Picture a classroom. What does it look like? Are the desks arranged in rows, or in small groups? Is there a blackboard, or a smart board? Are students writing in notebooks, or typing on a laptop? Education has changed a lot just in the past ten years. And right now, of course, our classrooms look very different–they look like our living rooms, like our kitchen tables, like a Zoom meeting or conference call.
You’re listening to Historically Speaking, the Local History podcast from the Boone County Public Library. In this podcast, we share stories from the county’s history, particularly the history you won’t read about in textbooks. You’ll realize that truth is often stranger than fiction.
On today’s episode, I look at the history of schools in Boone County. In Episode One, I said that schools were closed during the 1918 Influenza, which was particularly impactful for the small, agrarian community that Boone County was at the time. I also mentioned that schools were segregated at the time, which would only change after the Brown vs. Board decision of 1954. Even then, integration was a slow process–deliberately slowed down by resistance from white communities.
But first, we have to take it back, to the earliest schools in Boone County.
Segment 1: 1830s-1870s
In this first segment, I’ll talk about the earliest schools in Boone County, which started mostly with private institutions.
For example, Boone Academy was established in 1814, but it was renamed Morgan Academy in 1842, because Allan Morgan’s property was given to the school. He was a Boone County resident and slaveholder who had died without a will, so his property was given to the county.
Morgan Academy was located on the corner next to where the Old Burlington Cemetery is today. Allegedly, one of the academy’s teachers, Professor Henry Newton, was suspected of being John Wilkes Booth–yes, the one who killed Lincoln. Spoiler: it wasn’t him, but the rumor still spread. Only in Boone County.
White Haven, another private academy, was founded in Union by W. A. White, a presbyterian minister. There’s some spooky stuff that went on at White Haven–it was said to be haunted, and the door was always found open in the mornings, without explanation. Maybe the ghosts were just excited for the new school day?
In 1831, about 24% of kids between the ages of 5 to 15 in Boone County went to school. By 1837, however, Kentucky’s legislature established “common schools.” According to Paul Tanner, in his research about the Florence Graded School, there were two common schools in Boone County for the 1851-1852 school year. The first three months were free–like a free trial period–but students would have to pay for additional months.
At the same time, under enslavement, African Americans were prevented from learning how to read, but they still participated in other forms of literacy, like oral traditions, spirituals, and so on. Some enslaved African Americans studied how to read in secret, and there were missionary efforts aimed at teaching the formerly enslaved how to read.
By 1860, 71% of school-age kids were attending school, and there were about 50 districts in the county. Schools had to be located within walking distance for students, which is why there were so many districts. Young women and men, even in their early twenties, could attend these schools.
Attendance, however, was spotty because of the costs associated with education. According to William Conrad, who wrote “The History of Boone County Schools,” some families had to be strategic about who they sent to school. Some families only sent the child that showed the most promise, while others sent the child who needed the most help, thinking that the smarter children could figure things out for themselves. Other families rotated which kids went to school, and some made their decision based on gender. Many families faced some tough choices.
In 1866, after the Civil War, Kentucky law required a separate public school system for African Americans. Since formal education was prohibited for enslaved people, school took on great significance post-Emancipation. As Frederick Douglass wrote in 1894: “Education…means emancipation. It means light and liberty… To deny education to any people is one of the greatest crimes against human nature. It is to deny them the means of freedom and the rightful pursuit of happiness, and to defeat the very end of their being.” So, despite unequal support and opposition, the students and teachers at these schools exercised their human right to education which had been denied to them for so long.
The school year ran from September to December, since in the rural community, the kids were needed to help with the work on the farm. Around 1875, though, the school year was extended through February, for a total of 5 months of schooling. Most of the teachers from this time period would travel through different communities, teaching at various school houses and lodging with someone in the local community during the school year.
We’ll learn about some of those teachers in the next segment.
Segment 2: 1880s-1950s
I’ve researched about twenty African American teachers who taught in Boone County from about 1895 to 1902. Initially, African American schools had support from the federal government and the Freedmen’s Bureau, but after this stream of funding dried up, local African American communities were left with the full responsibility of making sure their children had access to an education. Some communities established “Sabbath schools,” which were free and based out of local churches. However, funding continued to be an obstacle.
Maintaining two separate public school systems was expensive, and already-limited resources had to be divided between the two. It strained budgets so badly that the government started to offer economic incentives to integrate schools and stop having these dual systems in the south throughout the 1870s and 1880s. The 1882 Supreme Court case Kentucky v. Ellis ruled that African American and white schools needed to have equal funding, though this was not often practiced at the local level. Segregation became the law of the land in Kentucky with the 1904 “Day Law,” which prevented African American and white students from attending the same schools.
African American schools also had to face threats of violence from the white community. Whites burned down school buildings and even beat teachers. So, we have to acknowledge the bravery of these teachers and students.
