companies that must have fired up men like Gross 80 years ago. “They made it illegal to actually get together and talk,” he told me, disbelieving.

Asher wanted to take me up to Evarts so the guy who owns the hardware store could tell me about when the coal company blew up a Jewish family’s soup kitchen. We drove past a mountain that had been hollowed out by coal extractors, and another where the spring leaves hid a long scar left by a strip mine; past the Brookside Mine and side roads that led up to hollers deep in the hills.

I never really understood what a holler was until I drove east out of Lexington. My experience of hills and valleys is limited, more or less, to the hills and valleys of New England, where each hill is a discrete thing and the valleys in between are wide and flat enough that you don’t think of them as valleys until you climb the hills and look down. In East Kentucky, the hills are tight-packed little humps, and the valleys are like the crack between two skinny knees pressed close together. In Harlan, the houses cluster in the hollers, and narrow streams flow through them until they meet behind the Dairy Queen in Baxter, where they converge to form the Cumberland River.

American Jewry is pretty sure about which side it’s on.

I knew, once I had decided to go to Kentucky, that I would need to see Harlan County. Harlan exerts a spiritual magnetism on the sort of nostalgist who learned “Solidarity Forever” from his sixth grade teacher and still sings it some mornings in the shower. Like Barcelona in 1939 or Columbia University in 1968, Harlan in 1932 is one of those stations of the leftist cross that’s attained a mythic power over the decades, such that the word “Harlan” continues to conjure fantasies of righteous struggle even as the details grow dimmer and the words get displaced from their meanings.

Jews played a big part in the creation of that leftist mythology. Barbara Kopple’s documentary “Harlan County, U.S.A.,” which won an Academy Award in 1977, glorified the 1973 Brookside Mine strike; Paul Cowan wrote about the same strike for the Village Voice; the head of staff for the Citizen’s Public Inquiry into the Brookside Strike was a rabbi’s son named Si Kahn; and the top strategist for the United Mine Workers on the strike was a young former VISTA volunteer named Bernie Aronson. (Aronson now runs a private equity firm.)

They all followed the young Jewish communists who, 40 years earlier, went to Harlan with the National Miners Union, which swept into the region after the moderate United Mine Workers turned tail. Harry Simms, a 19-year-old Jewish NMU organizer from Connecticut, was murdered by sheriff’s deputies in 1932. (Florence Reece’s husband was a local NMU leader; Reece wrote “Which Side Are You On?” after Blair’s men raided her home.)

It was these outsiders who defined the Harlan in the liberal Jewish mythos. I wondered, though, how reflective these Northerners were of the real Jewish role in the coalfields. What about the native Jews of East Kentucky, the shopkeepers and peddlers and small-town mayors? Which side were they on?

Asher and I met up at McDonald’s. Harlan’s Main Street is mostly empty storefronts, but the fast food restaurant along the highway outside of town was bustling. On the way out, we stopped to talk to a group of old men eating breakfast. One of them, a retired jailer named Howard Helt, told me he’d had a Jewish uncle named John B. Gross who, in the early 1920s, had been the jailer of Harlan County, too. I thought I’d found a hard-core Jewish company man, an antagonist to the young Northern leftists whose stories I had already known. A bit of Googling set me straight: Not only had John B. Gross called on the strikers to go “squirrel hunting,” but two of Blair’s deputies had also driven him to a remote spot and threatened to murder him. “We’re going to kill you if you open your mouth again about the union,” Gross said the deputies told him.

So, basically the opposite of what I had presumed. In fact, in my short time in Bell and Harlan counties, I didn’t find any traces of a real Jewish friend of the coal companies. Instead, I found stories of people who had been punished by one side for helping the other.

Take Mel Sturm, who I visited in Knoxville to hear about the time the miner’s union threatened to blow up his porch. Mel, 91, and his younger brother Evan, 86, live together in a roomy house overlooking a piece of the Fort Loudoun Lake. They both wore purple shirts and khaki pants when I visited, and when we went out to dinner they shared a fish sandwich. They told me about the day, 60 years ago in Jellico, Tennessee, when Evan was minding Mel’s dry goods store and a column of striking miners paraded through the door. Evan guesses there were about 200 of them.

