The Kentucky Enslaved Church Records Project

During the slavery era in Kentucky, many religious institutions kept records that mentioned the names of enslaved people. Sometimes they were simply listed in church registers as part of the household of its members. And sometimes it meant that enslaved people were included in the various religious rites of that religion (e.g. baptism, confirmation, marriage, death).


Reckoning, Inc. has spent the past couple of years looking for such records, both online and in local archives. So far, the most comprehensive resource we have found is a set of church records for 23 Catholic parishes in Central Kentucky that were translated from the original Latin, mostly by one Catholic priest named Father John Lyons. While some churches additionally kept records for marriages and burials, we have for now been focusing our attention on baptismal records, as the information contained within them is particularly rich for African Americans seeking to learn the identities of their enslaved ancestors.


These Catholic baptismal records generally include the name of the child, the name of the mother, the name of the mother’s enslaver, and at least one sponsor (Godparent). In addition, some records also include the name of the father and the father’s enslaver. Given this detailed information, it is possible to identify many family groups with at least a mother and her children, and sometimes also including the father.


So far, our staff has digitized the records for nearly 3,750 enslaved children who were baptized at 16 Louisville-area churches. These records have been placed in a database that can be searched, both by children’s and enslaver’s names, and browsed by both church and county (see Database Tools on left).


You can also explore these records in a Google Sheets spreadsheet, which can be sorted in various ways. In addition to slavery-era baptismal records, this spreadsheet also has tabs for post-slavery baptismal records, slavery and post-slavery marriage records, death/burial records, and baptismal records for three counties with multiple churches. By closely examining these church records, it is possible to identify what surnames many formerly-enslaved Black families used in the post-slavery period. 


With funding from the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth and the Sisters of Loretto, we will be adding additional records from all of the remaining 7 Catholic Churches for which we have translations (in Jefferson, Nelson, Marion, Washington, Hardin, Casey, Meade, Union, and Daviess Counties). We then hope to begin transcribing and digitizing similar records kept by scores of other churches across Kentucky–including those associated with Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, and other denominations. If you or your congregation would like to make a donation to support this work, you can do so here.