Many of the people involved in the African American school system were connected. For example, Thomas Hoard, a trustee of an African American school district in Walton, was the father of one of the school teachers, Alonzo Hoard, who later became a Baptist preacher and moved to Virginia with his wife, Ivory. George Roseberry, another trustee, was the father-in-law of another teacher, Clarence Castleman. Some of the family names I saw multiple times throughout the ledgers were the Straders, Sleets, and Bakers, along with some others. African American churches, like the Mount Zion Baptist Church in Walton, also provided support and involvement in the school system.
A significant proportion of the teachers came from places outside Kentucky, including Xenia, Ohio. Full disclosure: when I first found this, I thought, “Man, that’s a heck of a commute to make every day, especially in 1897.” Then I remembered that school teachers would stay in the community for the duration of the school year, like I discussed in the first segment.
Still, why Xenia, Ohio? Perhaps its proximity to Wilberforce University, a historically black university where teachers could earn their credentials, attracted teachers to the area. Many African Americans were migrating out of Boone County around this time to places like Connersville, Indiana, and Oxford, Ohio.
Teachers in the ledger also came from Rising Sun, Indiana, including Clara Belle Smith. Smith was born in Kentucky in January 1883 to Pierce F. Smith and Teresa T. McDaniel, but had moved to Rising Sun by the 1900 Census. She became a teacher and taught in Boone County, but unfortunately, she died pretty young, at the age of 28, from tuberculosis. On her death certificate, she is listed as married, which I thought was pretty strange, because I hadn’t found any record of a marriage. So, I looked into the man listed as her husband, Elder Watson Diggs.
E.W. Diggs was another teacher who was born in Kentucky but moved to Indiana. Diggs served in World War I with the 92nd Division, also called the “Buffalo Soldiers.” He was also one of the founders of Kappa Alpha Psi, a historically African American fraternity. After his death, the school in Indiana where he had served as principal was named after him.
The story goes that Clara Smith and E.W. Diggs had to keep their marriage a secret, because married women weren’t allowed to teach in Indiana. This shows how Clara Smith faced barriers as both an African American and a woman. Nonetheless, in the biographies of E. W. Diggs I found online, Clara Smith is always a part of the story, so even though they had to hide their marriage at the time, their relationship and their dedication to teaching is known and celebrated now. Clara Belle Smith Diggs is buried at Cedar Hedge Cemetery in Rising Sun.
Other changes in education were underway during this time period. Kentucky law changed again in 1908, requiring a high school for each county, which led to substantial education reform. By the 1915-1916 school year, there were nine high schools in Boone County. Remember, they had to be within walking distance of students, at least in most cases–Verona opened their high school in 1914, and students from other counties went there by train. Once a week, girls went to a Domestic Science class, and boys went to a Manual Training class.
Another significant teacher in Boone County’s past is Almer Michael Yealey, who was a principal and superintendent from 1909 to 1931. He was born in 1873 in Ohio, but he moved to Boone County in 1898. He married Lucy Ann Rouse in March of that year.
Yealey taught at several schools, but mostly at Florence Graded School. He established Florence High School in 1911. Yealey taught for 41 years, and he was even mayor of Florence for a bit. After his death in 1962, A.M. Yealey Elementary School was named for him.
By 1926, the Burlington school district started using buses, and by the 1950s, there was overcrowding at the Florence, Burlington, and New Haven schools. But we’ll hear more about that in the next segment.
Segment 3: Desegregation
To address the overcrowding problem, the county started building a new school in 1954 to combine all the smaller schools together into the new Boone County High School. All of this was happening as the Supreme Court was in the midst of the landmark case, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Until 1954, there were segregated schools for children of color, including the Burlington Colored School, which had 24 students. Even though a new school was being built, Boone County was not prepared for the decision of the case.
The Brown v. Board decision was announced on May 17 of that year, so the school system initially discussed whether to integrate for the upcoming 1954-1955 school year or to postpone their efforts. It was decided that Boone County High School would integrate in the 1955-1956 school year, with three African American students enrolled, while grade schools wouldn’t be integrated until 1956-1957.
One reason for the delay was (quote) “to give the board time to work out a solution for the employment of Wallace Strader,” who was the principal of the Burlington Colored School. It’s interesting that they had to “work out” his employment, given that there are separate news articles around this time about the demand for qualified teachers in the county, and Strader was experienced not only as a teacher, but as a school administrator as well.
African American teachers in predominantly-white classrooms were considered more controversial than the presence African American students, even though Black teachers were widely more qualified than white teachers in Kentucky. An article in The Courier-Journal from September 14, 1955 reported that approximately 11% of white teachers had substandard qualifications, while the same was true for only twelve African American teachers in the state–less than 1% of the whole.
When Boone County High School opened, two African American students enrolled in the first integrated class.
After the Burlington Colored School closed in 1956, 2 African American students went to Hebron, 3 to Burlington, and 1 to New Haven. Five students of color attended Boone County High School, and Wallace Strader became a librarian at Boone County High School, a development that mirrored the fate of other African American teachers in Kentucky. Faculty integration did not occur at the same pace, nor with the same effort, as student integration. Many African American teachers were added to staff in non-teaching positions, despite their qualifications and experience.