“I was outnumbered,” he said.

The miners walked through silently, not touching anything, not saying anything, snaking through the store and then filing back out into the street.

“It was simply a show of force,” Mel said.

It was a frightening time to be Mel Sturm, boy mayor of Jellico. Elected when he was 29, Mel had a wife, a house, a business, and, as an enemy, a union that didn’t mess around.

Bloody Harlan: The mine wars roiled Harlan for decades. Here, two miners pose in 1946. Image by Wikimedia Commons

Mel grew up in a coal city in Kentucky, but was working in Chicago in 1949 when his father was killed by a drunk driver. He went home to Jellico, a coal town within spitting distance of the Kentucky border, planning to arrange his father’s affairs and then move back North. Instead, he became the mayor. “I was a 26-year-old college graduate,” Mel said. “Jellico had none of those.” Mel’s father had spent his life running dry goods stores, and Sturm’s Department Store in Jellico was just like one he had in Middlesboro, Kentucky, when Mel was a kid: They sold the essentials for the mining life, the clothes and linoleum rugs and bedspreads and shoes and piece goods that constituted a mining family’s possessions. Mel became a big man in Jellico. He was president of the local Kiwanis Club, created a merchant’s association, was appointed to the town’s three-man utility board, and was elected to the city council. At 29, he ran for mayor, which was the start of the trouble.

There was unrest in Jellico in 1955. The phone company, the railroad, and the coal mine were on strike. Without trains, phones, or miners’ spending money, the economy was frozen. Meanwhile, a non-union strip mine near Jellico was still operating. One day, union miners stopped one of the strip miner’s trucks inside the Jellico city limits and dumped its coal onto the street.

Mel learned what had happened when he arrived at the city council meeting that night. “We are not going to have any violence in our town, and if necessary I’ll call the governor and ask him to provide troopers or National Guard,” Mel recalls saying. “Instantly my name was mud.”

The union parked two miners out front of his store and two miners behind it. Jellico only had sidewalks on one side of the street, but when Mel went out for lunch, folks would cross to the other side anyhow to avoid him. One night, a friend told Mel that he and his wife better not sleep at home — there was a rumor that the miners planned to blow the porch off his house.

No rocking chairs were dynamited, though the warning was repeated a few more times before things cooled down, and Mel moved away soon after. One day, after all the trouble with the union was over, Mel ran into the county sheriff, a guy he’d known since high school. Mel asked the sheriff why he hadn’t helped him during his union troubles. “He said, ‘Mel, I want to live a long time,’” Mel recalled. “I wanted to kill him.”

Today, Mel bears no ill will toward the union men who did their best to terrorize him for the better part of a year. “They wanted to accomplish their goals, and in a sense I stood in their way,” Mel said. “I was responding only to the fact that I was responsible for the town and they had done something that wasn’t acceptable.”

That sort of non-ideological, nearly accidental confrontation between Jews and miners seems to have been typical. “They were kind of caught in the middle,” said Deborah R. Weiner, who wrote a graduate thesis on the Jewish merchant families that lived in the coal towns and published a 2006 book called “Coalfield Jews.” “If they had to come out on a side, it would be with the coal companies,” Weiner said. “But they tried to avoid that as much as possible.”

That’s because, no matter which side they took, it was likely to bring trouble. That’s what happened in Evarts in 1932, when someone dynamited Hillel Appleman’s building.

When Jack Asher and I arrived in Evarts, I hardly noticed. Much of Harlan County is melting away, and Evarts has been particularly hard hit. The coal mines are closing across Eastern Kentucky, buckling under pressure from superior coalfields farther west and cheaper natural gas. The county’s unemployment rate hit a Greece-like 19% in 2013, and though it’s back down to around 11% today, it’s still double the statewide average, and people are fleeing: Nearly a fifth of the labor force has left in the past two years alone.

