Since the origin of Black History Month in February, 1970, Americans have learned the inspiring stories of numerous people of color – stories that celebrated their courage, determination, intelligence, sacrifice and sheer pluck.
Courage was a quality John Meaux possessed in abundance, and pluck was surely the word to describe the enslaved people, freed by Meaux, who took on the Kentucky judicial system in a land dispute and emerged victorious.
Although the action took place in neighboring Mercer County, there is a very real tie to Anderson County.
This incredible story dates back to 1784 when Kentucky was still a part of Virginia. It was in that year that John Meaux arrived in Mercer County and began farming. By 1797, two things had happened: Kentucky had been granted statehood and John Meaux had become a wealthy plantation owner, whose prime assets were in two valuable commodities – land and enslaved people.
In the years leading up to the Civil War, John Meaux was virtually indistinguishable from countless rich planters throughout the southern states whose empires had been built on the backs of enslaved people.
But in one regard, John Meaux was very different. In 1826, he made out his will which directed that all 61 slaves in his possession at that time and any issue of females not yet born, be forever emancipated.
That would have been remarkable enough considering the time – 39 years before the Emancipation Proclamation freed all enslaved people from bondage.
But Meaux didn’t stop there. In his will, he left parcels of land to those he emancipated. Furthermore, except for a small allowance to his two grandsons, he instructed the remaining crops, stock and tools be divided among the emancipated slaves, and proceeds from the sale of household furniture be distributed among them.
This meant that nearly half-a-decade before Abraham Lincoln freed all enslaved people, John Meaux freed his own, deeded them land and the tools to work the land, and provided money for their descendants to buy land in non-slave holding states.
This last will and testament was recorded with the Kentucky Court of Appeals on January 7, 1830, two years after Meaux’s death. As might have been expected, the will was rejected by the Mercer Circuit Court.
Six years later, in 1836, the Kentucky Supreme Court reversed the Circuit Court’s decision, and the enslaved people were emancipated again, this time legally. If this had been the end of the court battles, it would be remarkable enough, but it wasn’t.
Humphrey Black, an emancipated slave had remained with and labored for John Woodson Meaux, grandson of John Meaux, during the controversy over the will’s validity. Ironically, while the will provided land for most of Meaux’s enslaved people, it left Black “nothing but the thread for clothing.”
Acting on his rights as a free man, Black sued John Woodson Meaux for payment for his labors and won. That same year, the enslaved people – now free – filed another lawsuit asking that additional lands purchased by Meaux from a man identified as John Edwards be divided and partitioned “for the benefit of the heads of families of the emancipated negroes.”
The following year, a court ruling transferred the land along the Salt and Chaplin Rivers to the former enslaved people of John Meaux, and history was made in Kentucky.
So, just how did Anderson County become part of the saga? While the terms of Meaux’s will left the beneficiaries in a precarious position – free people in a state that still recognized them as enslaved – most chose to remain in Mercer County. Two intrepid sisters, however, made their way to Anderson County.
Mary Meaux McColley and Amanda Meaux Utterback arrived here with their husbands. The sisters were daughters of an enslaved man, known only as Vance, who was one of those listed in John Meaux’s will.
Thus, they became matriarchs of the Anderson County branch of this remarkable group of people who had achieved their freedom in a state that was anything but free.
Little is known of the lives of the siblings, but there is a tangible reminder of their time here. Both women were buried at the Woodlawn Hills African American Cemetery, and visitors can visit their graves.
“These were real people, and this is tangible evidence of their existence,” says Robbie Morgan, tourism director of the Lawrenceburg/ Anderson County Joint Tourism Commission.
Two Lawrenceburg women have more than tangible evidence – they have blood ties to the Meaux family. Geneva Howard and her daughter Alicia Howard are daughter and granddaughter of Lewis Washington, who himself was the grandson of Mary Meaux McColley.
Both women recall Lewis’s tales of his family and their incredible story, thus inspiring Alicia, a noted psychotherapist, to dig deeper into the genealogy of the family.
“My research shows me a lineage of remarkable men and women from Kentucky,” she says. “People I never met, but always admired through stories and photographs.
“Initially, I thought of their lives and experiences as distant history, but now I see how my life has been shaped by theirs,” she continues.
Oh yes, there is one more piece to this intriguing puzzle. Actress and comedian Maya Rudolph, an alumna of Saturday Night Live, can trace her own ancestry back to the Meaux family. Though a native of Florida and not Kentucky, Rudolph found her own connection through the TV series Finding Your Roots.
The historical thread that connects John Meaux, a wealthy plantation owner and man of rare compassion and generosity, and the group of enslaved people who had the courage to challenge the court system makes for one of Kentucky’s – and Anderson County’s – most compelling stories.