From NKAA, Notable Kentucky African Americans Database (main entry)

From Kentucky to France and Back, 1870-1920

(start date: 1763  -  end date: 1945) Written by Reinette F. Jones, 01/07/2024

The country of France has long been viewed by many African Americans as a haven far removed from the racism and prejudice experienced in the United States. There is not an official count of the number of African Americans who left the United States to live in France, some of whom were from Kentucky. Nor is there a count of the African American descendants who have migrated from France to the United States. An early estimate of the outmigration took place in 1803 when about 50,000 free Blacks left the Louisiana Territory for France after the area was sold to the United States [Louisiana Purchase]. The migration was in response to the fear of racial restrictions and enslavement. Kentucky was not included in the purchased region, though the area now known as Kentucky had been claimed by France prior to the 1763 Treaty of Paris that ended the French and Indian War.

The resettlement of the free Blacks from the Louisiana area was during the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) and the Peninsular War (1807-1814). French slave owners in the Caribbean were trying to find a new home where they could maintain ownership of their enslaved persons. The term "French Slaves" was used by the U.S. Congress to describe the property of the French refugees/slave owners who were expelled from Cuba and sailed to the United States. The slave owners and their enslaved persons settled in the southern United States and in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. Things began to change in 1809 when one of the passenger vessels arrived in the port of New Orleans, LA, and another in Norfolk, VA, and all property aboard the ships was seized, including the enslaved Africans. The ship owners were held libel for violating the 1808 Slave Trade Act that prohibited the importation of Africans into the United States aboard slave ships. Sources: American State Papers, 1789-1838: Class III, Finance, v.2, 1802-1815. 11th Congress. 2nd Session. January 11, 1810, No.310 Remission of Forfeiture, pp.392 & 393, and January 16, 1810, No.311 Remission of Forfeiture, p.393. Online at The Library of Congress, American Memory website

On February 5, 1810, the ships and possessions were released from seizure, and all penalties and forfeitures were dismissed against the captains and owners of the passenger ships. It was determined that the slave owners were not slave traders, and the ships were not slave ships. The slave uprisings in Haiti had caused fear that enslaved persons from Haiti would incite uprisings in the United States, and for that reason, the enslaved from Haiti were not wanted in some states. It is not known if any of the "French Slaves" or the French slave owners who were expelled from Cuba had come to settle in Kentucky. The state of Kentucky was still considered the western frontier of Virginia though statehood had been granted in 1792. News of the ships and the decisions by the U.S. Congress were printed in the Lexington, KY, newspaper: "By Authority. Laws of the U.S. States. An act for the release of Harry Caldwell and Amasa Jackson, Jeremiah Reynolds and Levin Jones," Kentucky Gazette, 03/20/1810, front page. See also "The United States and the Haitian Revolution, 1791–1804" by the Office of the Historian, Foreign Service Institute, United States Department of State (online).

There were already French slave owners in Kentucky and that did not change with the passing of the 1808 Slave Trade Act. Persons from France continued to migrate to the United States and owned slaves. Alfred Cohen, a farmer in Danville, had 10 enslaved persons. Francis Millet was a merchant in Henderson who owned three enslaved persons. Cyprian Isbet was a farmer in Butler County who owned five enslaved persons. John Kastle, a boot and shoemaker in Lexington, had one enslaved person. John Perner was a farmer in Jefferson County who owned one enslaved person. These U.S. slave owners and others who were born in France are enumerated as such in the U.S. Federal Census records. Enslaved persons are also enumerated in the census records and the 1850 and 1860 U.S. Federal Census Slave Schedules, all under the name of each slave owner. 