House of Justice: During the 1930s, the coal companies and their allies effectively owned the courthouse in downtown Harlan, and could press charges against anyone who threatened their grip on the county. Image by Josh Nathan-Kazis

“We’re like a miniature Detroit,” Asher said of Harlan County. Of Evarts, he said, “It’s just a shell.”

In the 1920s, an Orthodox Jew named Hillel Appleman had a general store in Evarts. The Applemans were the only Jews in town, so they ate no meat and baked their own bread and stayed at a hotel in Harlan on the High Holidays. They did well, and they saved their money, and in 1932, when the strikes left miners’ families desperate, the Applemans started to give food away. They opened a soup kitchen across the street from their store, then placed an advertisement in the newspaper: “LOOK! In according with the Jewish custom to remember the needy during the Passover Season, Mr. and Mrs. Harry Appleman will give away, on Friday, April 17, at the Evarts depot, A Car Load of Flour.”

They must have known there would be trouble. “The doctor said to my mother, he said, ‘You’re crazy, woman, the guns are going to shoot you down,’” said Freda Appleman Aranoff, Hillel’s daughter.

The doctor was nearly right. Soon after Hillel and his wife handed out the sacks of flour, someone blew up their soup kitchen and shot up their house. Maybe the company men thought that helping out the striking miners was cause enough for violent retribution. Maybe they thought Appleman was a communist. Hillel’s daughter says he wasn’t, but either way, he was charged with criminal syndicalism and had to stay away from home to keep from being arrested. Hillel’s wife was able to get the charges dismissed, and the Applemans fled Kentucky.

Eventually, most of the rest of Harlan County’s Jews followed. Just about all the Jews have left East Kentucky. There’s one more synagogue in Huntington, West Virginia, close to the Kentucky line, but that’s it. The Jews had been members of a tiny middle class, caught between the guns and the dynamite of the workers and the bosses. Jewish shopkeepers spent decades in a delicate balancing act. Which side were they on? Both, neither — and hoping nothing got blown up in the meantime.

In Harlan County, the Hebrew school edition of the American Jewish story more-or-less held up. That lasted until the subject turned back to race. Then it all fell apart again.

3. The Temple

When George Hill arrived in Lexington in October of 1967, he wasn’t allowed to move into a Jewish-owned housing development because he was black.

Hill had just gotten his doctorate from New York University, his wife had just had a baby, and he was set to start a two-year fellowship in a biochemistry lab at the University of Kentucky. The professor who ran his lab had asked a graduate student to find a place for Hill before he came to town, and the graduate student had found a house in a nice complex with a swimming pool. Hill had a signed lease in hand, but he still expected a problem. “I knew something was going to happen,” said Hill, who is now an emeritus professor at Vanderbilt University.

On his first day in Lexington, Hill went to the landlord’s office. “The gentleman who was there said that he didn’t have a copy of the lease,” Hill said. “So I reached in my pocket and said, ‘I think we have one here.’ And he said, ‘You can’t live here.’”

When Hill eventually did move into the complex off of Versailles Road, the reaction split the membership of Lexington’s Reform temple. Exactly how the congregation got involved is lost in a haze of conflicting memories, but the results, for Harriet Rose, linger sharply.

There are two Jewish congregations in Lexington. Locals call one the Temple, and the other the Synagogue, and they correct you if you call the Temple a synagogue, or if you call the Synagogue a temple. I picked Rose up at the Temple — properly Temple Adath Israel — partway through a Saturday morning study session. Adath Israel is a mile and a half from the center of town, with church-white walls and stained glass windows in its narrow sanctuary. Nowadays there’s a piano-playing cantor who sings Debbie Friedman songs on Friday nights, but Rose, who has been a member since 1925, prefers the old style. “I’m the real example of classical Reform Judaism,” she said. “I’m outnumbered.”

Rabble-Rouser: Harriet Rose hosted an integrated party at her home in Lexington in 1968. Image by Josh Nathan-Kazis

The Roses — Harriet and her husband Stan — had been friends with the landlord and his wife since the late 1940s, when the young Jews of Lexington used to have a regular poker game they called the Piker Poker Club. Both couples belonged to the Temple, and Stan and the landlord both served as Temple presidents. The friendship ended after Hill moved into the landlord’s Versailles Road complex.

