FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — In archives across Kentucky, Erin Wiggins Gilliam is on a search for the faces and names of slaves who worked in America’s first whiskey distilleries.
She and others know for a fact that slaves helped create what is now one of the country’s most iconic industries.
They’ve seen tax records that list slaves as property alongside distillery owners’ horses and homes. Auction rolls that note slaves’ whiskey-making capabilities. And photos of black faces behind some of the bourbon world’s most celebrated pioneers.
What Wiggins Gilliam and others don’t yet know is who the slaves were — and whether they might actually deserve credit for some distilling processes that are still used today.
Wiggins Gilliam is now part of a small but growing group of Kentuckians who are dedicated to learning the true history of an industry that’s long taken pride in telling stories of its past.
Their work coincides with a national movement that seeks to better recognize slave and African American contributions, not only to distilling, but to any food systems that came to prominence in the 19th century.
Many involved in the movement hope that by highlighting those forgotten and ignored contributions, they can encourage more people of color to take interest in industries that remain mostly white more than 100 years later.