Documenting the American South Logo
Loading
Collections >> North American Slave Narratives, The Church in the Southern Black Community >> Document Menu >> Summary

Elisha Winfield Green
Life of the Rev. Elisha W. Green, One of the Founders of the Kentucky Normal and Theological Institute--Now the State University at Louisville; Eleven Years Moderator of the Mt. Zion Baptist Association; Five Years Moderator of the Consolidated Baptist Educational Association and Over Thirty Years Pastor of the Colored Baptist Churches of Maysville and Paris. Written by Himself.
Maysville, KY: The Republican Printing Office, 1888.

Summary

Elisha Winfield Green was born around 1818 in Bourbon County, Kentucky, near the town of Paris. At age ten, he moved to Mayslick (also called Mays Lick), in Mason County, upon the marriage of his mistress, Jane Dobbyns. Green's mother and siblings were also enslaved to members of the Dobbyns family. Green's narrative indicates that although he was put up for sale during his childhood, he either remained a slave to the Dobbyns family or was again purchased by that family. He married Susan Young in 1835 but moved to nearby Maysville, Kentucky, in 1838 with his new master, John Dobbyns, while Susan remained in Mayslick, thirteen miles away. John's relation to Jane Dobbyns is unclear. In 1845, the white Baptist church of Maysville authorized Green to "exercise his gifts" as a preacher "in public before the colored population" (p. 5). He had previously been sexton of the white Baptist church, performing maintenance and other odd jobs for the community. Green was ordained two years later; he founded First African Baptist Church of Maysville in 1848, followed by First African Baptist Church of Paris, Kentucky, in 1855. He remained pastor of both churches, commuting the 45 miles between them by train. Green seems to have purchased his own freedom at some point between 1845 and 1855, but he does not describe the circumstances of the purchase in his narrative. In 1858 he was able to purchase the freedom of his wife and two of his children for $850 with the help of members of the white Baptist church. In 1865 Green helped to organize the Convention of Colored Ministers of the State of Kentucky, which began the work of founding a college to educate black ministers. He is perhaps most well-known for winning an assault and battery suit against two white men in 1883. Green's Life was published in Maysville in 1888, and he died in or near Maysville in 1893.

Green dictated his autobiography to a man he calls Brother Butler, whom he credits with "many utterances of elegant diction of speech" (p. i). In the preface, Green promises to tell the most interesting incidents of his life "as a slave" and "as a minister of Jesus Christ" (p. i). The autobiography is indeed a collection of varied incidents, many of them related to his involvement with black Baptist churches; although he says that his narrative "is not intended to be a history of the colored Baptists of Kentucky," it does tell a great deal of that history (p. 28).

Green begins his narrative with a short account of his childhood. He devotes only a paragraph to his mother and siblings, from whom he is separated during most of his life, though his autobiography suggests that most of his family remains in Kentucky. He briefly describes the "very rough times" of his childhood, during which he "cooked, washed, spun flax and yarn, and did all the house-work the same as a woman" (p. 1). During his teen years, Green experiences a religious conversion while plowing. He comes down with scarlet fever shortly thereafter but is able to be baptized six months later. Green tells of learning to read by studying a Bible while hiding in the third story of the house during the slack summer season, and of learning to write from nine-year old Alice, John Dobbyns's daughter. In 1835 Green marries Susan Young, who continues to live with her mistress, Mrs. Sissen, in Mayslick after Green moves thirteen miles up the road. Green's master prevents Sissen, who dislikes Young, from selling her "down the river, as the expression was" (p. 3).

After his move to Maysville in 1838, Green becomes sexton of the white Baptist church and in 1845 receives a license to preach, applied for by his owner John Dobbyns. Green refuses to be ordained until two years later but begins preaching. Dobbyns allows him considerable freedom of movement, often across the Ohio River, to preach for funerals and other occasions, but ferry-boat captains, train ticket salesmen, and other people he encounters during his travels often refuse to help him for fear of penalty under the Fugitive Slave Law. He is often stopped on suspicion of being a runaway, both before and after he purchases his freedom. "I will say that I was more of a slave after I bought myself than before," Green explains. "Before this I could go many places without interruption, but when I became a freeman I could not cross the Ohio river" (p. 14-15).