Hill told me that he moved into the complex on his second day in Lexington, after a long talk with the landlord and the landlord’s lawyer. Eventually, Hill says, he had simply asked if the house was unlocked. The lawyer said it was, and that settled it — the landlord knew there was nothing more he could do, and Hill took the house.

William Leffler, Adath Israel’s spiritual leader at the time, recalls a more drawn-out fight. He says that the landlord blamed him, in part, because Leffler was friendly with Hill’s professor. The landlord extended that blame to the circle of liberal members of the congregation, like Stan, who were known to support Leffler when he did things like talk about civil rights from the pulpit. A former Temple member named Robert Sedler, meanwhile, remembers filing a lawsuit against the landlord on Hill’s behalf, though Hill says there was no lawsuit.

(The landlord and his wife are dead, as is his business partner. One of the landlord’s sons said that he would have been away at college and didn’t remember the incident. I have chosen not to use the landlord’s name because there is no one left to speak for him, and the details have grown fuzzy with time, and Harriet Rose asked me not to.)

Later, at a funeral, Rose went up to the landlord’s wife. “I can’t stand this, we’ve been friends all our lives,” Rose recalls saying. “We’re not friends anymore,” the landlord’s wife shot back.

It’s tempting, when talking about how Lexington’s Jews dealt with the Civil Rights movement, to draw a line between the outsiders and the insiders; the sons and daughters of the shop owners who had been Southerners for three generations; and the lawyers and doctors who passed through Lexington for a few years to work at the hospital or teach at the university. “The Jews in the South at that time knew their place,” said Sedler, one of the outsiders, who spent nearly a decade as a law professor at the University of Kentucky, and filed the 1972 lawsuit that resulted in the integration of the Louisville schools. “They could make a lot of money, they could be respected people, but they didn’t make waves. And the outsiders were making waves.”

Yet Harriet Rose’s story muddies that line. Rose was as much of an insider as a Lexington Jew could be: Her father had run a prosperous dairy in the city, her grandfather, a Reform Jew born in Germany, had moved to Kentucky in 1888 and opened a slaughterhouse in Shelbyville, where he sold pork without regret. “In our family there were two intermarriages, one with an Orthodox girl from Louisville,” Rose said. “I think that was harder to adjust to than the one to the Baptist.”

‘I served wine punch.’

Harriet met Stan in Cleveland during the war. Stan was from Ohio, but he moved to Lexington with Harriet, started an industrial waste disposal business, and settled into his wife’s social circles. The couple may not have qualified as leftists in the North — when they heard that CORE, which organized the Freedom Rides and advocated nonviolent resistance, planned to set up operations in Lexington, Harriet and Stan opposed the idea. Still, by Lexington standards, they pushed boundaries. In 1968, Rose hosted an integrated party, the first she had ever attended, a welcome event for the director of a new Urban League chapter in the city. After spending years lobbying the mostly-Jewish owners of the department stores downtown to hire blacks in sales position, Stan had helped put together the Urban League chapter. The wives of the other white board members refused to even show up to the party, never mind play hostess. “I served wine punch,” Rose said.

It’s comforting to imagine that, in Jewish communities in places like Lexington, it was outsiders from the North who were pushing for integration, and insiders from the old families who were pushing back. That story allows Northern Jews to imagine the racist Southern Jews as abnormal Jews, and themselves abnormal whites. If the Southern Jews were more Southern than Jewish, and the Northern Jews were more Jewish than white, then the evils of segregation can slough off the American Jewish community at large.

When I asked Harriet Rose why some Lexington Jews were willing to push a bit on integration and others were so resistant, though, she rejected all that. For Harriet, it was about economics. “Our oxen weren’t being gored,” she said of herself, her husband and their allies. “And when we got to goring their oxen, they didn’t want it.”

