Lydon Comstock’s Before Abolition: African Americans in early Clark County, KY (2017) includes information about more than seven thousand black people who lived in Clark County, Kentucky before 1865. One of these inspiring individuals is Fanny Cole, a former enslaved woman and black entrepreneur, or as Comstock refers to her “a most enterprising woman”.
While little is known about Fanny’s early life, she is believed to have been born in Virginia, sometime in the early 1770s and was of mixed race. Fanny arrived in Clark County in 1827 as a slave of John Battaille. Shortly after arriving in Winchester she met and married Aaron Cole, a free slave. Through hard work and perseverance, Aaron saved enough money to buy Fanny from Battaille at cost of $200 and she became a freed woman.
Aaron purchased a house and lot on what is now the corner of Broadway and Maple Street in downtown Winchester and this site became a popular grocery store operated by the couple. Fanny made many of the products sold in the store including “Fanny Cole’s Beer” and “African Kitchen Ginger Cake” which sold for five cents a piece.
Fanny continued to operate and to expand the store after Aaron’s death in the early 1830s. She purchased two adjoining lots over the next few years and with help of her young nephew Jerry, her business continued to thrive. It is presumed she bought the freedom of not only Jerry but his wife Henrietta and son, William who appeared in the 1850 census as free.
Fanny Cole died in October 1849. She left the store, stock, land and buildings to nephew Jerry along with $1,000 cash and $100 cash to his son William. Fanny also bequeathed more than $1,000 to nine additional relatives, six of which were females.
In addition, the assets of Fanny’s estate inventory totaled more than $2,258 in cash. Comstock eloquently surmises Fanny’s success in the following, “Although white men, with all their built-in privileges, owned valuable land and slaves in antebellum Clark County, not many of them had $2,258 in cash at their deaths. One wonders how many of those white men would have had a nickel in net assets at their deaths if they had faced the obstacles that Fanny faced during her life.”
Cheers to Fanny Cole and the amazing legacy she’s left in Winchester! It’s an honor to celebrate you during Women’s History Month.