Thanks to Bill Stone (story & donations) & Russ Hatter from the Capital City Museum
Listen to the Spencer Family History come to life with this interview from the perspective of Johnny Spencer
A good part of Frankfort’s African American history was lost to urban renewal, which began back in the 1960s. Black history was typically not documented through pictures or the written word, instead being passed on from one generation to the next through oral history telling or song. When entire neighborhoods are destroyed and families are displaced, like what we saw in the Crawfish Bottom neighborhood, their stories are lost too. The very structures that were safe places to tell such stories, such as homes, schools, churches, physical community gathering places that promoted a sense of community, were lost. Their stories silenced as the physical walls of a structure were leveled for the city’s expansion.
Typically, the stories being told by these residents weren’t earth-shattering. But they were the stories of day-to-day life that we could all easily identify with. They were hard-working people, business owners, community leaders, that were the backbone of Frankfort. Only through the generosity of residents who have come upon their family stories and donated them to the Capital City Museum, can these stories and the African American history of Frankfort come out of the darkness and into light.
One such story of a hard-working African American family in Frankfort is the Spencer family. Although the family were not native to Frankfort, they made their home in the community dating as far back as 1880. For generations, they were hardworking shoemakers on Broadway – 102 West Broadway to be exact. Even though a Kentucky historical marker marks the place of Paul Sawyier’s boyhood home where the Kentucky Historical Society now stands, it is our opinion that a marker should also stand alongside it as a testament to Frankfort’s African American history. The Spencer family’s boot shop operated for over 90 years and over three generations within feet of Sawyer’s boyhood home. Their service to Frankfort over three generations by turning out probably thousands of pairs of quality footwear for the community, are just as important as Sawyier’s contributions through his art depicting scenes of Frankfort and Franklin County.
This story comes from the generosity of the Capital City Museum and donations made by Bill Stone. By way of a transcript and from the same audio recording committed to digital back in 1994, we are able to piece together a legacy and a story that deserves to be told. This family’s history was told by Johnny Spencer, who’s mother, Mary Emma Thomas Spencer, died when he was just a baby at the age of 25. The late Mrs. Spencer left a broken hearted widower in Ben Spencer Jr., as well as three boys ages five, two, and the infant Johnny. As any widower with three young children would, Ben Spencer struggled to raise his boys and earn a living. Eventually, the boys would be raised by the fraternal grandparents, Benjamin Sr. and Sue Thomason Spencer, who resided in South Frankfort at 224 Murray Street. That’s where Little Johnny was told stories of slavery, perseverance, the importance of education, and triumph.
Johnny’s paternal grandmother, “Grandma Sue”, was born Sue Thomason to a slave named Betty and her master named Richard “Dick” Thomason on a large farm in Woodford County, Kentucky. Sue was born in 1853. She was one of three children born to the slave and the master. An uncle would follow later to another man. The family was kept secluded in a small cabin attached to the main house – segregated from the rest of the slaves, some 200 of them, as well as Dick Thomason’s white family. By Sue’s recollection, it was a lonely isolated life. By all accounts Dick was a cruel master and an angry individual who abused his slaves, drank too much, and took his anger out on those closest to him. That anger eventually propelled Dick into murdering his own brother Manlus Thomason, over farm property once owned by their father.
By stark contrast, Benjamin was born into slavery also in 1853 on a small plantation in Scott County owned by Edward Spencer. It was a much smaller operation than the Thomason farm, with only three slave families. Not much is known about his recollections as a slave as he was more reluctant to share his stories from that time in his life. What he did share were stories of him being around the same age as the master’s son, Edward Jr, and being assigned the task to play with him to keep him out of trouble and out of harm’s way. But his happiest times were when young Edward was being instructed by a teacher. Edward was a reluctant student and his parents felt that Ben could serve as a peer catalyst. So whenever the teacher came to the plantation, Ben was expected to sit with Edward and learn the same lessons. The instructor would often call upon Ben to answer questions in order to shame Edward. She would use Ben to inspire Edward to strive harder for the right answers. This offered Ben the opportunity to get the basics of reading and writing.