Which is to say, it wasn’t just principles that separated the landlord from the Roses. And it certainly wasn’t that the landlord was more of a Lexingtonian, or more of a Southerner. Rather, it was that Stan was in the junk business, and he and Rose could afford to have a rabbi who talked about civil rights and got involved with troublemaking professors. The landlord couldn’t afford to have such a rabbi: He depended on segregation to protect the value of his properties.

In Harriet’s version, Jews are more or less normal people, sometimes acting on principles, other times acting in their own self-interest. It’s a radical idea in a culture founded on a biblical notion of chosenness. It acknowledges the Jewishness of both the segregator and the integrator, rather than pushing out of the communal narrative those on the wrong side of history. The honesty is liberating, but the contemporary implications are challenging: We’re left to answer for the sins of the segregator, and not just take credit for the noble spirit of the integrator. Protesters’ placards are directed at us, too.

However difficult facing a legacy of segregation may be, however, it’s not nearly as difficult as facing a legacy of slaveholding. Which brings us to Benjamin Gratz, Lexington hemp merchant, Jew, and slaver.

4. Two Duels

On an island in the middle of the Mississippi River in 1856, a pro-slavery politician named Thomas C. Reynolds shot Benjamin Gratz Brown in the leg for writing nasty things about him in an anti-slavery newspaper.

This is about to get a bit confusing. Benjamin Gratz Brown is a different person than Benjamin Gratz, the Philadelphia Jewish scion who lived his life amid the Lexington aristocracy. Benjamin Gratz was once nearly killed in a duel over slavery, too, but had that shoot-out come off, he would have been on the opposite side as his namesake.

Home Sweet Home: Benjamin Gratz's mansion is, perhaps, the finest in Lexington's Gratz Park. Image by Josh Nathan-Kazis

In Gratz, Kentucky, there’s a shuttered post office, a Baptist church with no pastor, a sign about a bridge that got blown up four years ago, and a diner-cum-grocery store-cum-inn-cum-antiques shop called New’s Cafe & Antiques. New’s Cafe, owned by Earl and Linda New (“We’ll never be old!”), serves the best iced tea I drank in the whole state, but there’s not much else going on these days in Gratz.

Gratz is named for Benjamin Gratz Brown, who was named for Benjamin Gratz. I drove to town on a Wednesday in time for a late breakfast. The road sweeps downhill as you drive into Gratz, and everything gets darker, and the acres of bright yellow flowers slink away, a bunched-up forest rising in their place. There’s a dead tree full of buzzards on one end of Main Street and a slow, brown river sliding past the boat launch at the other end.

B.G. Brown grew up to be a consequential man, a U.S. senator and the governor of Missouri. When the town was named for him, though, he was a college student boarding at his namesake’s Lexington mansion. B.G. Brown was related to Benjamin Gratz on his mother’s side, and was just one of a passel of Benjamin Gratz’s young connections living there in the 1840s: There was Cary Gratz, Benjamin’s son, who would die a Union officer in 1861; Jo Shelby, Benjamin’s stepson, later a famous Confederate general who led his men to Mexico at the end of the Civil War and offered his services to the Mexican emperor, and Frank Blair, Shelby’s tutor who became a close advisor to President Lincoln.

At the head of this soon-to-be-divided household was Benjamin Gratz, the cream of the Lexington aristocracy, a founder of the Lexington & Ohio Railroad, a director of the Bank of Kentucky, a good friend of Senator Henry Clay, and a trustee at Transylvania University. Gratz bought his mansion in 1824; by the 1840s, he was a city father and a local power.

Much of that power owed itself to Gratz’s first and longest-lasting business venture in Lexington, his hemp factory. Bettie Kerr, who directs Lexington’s Division of Historic Preservation, said there was a hemp walk just behind Gratz’s mansion, a long building where slaves with strands of hemp tied to their waists walked in zigzags to bind the strands into ropes. In 1830, the hemp firm owned by Gratz and his partner John Bruce held 75 slaves, according to a 1924 academic publication based on census documents.

