Cave Salutes African-American Slaves

By: Ryan Dearbone Email
By: Ryan Dearbone Email

As Black History Month begins to draw to a close, places throughout the Commonwealth have celebrated the achievements of African-Americans. Mammoth Cave is no exception.

All month long the cave has been paying tribute to the people who have been called the life-blood of the cave.

Mammoth Cave was founded in the late 1700's. However, it wasn't until African-American slaves began to be guides for the cave in the 1800's that caving really became popular.

"The African-Americans essentially opened up what many see as the golden age of the cave exploration," said Park Ranger Johnny Merideth.

Stephen Bishop is arguably the most famous of these slave guides.

"Stephen gets a lot of credit for being the first person to successfully cross the bottomless pit in Mammoth Cave and once he got across that pit he realized the cave kept going, seemingly endless," Bishop said.

By the time Bishop died, he and other slaves had discovered nearly two times the amount of the known length of the cave.

Mat Bransford was another slave who impacted the Mammoth Cave area.

In addition to acting as a guide for the cave, Bransford and his wife Zimmy opened the Bransford Hotel to give African-American cave-goers a place to stay since they weren't allowed to stay at the cave's main hotel.

Items in the exhibit include photos and other items from the cave's past.

"We have an old ledger from the early 1900's after the Civil War where the African-Americans and the white families had equal credit at the stores," Bishop noted.

While the cave's rich, long history is apparent, without the African- American culture the cave wouldn't be what it is today.

"Without the slaves going through Mammoth Cave, exploring what they did, their descendants carrying on the tradition, their families continuing to explore, work and live here, how much we know about Mammoth Cave today would be set back," Merideth said.

Merideth also said that most of the artifacts were donated by family and friends of the slaves who worked for the caves.

However, one item - a book on Mammoth Cave signed by slave guide Ed Bishop, the son of Stephen, was found by cave officials on E-Bay.

To learn more click here to view Mammoth Cave's website.

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