Rosella French Porterfield was another major figure of school integration in Northern Kentucky. She was born in Daviess County, Kentucky in 1918, and after graduating as valedictorian from Wester High School in Owensboro, she attended Kentucky State College. In 1944, she married Vernon Porterfield, and they moved to Walton. She was active at the Zion Baptist Missionary Church, serving as the Sunday School superintendent, choir director, and organist.
Rosella French Porterfield was a schoolteacher at the Wilkins High School, an African American school in Erlanger-Elsmere. After Brown v. Board, thanks to her leadership, the Erlanger-Elsmere school district was one of the first to desegregate, and according to the newspapers, did so smoothly. Porterfield was a teacher and a school librarian till retiring in 1980. A park in Elsmere was named after her, along with the Dorothy Howell Middle School’s library. Rosella French Porterfield died in 2004 at the age of 85.
She taught in Erlanger-Elsmere, but she lived in Walton. The Walton-Verona school district was among the first in Kentucky to vote to integrate, which was covered by both The Courier-Journal in Louisville and the Cincinnati Enquirer. However, the story gets a bit more complex. According to the Boone County Recorder from July 28, 1955, Walton-Verona parents voted 41 to 18 in favor of immediate desegregation, as opposed to deferring for a year, like Boone County elementary schools had done. However, there were 89 people at that vote, so 30 people abstained, meaning that the results were not as decisive as they might appear.
One of the people at the meeting, and one of the 14 African Americans there, was quoted as saying Black and white kids already played together (quote) “like peas in a pod” in Walton, so school integration shouldn’t be a problem.
Sounds great, right? Well, by August 4 of that same year–that same summer, really–the Walton Advertiser reports that the Board of Education voted to send students of color (quote) “elsewhere, as has formerly been done.”
You probably already know that many southern states dragged their feet when it came to school desegregation. There were a few different “strategies,” so to speak, to resist the Supreme Court’s decision. One was redrawing school district lines to create predominantly white and predominantly African American districts. Another was encouraging students to enroll at other schools, like the Lincoln Institute in Shelby County, a vocational school founded by Berea College. The Walton Board of Education opted to use this strategy, and they had received a petition, with three hundred names, asking them to do so.
The unrest for Walton schools wasn’t over, even after they delayed desegregation. A scarlet fever epidemic closed down the school for weeks between Thanksgiving 1955 to early 1956. That’s not related to school integration, but still–how crazy is that?
Integration efforts continued in the 1970s, when schools across the country tried to desegregate by busing, or having students attend schools in districts other than their own. This was very controversial, especially in Louisville.
As Boone County continued to develop, more schools were opened to accommodate its growing population. In 1970, Conner High School opened due to overcrowding in Boone County High School, and other high schools were added later: Ryle, Cooper, and most recently, the Ignite Institute.
I’ve only scratched the surface of the complex history of education in Boone County, especially in the years following Brown v. Board. For more information about school desegregation, I have two other podcasts to recommend:
I’ll put the links to those on the Local History website, Chronicles of Boone County.
Education is changing today, and not only with the pandemic forcing classes and graduations into a virtual format. Technology, especially iPads and laptops, have become integral components of the classroom, and it’s exciting to think about how education will change going forward.
But, if you’re feeling nostalgic, you can see photos of historic schools–including class photos, pictures from reunions, and programs from school plays–in our catalog.
Information about the early days of education came from “The History of Boone County Schools, 1799-1982,” by William Conrad, and “Florence, Kentucky: The First Century (1830-1930), Florence Graded School, 1909-1931,” by Paul Tanner. Both are available in the library catalog, and I’ll post the links to those two resources. I also looked at the article, “Schools,” by Margaret Warminski, on Chronicles of Boone County.
Information about African American education in Northern Kentucky came from ““No Child Will Be Left Behind” - African American Educational History in Northern Kentucky to 1910 – A Small Glimpse of Reality,” by Dr. Eric R. Jackson. The article goes into much more detail about African American education prior to Brown v. Board, from enslavement to Reconstruction to the turn of the twentieth century. I’ll post the link to that as well.
Information about Elder Watson Diggs came from the Notable Kentucky African Americans Database, or NKAA for short, which is a great resource. The quote from Frederick Douglass came from, “Blessings of Liberty and Education,” which he wrote on September 3, 1894. I’ll post a link to the entire document.
Information about Rosella French Porterfield came from the article “Rosella French Porterfield: Educator and Activist” on Chronicles of Boone County.
Most of this episode came from Local History’s research, including the two school ledgers that I looked through while researching African American teachers. I also looked at articles from The Boone County Recorder, Walton Advertiser, Cincinnati Enquirer, and Courier-Journal for information on school desegregation. Conner High School also has a page on its website about its history, so I’ll put a link to that on Chronicles of Boone County.
If you enjoy this podcast, please rate, review, and share it with your friends. You can also write in on the Boone County Local History Facebook page or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Once again, that’s email@example.com. Thanks for listening, and make history this week.