I don’t know how long he kept those slaves. Gratz was a Union sympathizer, and the father of a Union officer, and David Philipson, the rabbi who first collected Rebecca Gratz’s letters, wrote in 1929 that Gratz freed his slaves before the war. It’s not clear how he knows that — one of Rebecca’s letters references Benjamin purchasing two slaves and giving them their freedom, but no large-scale emancipation is mentioned there or in any other sources I saw. Even if the rabbi is right, it seems that Gratz remained an opponent of abolition, or at least of abolitionists, until very, very late. On a train to Cincinnati in 1864, Gratz nearly got himself into a duel with a famous white abolitionist named Calvin Fairbank, a Methodist minister jailed in Kentucky for a dozen years for helping to rescue slaves. In his memoir, Fairbank writes that, while riding a train out of Kentucky upon receiving his pardon, he overheard Gratz talking about him.

“All I’d ask would be one pop at him. I’d shoot him as soon as I would a wolf,” Gratz said, according to Fairbank. Fairbank readied one of the two Colts he was carrying and turned to Gratz.

“Ben Gratz, would you know Fairbank on sight?” Fairbank asked.

Gratz said he would. “Well, here I am,” Fairbank said, revealing his pistol. “I think I have the first pop.”

According to Fairbank, the other passengers cheered. “I acknowledge the corn,” Gratz said, employing an ancient colloquialism I can’t begin to decipher. “Let us make friends and call this a joke.” No shots were fired.

Buzzards: It seems like there are more buzzards than people in Gratz, Kentucky. Image by Josh Nathan-Kazis

The anecdote is suspect, of course, in that Fairbank comes off as a badass gunslinger and Gratz as a Yul Brynner jerk in a black hat. Still, the general sense that Gratz wanted an abolitionist dead, even as late as 1864, seems credible, if only for the specificity of the reference to Gratz, who Fairbank calls a “Jew farmer.”

B.G. Brown’s father’s plantation was just outside of Gratz, where the river bends in a long “s” around a narrow spit of land called Brown’s Bottom. I drove out of town and down a winding asphalt track called Brown’s

Bottom Road, through the farmlands and up a hill. Another gathering of buzzards was fussing over a carcass in the path of my car; they flapped

up to a fence and eyed me as I drove over it, holding my breath.

Fairbank comes off as a badass gunslinger and Gratz as a Yul Brynner jerk in a black hat.

Though the town was nominally named for B.G. Brown, the connection to Benjamin Gratz seems likely to have been part of it, too. Way out there, in an armpit of the Kentucky River, it’s easy to imagine how giving the place a name that originally belonged to a man like Benjamin Gratz, with his cosmopolitan connections and a hand on the tiller of Kentucky’s great institutions, would have seemed a good idea. I wondered if it seemed the same way today, a century and a half after emancipation. Not, of course, that there aren’t lots of towns (Cities! Universities! States! Etc.!) named for Americans who owned people. But that makes some people queasy. Should the continued veneration of the Gratz name make us, as Jews, particularly queasy? If not in this town in Kentucky, what about in Philadelphia, where there’s Gratz College and Simon Gratz High School?

Wondering about guilt and retribution, I drove to Lexington to visit Mount Hope.

5. Mount Hope

Benjamin Gratz’s house in Lexington stayed in the Gratz family until 1985, when the widow of a descendant died and the place was sold off. The house, called Mount Hope, faces Gratz Park, a sweet-smelling rectangle at the foot of Transylvania University. There’s a library just off the park, and an iron arch with the Gratz name spelled out in gold.

Gratz Park is ringed by grand old homes, but the Gratz house is, perhaps, the noblest. Built in 1819 in the Federal style, it’s a red-brick two-story building with a creamcolored doorway surrounded by delicate glasswork. Gratz’s home is private, but the current owners graciously allowed me inside.

Gratz bought the house in 1824 and built an expansion in 1841, and from the elegant side garden you can look up at the brickwork and see how the angle of the roof was eased to accommodate the expanded building. From the outside the effect of the place is of order and symmetry: Some of the windows are fake, existing only to give a sense of balance. Inside, it feels massive, with a sitting room, den and dining room all in a grand row that flows out to the flower garden. It seems as though you could host a ball for 200 inside.