The mid-1800s was a period of contrasting changes taking place at the national and international levels. Self-emancipated Africans (runaways) were finding the means to leave the United States. They were fleeing because the U.S. Congress had passed the 1793 and the 1850 Fugitive Slave Acts. The 1850 Act allowed for the crossing of state borders to seize, retain, and return enslaved persons suspected of having escaped from their owners. The Fugitive Slave Acts in the U.S. passed while slavery was being abolished in the English and French territories. Slavery was outlawed in the French territories in 1794, as was slave trafficking in 1817, and slavery overall in 1848 [French Emancipation by Sue Peabody, Oxford Bibliographies]. The slave trade had been abolished in the British Empire in 1807. Slavery in many of the British colonies ended with the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, and all other slaves in the British colonies were freed in 1838. [The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, The History Press].

Self-emancipated Africans in the United States had also gotten the news of freedom in overseas lands. The names of persons who escaped from slavery in Kentucky and settled in England can be found under the NKAA subject heading Escaped Enslavement, from Kentucky to England. The names of African Americans who left Kentucky and settled in France starting in the late 1800s can be found under the NKAA subject heading African American Expatriates from Kentucky to France

Freedom was the goal, and this was just as true for those who could not or did not want to leave the United States. Approximately 14,000 free and self-emancipated Africans left Kentucky between 1860 and 1870. Of those who remained, 23,703 served as U.S. Colored Union Troops during the U.S. Civil War, 1861-1865. Kentucky had one of the highest numbers of African Americans to enlist in the Union Army, second only to Louisiana. There were also 370+ men who were born in France, lived in Kentucky, and were Union soldiers who fought in the U.S. Civil War (Source: U.S. Civil War Draft Registration Records - Ancestry). 

The U.S. Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863, and following the end of the U.S. Civil War, one of the Reconstruction efforts was the U.S. Freedman's Savings Bank. The bank was chartered by Congress on March 3, 1865. There were 37 offices in 17 states, and the banks were meant to add stability to the financial lives of the newly freed African Americans. The banks existed from 1865-1874. It has rarely been mentioned that African Americans were not the only ones to have accounts at the Freedman's banks, there were also whites and immigrants with accounts. In Kentucky, at the Freedman's Bank in Louisville, two of the account holders were immigrants from France. Henrietta Faber opened her account in 1872, and Myrtle Schwab in 1873. Both young women lived and worked in Louisville. They are listed as white on the bank account forms. Henrietta was employed as a servant; she was 14 years old. Myrtle was 17 years old; she was employed at a sewing machine business. The two women were among the continuation of French immigrants who had helped settle the city of Louisville which was named for King Louis XVI in 1780. 

Henrietta Faber and Myrtle Schwab were also among the 116,402 France-born immigrants enumerated in the 1870 U.S. Census. Of that total, 162 were immigrants identified as Colored and French. Five of the Colored French immigrants lived in Kentucky. Fifty-three of these immigrants lived in Louisiana; 29 in New York; 13 in Pennsylvania; and less than 10 lived in each of the 33 other states. Source: 1870 U. S. Census. Table VI. Population of the United States (by States and Territories), Classified by Race and Place of Birth, Showing the Number of Persons Born in Each State and Territory and Specified Foreign Country. Special Nativity by States and Territories, p.338 (online).

In 1920, there were 984 born-in-France immigrants living in Kentucky and identified as white. There were 3,996 European-born Negro immigrants living in the United States (country not given). The 1920 U.S. Census had four new immigration questions, one about the year of naturalization and three about a person's mother tongue. Sources: 1920 U.S. Census, Chapter VI, Country of Birth of the Foreign-Born Population: Table 6, p.697, and Table 1, p.693, (online .pdf); 1920 Census Overview. For more than a century, any immigrant thought to be a slave, Negro, Black, Mulatto, Colored, African, Dark, and French, would have been documented as such upon entering the United States. The assigned identification was in no way proof that the person was of African descent. In 1978, France banned the collection of census data based on race and ethnicity. Source: Erik Bleich, "Commentary: Race Policy in France," 05/01/2001, a Brookings Institute webpage. 