Green describes the pain he and his wife experienced while watching their son taken south to be sold, tied to the outside of a coach with no outer clothing despite the December chill. Although Green attempts to contact his son's owner and stop the sale, he is unsuccessful, and the two never again see their child. Several of his other children are put up for sale but are sold locally, and Green is able to purchase the freedom of two of his children, as well as his wife, in 1858. His churches continue to flourish, and he is invited to represent his region in several conferences and organizations, among them the General Association of Colored Baptists of Kentucky and the Consolidated Baptist Educational Association. In 1965 he is invited to join the Convention of Colored Baptist Ministers of the State of Kentucky, which founded the Kentucky Normal and Theological Institute, one of only two colleges in Kentucky to educate blacks from its opening in 1879 to the opening of a public Normal School for Colored Persons in 1886. (The other is Berea College.) Green serves as a delegate to two statewide protest conventions in 1866 and 1867, which petition Congress for the right to vote and for the right to testify against whites in federal and state courts. After Susan Green's death in 1880, he remarries.

Green devotes the end of his narrative to describing an assault he suffers on a train between Maysville and Paris in 1883. The Reverend G.T. Gould, President of Millersburg Female College, enters Green's car with a number of young women from the school and demands that Green, who is still suffering from injuries from a train accident eight years earlier, yield his seat. Green refuses but tells Gould that he would have given it up had Gould asked him "like a gentleman" (p. 52). Gould and another man beat Green severely with a brass-bound valise, earning themselves a bad name in the local press and prompting assault and battery charges from Green. He does not continue to pursue criminal charges but does file a civil suit. The all-white jury follows the recommendation of the presiding judge and awards $24 of the $1000 sued for, demonstrating a willingness to take seriously lawsuits brought against whites by black litigants and yet suggesting that even if it was lawful for a black passenger to refuse to yield his seat to a white passenger, it was socially unacceptable. Republican newspapers overwhelmingly praised Green's character and expressed contempt for Gould's behavior, and Green includes several excerpts of these editorials as well as Gould and Bristow's statements and his own.

Works Consulted: Davis, Charles L., "Green v. Gould (1884) and the Construction of Postbellum Race Relations in a Central Kentucky Community," Register of the Kentucky Historical Society 105.3 (Summer 2007): 383-416; Davis, Merlene, "Bluegrass Had Its Own Rosa Parks," Lexington Herald-Leader, Oct. 30, 2005; "The funeral of Elder Elisha W. Green," Daily Public Ledger (Maysville, KY), Nov. 2, 1893, 1, available from Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, online database (accessed March 26, 2010); Lucas, Marion B., A History of Blacks in Kentucky from Slavery to Segregation, 1760-1891, Kentucky Historical Society, 2003; Ogburn, Floyd, "Green, Elisha Winfield," African American National Biography, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., vol. 3, New York: Oxford University Press, 2008; "Rev. Elisha Green has sued," The Bourbon News (Millersburg, KY), 2.137 (June 19, 1883), 1, available from Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, online database, (accessed March 26, 2010); "Rev. G. T. Gould's Tribulations," The Bourbon News (Millersburg, KY), 2.135 (June 12, 1883), 1, available from Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers online database (accessed March 26, 2010); "A Sensation," Paris Kentuckian, June 9, 1883; Williams, Lawrence, Black Higher Education in Kentucky, 1879-1930: The History of Simmons University, Lewiston, NY: Mellen Press, 1987; Wright, George C., Life Behind the Veil: Blacks in Louisville, Kentucky, 1865-1930, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1985.

Erin Bartels

Document menu