This may have only been one of Benjamin Gratz’s two great mansions. George Armstrong Custer, the Civil War hero turned Indian slayer, wrote an essay in 1871 in which he claimed to have stayed at Gratz’s country home while on a trip to visit a famous stud farm outside of Lexington. Writing in a horse racing magazine called “Turf, Field and Farm” under the pseudonym “Nomad” five years before Sitting Bull’s men killed him and the horse he rode in on at Little Bighorn, Custer wrote of spending a pleasant night at Gratz’s farm. “After supper the evening was spent in horse talk,” Custer wrote. “[T]he youngest boy, white or black, can correctly trace the pedigree of every prominent horse, and give the time of each prominent race, with the place of each horse. He would not be a Kentuckian of the Blue Grass region if unable to do this.”

The Whole: Every day at Mammoth Cave, hundreds of tourists march through what was once Hyman Gratz's slave mine. Image by Wikimedia Commons

The next morning, Custer wrote, Benjamin Gratz slaughtered some livestock. “Breakfast served we were invited to witness the killing and preparation of meat according to the Jewish custom,” Custer wrote. “Mr. Gratz, a most worthy descendent of this ancient people, although not a close or strict observer of their rites and customs, yet in some respects has not departed from the recognized faith.”

Gratz married non-Jews and raised his children as non-Jews. Yet he stayed in close touch with his sister Rebecca, who was deeply involved in Jewish affairs in Philadelphia, and, when he died in 1884, he was buried by Isaac Mayer Wise, the founder of the Reform movement in America. According to a story recounted in an article by the University of Louisville professor Lee Shai Weissbach, when Wise returned home to Cincinnati, he said of the funeral: “There were only two Jews there: The corpse and me!”

Benjamin Gratz was a white slave owner, and a Jew, and the brother of some of the most consequential early members of the American Jewish community. He was not on the side of the abolitionists, not on the side of his namesake B.G. Brown. His factory ran on slave labor, and even toward the end of the Civil War, in which one son had died for the Union and onestepson had led a Confederate cavalry brigade, he talked a big game about shooting Calvin Fairbank.

So what do we do?

Not far from the chilly entrance to Mammoth Cave, there’s a short walk to a sinkhole that passes an old cemetery, the few mossy stones surrounded by a modern fence to keep out wanderers. The National Park maps call it the “Old Guides Cemetery,” but a placard is a bit more frank: this burial ground “probably began” as a cemetery for slaves, conveniently located close to the cave’s main entrance. All the surviving graves in the cemetery date from a few decades after Hyman Gratz closed his mine. Still, it’s a small symbol of what went on here.

Perhaps the memory of Hyman Gratz’s slaves deserves more.

After Gratz’s funeral, the rabbi said: ‘There were only two Jews there; the corpse and me!’

In 2003, Brown University commissioned a report on the school’s historical relationship with the slave trade. A committee met for years, published a long document, and Brown wound up amending its official history and committing to a set of initiatives conceived as small-scale slavery reparations. Other schools followed suit, including the College of William & Mary and Emory University. (When I called Gratz College to ask about whether the school had considered the implications of Hyman Gratz’s slave mine, a communications officer said she would ask the college’s president to call me. I never heard back.)

Since the June 17 massacre at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church by an armed white racist, there’s been a renewed call to reexamine the symbols of slavery that persist in the American South: the Confederate battle flag, the statues of Confederate generals.

Thomas Sully’s portrait of Rebecca Gratz doesn’t flap atop the South Carolina State House. But as American Jews, the Gratz name implicates us personally. It’s time to face up to all of what they represent.

Accepting the family’s duality means accepting the idea that Jews can oppress just like they can be oppressed. Some act on principle, some some act in their own self-interest, and some just do the best they can when everyone else is stockpiling dynamite.

Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. You can reach him at [email protected], or on Twitter at @joshnathankazis.


Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.