Long before the ban was adopted in France, the country was preparing for what would become known as WWI. War was coming and there were African American expatriates who felt it was time to return to the United States. Dora Dean Babbige Johnson and her husband Charles, vaudeville performers, were two repatriates. Dora was from Covington, KY. She and her husband had left the United States in 1903 and they returned in 1913. When the United States entered WWI in 1917, the largest number of African Americans to enter France was the 200,000+ soldiers. While in France, there were African American soldiers who had children with French women. This was a fact that was known in the United States. An organization for the support of colored orphans in France was established in Atlanta, GA, in 1917. The Colored American Society for the Relief of French War Orphans had the patronage and cooperation of the French Consul General in Atlanta. Dr. Louis T. Wright was president of the society. The goal was to raise a million dollars for the relief effort. W. E. B. Du Bois was vice president of the society. The Crisis magazine was used to reach African Americans across the United States with the request to help aid the Colored orphans in France, the children of African American soldiers. Sources: see "The Horizon: Foreign," The Crisis: a record of the darker races, v.13, no.5, March 1917, p.245; "Negroes plan campaign," The Atlanta Constitution, 07/13/1917, p.4; Emmanuel Destenay, "African Americans, World War I, and the awakening of a "Colored" manifest destiny," Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race, 2023, pp.1-20; Jennifer Keene, "A Comparative study of White and Black American soldiers during the First World War,"  Annales de démographie historique, 2002/1, no.103, pp.71-90 (online).

"The experiences of the Black American soldiers in war-torn France brought a new type of African American expatriate to Paris, one who both interacted with the French and formed his own community in exile as well." The African American expatriates included persons from Kentucky such as renowned jockey Jimmy Winkfield from Chilesburg, KY (Fayette County). He left the United States for Europe in 1904 and lived in France. Cyclist Woody Headspeth moved to Europe around 1905 and settled in France. Several locations have been given as Headspeth's birth location, including Kentucky. Another expatriate was Bill Coleman, a musician from Centerville, KY (Bourbon County). Coleman played in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, then moved to France in 1948. McHouston "Mickey" Baker, a musician from Louisville, KY, was a much later expatriate, he arrived in France in the 1960s. Cyclist Woody Headspeth managed to escape from France at the start of WWII, he was a member of the Repatriation Group 14. Headspeth died in Portugal in 1941. Jimmy Winkfield, Bill Coleman, and Mickey Baker all lived well beyond WWII. None of them returned to the United States, they all died in France. [Quote from Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light by Tyler Stovall, Review at Washington, 2nd paragraph (online).]

There were other African American expatriates who chose to return to the United States during WWII. Two from Kentucky were musicians Herman Chittison, from Flemingsburg, and Opal D. Cooper from Cromwell. Lillian Winkfield also came to the U.S. when WWII began in Europe; she is the daughter of Jimmy Winkfield and was born in France. Her father had insured that she was also a U. S. citizen. Lillian arrived in the U.S. aboard the ship Britannic in 1939 and would live with family members in Cincinnati, OH. Her name was mentioned during a reference question discussion about Black French immigrants in Kentucky between 1870 (the end of the U.S. Civil War) and 1920 (the end of WWI). It was surmised that earlier immigrants may have also been the children and family members of African American expatriates and soldiers. Or the immigrants may have been free persons of African descent who were brought to the United States by an employer or arrived on their own. [See the NKAA subject heading Repatriation, Returned to the United States for the names of African Americans who returned home from various countries.]

In closing, no documentation has been found to suggest that France ever attempted to send the orphaned children of African American soldiers to the United States. International adoption plans with the United States were drafted for the "Brown Babies" in England and Germany after WWII. Sources: Yara-Colette Lemke Muniz de Faria, "Germany's 'Brown Babies' Must Be Helped! Will You?": U.S. Adoption Plans for Afro-German Children, 1950-1955, Callaloo, vol. 26, No. 2 (Spring, 2003), pp. 342-362; see also chapter 4 - 'Adoption, fostering and attempts to send the babies to the US' in the title Britain’s ‘brown babies’: The stories of children born to black GIs and white women in the Second World War by Lucy Bland.

