Kentucky historian talks changes made to ’My Old Kentucky Home’

Published: Sep. 5, 2020 at 10:23 PM EDT
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) -The sun was shining bright at Churchill Downs at the 146 Kentucky Derby.

Before the running of a unique Derby, there was a moment of silence to recognize inequality in America.

“It means different things to different people at different times,” said University of Kentucky history professor, Dr. Gerald L. Smith.

Dr. Smith said he does not recall another time when a moment of silence was honored following the state song.

He said the piece tells a story about a slave in the Bluegrass state who’s sold to the Deep South.

“He’s sad, the master and mistress are sad that the slave has to leave, and of course there’s this weeping,” Dr. Smith said.

Federal Hill, also known as “My Old Kentucky Home, is the historical landmark in Bardstown that comes to mind.

“By the time the song comes out in the 1850′s, Federal Hill has deteriorated,” Dr. Smith said.

He said it’s questionable songwriter Stephen Foster ever visited the property.

“It’s more than likely he was inspired by the novel ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’”

Dr. Smith said Foster’s depiction of slavery isn’t factual.

“In terms of black collective memory, it has been a song that is not endearing to them because it’s not inclusive and it does not represent the history that their ancestors experience, not only pre-1865, but well into the 20th century,” he said.

In the year of protests following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the decision to play the song was met with criticism.

Dr. Smith said it’s been controversial for years.

“A group of Japanese children were visiting the state and they sang the song in Frankfort before the General Assembly and the state legislators stood up, all except one, Representative Carl Hines,” he said.

State Rep. Hines would go on to push a change in the lyrics.

At the 146th Derby, the song was introduced with a quote from abolitionist Frederick Douglass “as a song in which anti-slavery principles take root, grow and flourish.”

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