SPRINGFIELD, Ky. — In one of the oldest counties in the Commonwealth, in the 1800s, a slave saved an entire town, earned his freedom, and became a homeowner and business owner.
Close to 200 years have passed since Springfield, Kentucky was hit hard by the cholera epidemic in 1833. Much of the city's landscape remains the same, only the names on the buildings have changed.
Washington County's Judge Executive, Tim Graves, said the town is proud of its preserved main street.
"This used to be a department store," he said. "This used to be a grocery store...that used to be a restaurant called 'Snappy Grill.'"
But as Graves pointed out buildings, referencing what they once were, Louis Sansbury's name began popping up in the conversation.
The slave that saved Springfield
In 1833, despite being enslaved, a 27-year-old Louis Sansbury found himself holding the keys to the city in the midst of a cholera epidemic.
"The cholera was really bad," Graves explained. "The first episode, I think 80 people lost their lives. Mr. Sansbury cared for all of them."
He said the town's merchants all left, giving Sansbury the keys to their businesses so he could look over them.
Louis Sansbury, with the help of another slave, Matilda Sims, kept the town's hotel open and cared for the more than 100 sick people in town.
"The lady that cooked at the local hotel would make the meals, and Louis would take them around town and distribute them to people that were able to eat," Graves said.
He said when one of the townspeople died of cholera, Sansbury and Sims would be the ones who would care for their bodies, taking them to be buried on Cemetery Hill.
"No one else wanted to be around the bodies," he said. "How Mr. Sansbury and Miss Sims went all those years without getting it, I don't know."
When the epidemic ended, people returned to Springfield, thankful for Louis Sansbury's hard work.
In 1845, when Sansbury's owner died, the town purchased his freedom and gifted him a blacksmith shop.
"The description states it's on the corner of Walnut and Main," Graves said, taking WHAS11 to that exact spot, now a play space for children. "We believe this to be the lot."
Sansbury also bought a house, one that's still a home for a family to this day.
But even as a free man, a business owner and property owner, Louis Sansbury once again found himself in the midst of the cholera epidemic.
"The pandemic hit again and the same thing happened," Graves said. "As a free man and property owner, he cared for the town again, and cared for the town's sick."
A hero's legacy unknown out of town
The people who died during the epidemics were buried in mass graves along the road leading up to Cemetery Hill.
Upon entering St. Rose cemetery, a headstone in Louis Sansbury's memory is the first thing to greet visitors. It doesn't mark the spot where he's buried, but rather the 106 lives he cared for until their deaths.
Gaves said Sansbury is an inspiration of just what one person can do and the compassion and selflessness one can have for others.
"I just want to get the story out about what one man can do," Graves said. "He inspired me, reading the story, on how someone can be so kind."
He said Sansbury put his life on the line for people who hadn't been so kind to him. "An enslaved person is not being treated kind," Graves said. "He showed a merciful act of kindness to those people."
Graves explained Sansbury's story isn't well known to people outside of Springfield but wasn't quite sure why. Not much is known about Sansbury's life because documentation was poor back then.
He hopes Sansbury's story reaches Kentuckians across the Commonwealth, and everyone in the country, and that it also inspires others to spread kindness to those who need it.
Contact reporter Hayley Minogue at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
Make it easy to keep up-to-date with more stories like this. Download the WHAS11 News app now. For Apple or Android users.
Have a news tip? Email email@example.com, visit our Facebook page or Twitter feed.