Black Immigrants from France to Kentucky

Richard Carderia (1830-????) - enumerated in the 1880 U.S. Census as a mulatto who was employed as a laborer. He lived in Augusta, KY.

Louis Coleman (1881-1941) - the son of George and Annie Coleman. He is enumerated in the 1920 U.S. Census as a Black Frenchman. There is no naturalization year given. Coleman died in Shively, KY, at the home for the aged and infirmed. He is buried in Greenwood Cemetery. Source: Kentucky Death Certificate, State File #4673, Registrar's #1086 (Ancestry).

James M. Crawford (1871-????) - enumerated in the 1900 U.S. Census as a laborer in the brick yard. He became a U.S. citizen in 1891 and lived in Paducah, KY. He was divorced from Susan Crawford in 1904. Source: "Circuit Court," The Paducah Sun, 02/01/1904, p.4.

Magy Crooms or Croames (1887-????) - a housekeeper born in France. Arrived in the U.S. from Trinidad in 1909 aboard the Coopename. Final destination was to be Hopkinsville, KY. Source: List or Manifest of Alien Passengers for the United States, January 5, 1909 (Ancestry).

Octavia Englehart (1848-????) - enumerated in the 1870 U.S. Census as a cook for the James Mitchell family and the Joseph Mitchell family, both in Louisville, KY. James and Joseph Mitchell were from England.

Jane McCormick (1821-????) - enumerated in the 1850 U.S. Census with her two children. Her son James was born in France in 1842, and her son Littleton was born in Kentucky in 1849. The family lived in Bullitt County, KY.

Matilda Merryman (1820-????) - enumerated in the 1870 U.S. Census as a cook who lived in the same location as a group of shoemakers in Louisville, KY. 

Artemus Sylvers (1835-????) - enumerated in the 1870 U.S. Census as a mulatto. He was a painter who lived in Louisville, KY. 

ENTRY SOURCES: Ashli White, "The Politics of "French Negroes" in the United States," Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques, v.29, no.1, Slavery and Citizenship in the Age of the Atlantic Revolutions (Spring 2003), pp. 103-121; Look to the Hills: The Diary of Lozette Moreau, a French Slave Girl by Pat McKissack; see bank records for Henrietta Faber and Myrtle Schwab in the U.S Freedman's Bank Records in Ancestry; see Lillian Winkfield in "Lists of United States Citizens, Arriving Passenger and Crew Lists (for the Immigration Authorities), July 7, 1939. See also U. S. Census records and other documents in Ancestry.; Black Maestro: the epic life of an American Legend by Joe Drape; Jockey, noir et celebre: mon pere, cet inconnu by Nelly Davies; Richard Goldenberg, "African American troops fought to fight in WWI," U.S. Department of Defense webpage, 01/02/2018 (online); Thomas Chatterton Williams, "Is Paris still a haven for Black Americans?," Smithsonian Magazine, 04/23/2015 (online); Paris noir: African Americans in the City of Light by Tyler Stovall and Louise Fili; Michael R. Haines, "French migration to the United States: 1820-1950," Annales de Démographie Historique, Année 2000, 2000-1, pp.77-91 (online); Samuel L. Chatman, ""There are no Slaves in France": A Re-Examination of Slave Laws in Eighteenth Century France," The Journal of Negro History, v.85, no.3, Summer 2000, pp.144-153; Lisa Aug, "Honoring Black WWI Soldiers of Kentucky: They earned Medals of Valor and the name "Harlem Hellfighters," Columbia Magazine, 02/03/2017 (online).

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Cite This NKAA Entry:

“From Kentucky to France and Back, 1870-1920,” Notable Kentucky African Americans Database, accessed July 25, 2024,

Last modified: 2024-06-25 17:38:12