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

South Union, KY - Shakers, Enslaved, and Freemen

South Union, located in Auburn, KY, was the southernmost Shaker Community during the War of 1812. It was founded in 1807 and closed in 1922. The community was known as Gasper River until 1813 when it was renamed South Union.

According to Ryan L. Fletcher's thesis, in 1812 Willie Jones, from Halifax, NC wanted to bring 107 of his enslaved people to South Union to receive the gospel. There were already enslaved people at South Union who belonged to Shaker Believers.

It had not been easy to convert the enslaved into Believers. They were referred to as the Black Family and were segregated from the remaining members. The thought of adding Willie Jones' enslaved was not immediately embraced. It was decided that Jones' enslaved would either willingly convert to Shakers and move to South Union or remain enslaved in North Carolina. Either way, they would still be enslaved.

Four of the enslaved converted and the remainder were sold with none of the profits going to the South Union Shakers; they refused to have anything to do with the money. Willie Jones and his four enslaved people joined South Union until Jones was accused of being a backslider and he left, taking his those four with him.

Jones' downfall was attributed to enslavery and the inequality that came with it. Shaker Believers supposedly followed a doctrine of egalitarianism, and enslavery was causing disunion in South Union. In 1817, there was a protest referred to as a Shaker slave revolt. The nonviolent revolt was led by African American Elder Neptune. The enslaved wanted their freedom and equality as was professed in the Shaker gospel. They began leaving South Union and re-establishing themselves in Bowling Green, KY. Elder Neptune soon joined them.

Owners attempted to regain their slaves without legal or violent means, it being the Shaker way. Elder Neptune returned to South Union, and in 1819 the ministry advised slave holders to emancipate their enslaved. By the 1830s, all the enslaved at South Union had been emancipated. Many of the former enslaved, including Elder Neptune, left the community and were captured and sold back into enslavement; their emancipation in South Union was not recognized beyond the community.

For more see "Does God See This?" Shakers, Slavery and the South, by R. L. Fletcher (thesis); By Their Fruits, by J. Neal; Shaker Papers, Shakers 1769-1893; and visit South Union Shaker Village Museum.

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Cited in this Entry

NKAA Source: "Does God see this?" : Shakers, slavery and the south (thesis)
NKAA Source: By their fruits; the story of Shakerism in South Union, Kentucky
NKAA Source: Shaker papers

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“South Union, KY - Shakers, Enslaved, and Freemen,” Notable Kentucky African Americans Database, accessed July 18, 2024,

Last modified: 2024-06-14 19:26:46