After two or three years of instruction, the teacher supplied Ben with a couple of old books. Ben was quite proud to be the owner of the books and took them back to the cabin where he would study them at night and master the lessons contained within. Ben’s thirst for knowledge did not stop there. When the Master tasked him with disposing of old newspapers and magazines into the garbage, Ben would instead sneak them back to the cabin to read. Ben was able to keep up with news in the outside world and inform his parents of the impending Civil War. His parents in turn would inform the other slaves on the property. This thirst for knowledge would serve Ben well after the Civil War.
Sue described the time for slaves just after the Civil War as “sheep being turned loose in a pasture”. Many slaves did not have the skill set or the education to be much more than field hands on the properties in which they were just freed from. Sue went to work for a northern General whom she eventually traveled with to Frankfort to take care of some of his young children. At the same time, Ben’s parents moved into Georgetown from the farm, where his father became a blacksmith’s apprentice. Ben took a job delivering telegram messages as he was able to read and write.
At the age of 22, Ben learned that a teacher’s exam was to be given at the Georgetown County Courthouse. When he showed to take the test, the examiner thought that his presence was a joke. He laughed at Ben and told him, “only those who could read and write could take the exam.” Ben assured him that he could do both. After which, he was instructed to write his name on a piece of paper – which he did beautifully. Ben was allowed to not only take the test, but was awarded a teaching certificate. Benjamin Spencer effectively became one of the first state certified African American teachers in Scott County in 1878. He later organized the first black school in the county since most of the African American people lived out in the county and worked on the farms. The parents of his students furnished him a place to live and provided his food. The county provided the building and paid been a measly salary of $10 a month. Ben was a teacher in Scott County for two years.
In the summer of 1880 while on break from school, then came to the capital city of Frankfort for a visit. While looking around the town, he noticed a man and a shop window on Broadway making boots by hand. Ben was fascinated by the skill of this man and he watched for some time through the window. The white craftsman noticed how intrigued Ben was and beckoned him to come into the shop. Ben was currious about the process of making boots and asked how much he was being paid for a pair of them. He learned that that particular pair of boots sold for $20! He immediately realized that he could make a better living in Frankfort as a cobbler, than as a teacher in Scott County. The boot maker offered Ben an apprenticeship if he could find room and board within Frankfort. It was during this search for a room to rent, that Ben Spencer met Sue Thomason, who happened to be visiting in the same home where he sought shelter. After securing a room at a boarding house, Ben began his apprenticeship the very next day. That following weekend, he returned to Scott County to retrieve his clothes and belongings, and tender his resignation to the school superintendent.
Benjamin Spencer’s apprenticeship lasted a year. The following spring, he proposed marriage to Ms. Sue Thomason.
The Spencers were married on April 6, 1881. They owned a small 3 room house at 224 Murray Street in the South Frankfort neighborhood. It was there that they began to raise six children; Katie, Julia, Lewis, Benjamin Jr. (Johnny’s father), Robert, and Ethel.
Benjamin Spencer Sr. went on to take over the shop on Broadway from his white mentor in 1883. He taught the boys the trade of boot making. All six children finished high school. Julia, the eldest daughter, even became a teacher in the Frankfort Public School. Benjamin Jr took over the boot shop business upon the death of Benjamin Sr in 1934. Benjamin Jr operated the business until his death in 1950. Benjamin Spencer III then took over the shop at that time. The shop was even operated by William Spencer, brother of Benjamin Spencer III, until 1973.
The Spencer family Legacy was built upon hard work and the perseverance of former slaves and those ethics that they installed unto their descendants. For ninety years they served the Frankfort community as bootmakers on Broadway. Their shop long gone due to urban renewal, their legacy should live on through the stories and the artifacts that remain. The Spencer family, as a small family-owned business, were the part of the backbone of Frankfort’s economy. They should also be remembered as part of Frankfort’s African American history.
If you have any family stories or donations of local memorabilia, please contact Russ Hatter at the Capital City Museum at (502)696-0607. The Capital City Museum is open Monday through Saturday, 10:00 am – 4:00 pm and is located at 325 Ann Street. Admission is free. But donations are gladly accepted.