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Kentucky Chautauqua presents Margaret Garner: Death Before Slavery

Photo of Erma Bush

LEXINGTON, KY (February 2, 2009) Bluegrass Community & Technical College (BCTC) will be hosting a Kentucky Chautauqua presentation featuring the story of Margaret Garner (c. 1833 1858), a Kentucky slave who ran away and got caught but killed one of her own children rather than see the child returned to slavery.

The program will be held 2 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 17 on the Cooper Campus in the Oswald Building room 230, 470 Cooper Drive in Lexington. Kentucky Chautauqua, a one-person drama series from the Kentucky Humanities Council Inc., features the lives of famous and unknown contributors to Kentucky's history and heritage. Margaret Garner will be portrayed by Erma Bush, a Louisville actress, poet, playwright, and recipient of the Kentucky Women Writers Award. Juanita White, who wrote the Margaret Garner script, will also participate by answering questions following the performance. The event is free and open to the public.

Garner's story was the inspiration for the 1987 novel Beloved and a 2005 opera titled Margaret Garner. Garner was a slave at Maplewood, a farm in northern Kentucky. Her owner was Archibald Gaines, known for a threatening tongue and a quick hand with the whip. When she was 16 years old, Margaret married Robert Garner, who lived on another farm.

The Garners and their four children were part of a group of 17 Kentucky slaves who made a mass escape to Cincinnati in January 1856. They walked across the frozen Ohio River in the middle of the night and found their way to a safe house.

Part of the group headed on to Canada, but before the Garners could leave, the house was surrounded by a posse. The slaves were subdued after a gun battle, but not before Margaret cut the throat of her daughter Mary and tried to kill her other children. Abolitionist lawyers argued that Garner should be declared free, but a Cincinnati court ruled she was still the property of her master.

Gaines took Garner and her children back to Maplewood. He promised to return her to Ohio to be tried for murder, but then sent the whole family down the river. Garner was never tried. Still in her mid-20s, she died at Willow Bend, a cotton plantation in Mississippi, around 1858.

Kentucky Chautauqua is an exclusive presentation of the Kentucky Humanities Council, Inc., with statewide support from the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels and funding from the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government, Peoples Bank & Trust Company of Hazard, Kentucky Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, Brown-Forman Corporation, Union College in Barbourville, and Toyota Motor Manufacturing North America, Inc.

More information about Kentucky Humanities Council and the Kentucky Chautauqua series can be found at http://www.kyhumanities.org

Photo: Erma Bush, a Louisville actress, portrays Margaret Garner in the Kentucky Chautauqua series. Photo provided by Kentucky Humanities Council Inc.