Op-Ed: A Minister, a Congregation and the Freedom of an Enslaved Kentucky Pastor
Fri, 08/24/2018 - 10:42 RCN Newsdesk
The patchwork quilt was sewn by hand, with approximately eight stitches per inch.
The two church members who made it knew what they were doing. Rows of eight-pointed stars, bursting with deep reds, bright yellows, pinks and greens, stand juxtaposed to sharply stitched, colorful squares.
Mary and Eliza Bosworth of Glenrose, Kentucky, made the quilt for their minister in 1847. Recently donated to the Kentucky Historical Society, it still bears the inscription, “May the best that God can give thee, be thine forever.”
The stories surrounding the quilt’s owner, the Rev. William Moody Pratt, are just as vibrant as the colors of this artifact.
Pratt was born in Madison County, New York, in January 1817. After attending a revival during the Second Great Awakening, he became a devout Baptist and went to seminary. In 1845, he quit traversing Indiana as a traveling preacher to settle down in Lexington, Kentucky, as minister of the First Baptist Church. According to one newspaper, he “did much to advance the cause of that denomination in this State.”
Pratt was also a trusted member of the Lexington religious community. In the mid-1850s, members of the Pleasant Green Baptist Church approached him with a problem.
Pleasant Green was an African American church with a history dating back to 1790. While some members were part of Lexington’s free black community, others were enslaved. This included the church’s minister, George Dupee (or DuPuy).
It was not surprising for an African American church in Lexington to have an enslaved pastor. At the time, Fayette County had a large number of slaves and slave owners. According to the 1860 census, 10,015 of the 22,599 people who lived in the county were held in bondage. Nearly 1,200 slave owners kept these African American men, women and children in enslavement.
Dupee’s owner was the Rev. Lewis Craig, a minister whom one 19th century historian called “the most prominent of the early Baptist preachers in Kentucky.”
Craig died in 1847 and it took nearly nine years for his estate to be finalized. As part of that settlement, Dupee was to be sold on the open market. He was likely to go on the block at Cheapside, the major slave auction site located by the county courthouse in downtown Lexington.
Because William Pratt’s church was a sponsor of Pleasant Green Baptist (and perhaps because Pratt was a known emancipationist who often tried to buy slaves at auction with the intention of setting them free), the African American congregation implored Pratt to purchase Dupee. The deacons of Pratt’s church agreed to pay $800 for the enslaved pastor. Although the slave dealer hoped to get more money on the open market, Pratt’s church ultimately purchased Dupee for $830.
The congregation of Pleasant Green Baptist, however, was determined to save their own pastor. They passed the collection plate every week to reimburse Pratt’s church for Dupee’s sale price. After many months the congregation paid for Dupee and helped their minister secure his freedom.
Dupee remained at Pleasant Green for several more years. Toward the end of the Civil War he moved to Paducah and founded the Washington Street Baptist Church. He served that congregation for four decades, led several African American Baptist organizations and edited a church newspaper. In 1896, the Earlington Bee said of the 70-year-old Dupee, “The old man is a strong preacher.”
Dupee died in 1897. More than 1,000 mourners attended his funeral at Washington Street Baptist in Paducah, where he was buried. Because of his work, one 19thcentury writer said, “When the Lord of the harvest calls for the reapers, Dr. Dupee will carry with him many sheaves.”
After the Civil War, Rev. William Pratt left Kentucky. According to his diaries in the University of Kentucky’s Special Collections, this was due to difficulties brought on by his anti-slavery politics. Pratt later served a number of churches in Indiana, Louisville and Shelbyville. He was also president of the board of trustees of Georgetown College for many years.
Pratt died in Louisville the same year as Dupee. Upon his death, the Louisville Courier-Journal called him “one of the leading Baptist divines of Kentucky,” adding, “He was not only a learned and practical business man, but he was a most companionable gentleman.” Pratt was buried in the Lexington Cemetery.
While Pratt’s quilt at the Kentucky Historical Society bears the inscription “May the best that God can give thee, be thine forever,” this writing also applies to George Dupee. The African American minister was given his freedom, which he owed to the diligence of his congregation and the work of Rev. Pratt.
Stuart W. Sanders is the Kentucky Historical Society’s History Advocate.