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Mammoth Cave’s African-American Heritage

For more than 150 years, Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park has drawn visitors from around the world to explore over 400 miles of passageways and to witness its natural wonders.

The human story of the largest known cave in the world is just as rich. From the beginning, African-Americans were instrumental in making discoveries and in promoting the cave as a tourist destination.

National Park Service tour guides Mike Adams and Vickie Carson talk about the community of African-Americans that grew in the area around Mammoth Cave, which is located primarily in Edmonson County. When tours of the cave became commonplace during the early 19th century, many of the first guides were slaves.

Early discoveries

Stephen Bishop, who came to Mammoth Cave at age 15, became a pioneering explorer. He discovered many of the cave’s rock formations, rivers, and caverns. Bishop was the first person to cross the Bottomless Pit, and also discovered the now-famous eyeless fish living in the cave’s underground rivers.

Tour guide Jerry Bransford reflects on his great-great grandfather, Mat Bransford, who was a first-generation guide of Mammoth Cave in the 1800s. He shows host Dave Shuffett where a schoolhouse and church for African-Americans once stood along Flint Ridge Road.

A family’s legacy

Jerry’s grandfather Matt Bransford, grandson of Mat, built a bed and breakfast around the turn of the century for the black servants of white visitors to the cave. As people of color, they were barred from staying in nearby hotels. The business thrived in the years before Mammoth Cave became a national park in 1941.

Jerry Bransford worked for 30 years in private industry before retiring and becoming a guide. Since 1975, he has researched the African-American history of Mammoth Cave, and his own personal experiences with the national park date back to his childhood during the last years of segregation. Bransford says he feels honored to carry on his family’s legacy as a fifth-generation ambassador for the cave.

This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2007, which originally aired on Nov. 14, 2014. Watch the full episode.