A 120-year-old KY love scandal is brought to the stage
In 1903, a Bourbon County woman chose to marry a man that made headlines across the country and crossed a line that some members of her family found intolerable.
Olivia Buckner came from what was considered an old and wealthy Kentucky family. Her granddaughter, Rose Buckner, says Olivia was a rebel with a temper and an independent nature. Rose never met her grandmother but heard stories from her father John Buckner.
“And always part of his story was how wonderful his mother was, and always part of the story was the fact she had been quite a rebel.”
Rose says in 1903 her 28-year-old grandmother was teaching Sunday school at Cane Ridge Meeting House in Bourbon County when she met a young seminary student from Japan named Yutaka Minakuchi, also about the same age. He was preaching that day, and Rose says the Buckner family was so impressed they invited Yutaka to dinner.
Rose says her grandmother was smitten, and soon she was engaged to be married to Yutaka. Rose says some members of Buckner’s family were so upset, they considered killing the young Japanese man.
“That clearly was the line that was crossed that you could not cross, that would make him a member of the family, and that would introduce his blood, just to be very graphic about it, into their white family, and that was intolerable.” Rose says a cousin spoke out against killing Yutaka, and that ended the plot.
The threat did not stop the couple from marrying in July of 1903 at Blue Lick Springs, Kentucky at the home of another branch of the family that was more supportive.
Their marriage made newspaper headlines. The Los Angeles Record proclaimed, “Yutaka Minakuchi wins the hand of Miss Olivia Buckner of Bourbon County, Kentucky. Bride to be met Oriental student at village church. It was love at first sight.” The newspaper story described Olivia as “an American girl of wealth, rare beauty and accomplishments. Her husband is a wealthy Japanese of partly royal blood.”
Rose found her grandmother’s story so fascinating that she spent 17 years writing a script for a play called “The Reigning Belle of the Bluegrass”. It’s a solo performance with Rose playing her grandmother.
On stage Rose is dressed in a long black skirt, a white collared shirt, and wearing a long green scarf. She stands at a podium with two large pictures on either side of her. One is her grandmother Olivia in her younger days with a mischievous, beguiling look on her face. The other picture is of an adorable, naked baby boy looking over his shoulder at the camera. That is John Buckner, Olivia’s only child and Rose’s father.
The new family moved across the country to follow Yutaka as he pursued his educational journey. Rose says the couple was ostracized by people who didn’t approve of their mixed-race marriage. On stage, Rose describes a scene in Ashville, North Carolina where rocks were thrown at the family, and their car was vandalized.
“And then I saw it. Go home chinks scrawled in big letters on the side of our new Cadillac.” After eleven years of marriage, Olivia and Yutaka separated and later divorced. Rose describes in her play the pain of that moment. “The day he left, Taka (John) and I lay on the bed and cried. I lost all sense of time passing.”
Olivia and her son moved back to live with their family in Bourbon County, and Yutaka eventually remarried and started another family.
Rose says in later years her father never expressed any bitterness about the breakup and always praised his mother who passed away in her late forties. “Always part of his story was how wonderful his mother was.” Rose says she started crafting the script for her play in 2005.
She says it’s a tribute to her grandmother’s memory. “Her life would largely be invisible if it weren’t for me. I think it’s a story worth telling, that she followed her heart, that she really did what she thought was right at the time.”
Rose also finds the story relevant to the current events of today. “Never in a million years did I think when I first did this first production of the script…never did I think in 2005 that in 2023 our country would be involved in anti-Asian sentiment that is a burning issue. Not just an issue, not just an issue from the past, but it is smoldering, it is on fire.”
More on the couple’s challenges and their life can be heard in an extended interview with Rose Buckner.
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