Monday, June 25, 2007

The birthplace of the black middle class in Kentucky

When the Civil War ended in the spring of 1865, approximately four million blacks were emancipated to fend for themselves. Seeking to address their ignorance and illiteracy, a group of ministers congregated at Louisville's Fifth Street Baptist Church in August of that same year to form an association of black Baptists in Kentucky, the need to make education available to the masses being prime on the agenda.

All of the 12 messengers gathered there to form the State Convention of Colored Baptists in Kentucky -- among them Henry Adams, Elisha W. Green, and George Dupree -- had been enslaved prior to the Civil War and they deeply felt the urgency to establish a school to help both the formerly enslaved and future generations extricate themselves from generations of illiteracy and ignorance.

...a stance of self-sufficiency, though under white supervision, already had been modeled by Louisville's First Baptist Church (now Walnut Street) in 1828 when the congregation dismissed 18 enslaved blacks and granted them permission to congregate for worship, "under their own vine and fig tree."

...Interestingly, the ministers understood that religion alone would not be the sole salvation of their people. In his autobiographical account of his life and ministry, Life of the Rev. Elisha W. Green, the formerly enslaved pastor explained, "…we agreed to purchase the "Hill property," at Frankfort, for the purpose of erecting thereon a college in order to educate our people and get a competent and well educated ministry. We saw from our own ability, and looking at the condition of our people just from slavery, that our effort to do this was a good one."

The churchmen envisioned future generations of free men and women who would be well equipped to compete on an equal footing with whites. According to Green, "We old brethren just out of slavery, many of us not having had the privilege to learn, thought it a grand thing to build an educational structure upon which, when we were dead, our children would look with pride and call us 'blessed.'"

...The Kentucky Normal Theological Institute in Louisville opened its doors in 1879 at Seventh and Kentucky Streets, with Elijah Marrs at the helm. His tenure would only last one year, however, as an intelligent, educated pastor in Lexington captured the Association's attention.

...William J. Simmons agreed to take on the challenge. Fortunately, Simmons had prior experience with resurrecting a fledgling educational institution. He had brought a struggling Washington D. C. school back to life while a student at Howard University. The pastors of the Association hoped that this gifted young educator/preacher would infuse vigor into the institution that had been their dream for over a decade.

Establishing a black liberal arts college that was supported by blacks was more than an ambitious undertaking, it was an anomaly. Many different kinds of schools for blacks existed after slavery, according to historian James McPherson, in his book Abolitionist Legacy. The best schools were financed by white entrepreneurs and philanthropists, like those who sponsored Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee (now University) Normal and Industrial Institute.

...The post-slavery era marked a time when an entire race was trying to go to school, according to Williams, both young and old. "The young wanted to learn and prepare themselves for the future. Older blacks wanted to learn to read Bible before they died."

...From 1879 to 1930, State (Simmons) University was responsible for the education of a large segment of the black masses in Kentucky. During that period, the school experienced a number of transformations in its effort to educate Kentucky blacks. In 1886, Simmons accepted a $1000 grant from the John Slater Fund for the purpose of funding industrial education, something to which the college president previously had been opposed.

At some point, Simmons experienced a change of heart and philosophy regarding the role of industrial schools. In May 1890, after a decade of service to the university, he resigned his position as president to establish an industrial school in Bullitt County, Kentucky.

...One factor that had helped to ensure the school's stability was the 1904 passage of the Day Law, which prohibited blacks and whites being taught in the same classroom. The law helped to make State University the primary provider of black higher education in Kentucky.

...In 1918, Charles Parrish was finally elected president, having served as president of Eckstein Norton for 21 years. Immediately upon assuming the position, Parrish successfully moved to change the name of the school to honor Simmons.

Parrish differed from his predecessors in a number of ways. The first president to graduate from the college, Parrish was an officer of the powerful National Baptist Convention, was well traveled, and had built credibility with local influential whites. Additionally, he was fortunate enough to be financially stable as he was pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, a leading church in the community, director of two banks, and a leader at two leading insurance agencies

Parrish had to tackle a number of problems at the school, mainly financial. Low teacher salaries made recruitment of educators difficult. Simmons University had a history of securing well trained presidents and faculty. In the 1920s, many of the faculty members held degrees from respected black institutions. In 1924, extension courses were offered there by the University of Louisville. These courses were taught by Simmons faculty and adjunct faculty from the black community.

...Between 1888 and the mid-1940s, the law and medical departments had trained many of the black attorneys and physicians.

...By the time World War I was in full effect, Louisville's black community had a number of well-trained professionals in the fields of religion, law, and medicine.

Simmons University had emerged as the college of choice for Kentucky's black middle class as Frankfort's Kentucky State Normal and Industrial Institute was primarily an industrial institute.

...By the fall of 1922, student enrollment had swelled to over 500 students and all available space had reached capacity. A building fund campaign was launch for the purpose of erecting a boys' dormitory, an assembly hall, and a hospital addition. But by 1925, the school's tentative financial standing had become cause for true concern.

...Simmons University was caught in rippling financial crisis that caused the demise of several black banks and businesses in the area. In 1930, the University of Louisville purchased the property at Seventh and Kentucky streets, having appropriated $100,000 for black education five years earlier.

...the close of Simmons as a liberal arts university signaled the close of an era in black self help schools in Kentucky and ushered in the start of a new strategy of using the ballot to achieve black higher education.

This from the Courier-Journal.

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