The legacy of Lincoln Institute

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When controversial legislation created Lincoln Institute, a school for African-Americans near Simpsonville, it opened an historical chapter in Shelby County. A man who saw that development takes us on a walk through that history.

By Jim Miller

Writers hate it when they miss an opportunity to write a timely story, and that is what happened to me last fall. I had done some research on the 100th anniversary of the opening of Lincoln Institute in October 1912, and planned to write a story about it. However, in the midst of selling one book, nudging a literary agent along on a second and writing a third, I dropped the ball.

However, February is Black History Month, which gives me a chance to correct the error. After all, it is never too late to write about courageous individuals who fought racial discrimination and created an academy for predominantly black students, especially in our own back yard. So, if you forgive the fact that you could have read this several months ago, sit back and read my tribute to, and memories of, Lincoln Institute.

Before the end of the Civil War, both black and white students worked and studied on the campus of Berea College, but in 1904 the Kentucky Legislature forced Berea to abandon this successful but controversial approach to education. State Rep. Carl Day convinced his colleagues that integrated education should be outlawed, and a segregation law was passed that later was upheld by the United States Supreme Court.

The trustees at Berea College were convinced that the opportunity their school provided was too important to abandon, so they voted to establish a branch institution to serve the needs of black students. They selected a site in Shelby County and launched a massive fund-raising effort to buy the land. Andrew Carnegie, one of the richest men in the world, was approached for a donation, but instead of a check he gave the trustees a challenge. He would give them $200,000 but only if the trustees could raise another $200,000.

They accomplished their goal by 1909 that included $50,000 raised in Kentucky from 4,000 black donors and about 900 whites.

But picking a site and raising money proved to be minor hurdles compared to further chicanery from their old friends at the Kentucky Legislature. The lawmakers passed a bill, targeting the “branch of Berea College, which is to be located in Shelby county,” that forbade the location of any school in any county in the state without approval from a majority of voters.


An unpopular plan

The bill’s passage sparked much opinion from around the state, from both sides. The Hopkinsville Kentuckian editorialized: “The Lincoln Institute has been unfortunately located in the wrong place. The white race doesn’t want to surrender Shelby County.”

The Lexington Herald offered a more progressive view in an editorial headlined “A Bad Bill.” “It does not seem to be within the range of possibility that the Legislature will put upon the statue books an act…to discourage and probably prevent the establishment of industrial and agricultural schools for white children. Surely, the Legislature will do nothing to hamper or hinder the development of the Lincoln Institute along lines modeled after Hampton and Tuskegee.”

The bill’s legality was tested in a lawsuit in which the Columbia Trust Company, which held the donated funds for the project, asked a Louisville court what it should do with the collected money. On May 10, 1910, Judge Shackleford Miller Sr. in Jefferson Chancery Court went beyond the trust company’s intention and ruled that the bill was unconstitutional.

Miller, who later would become chief justice of the Kentucky Court of Appeals, declared the legislature went beyond its power, calling the bill “class legislation of the most pronounced character.” The judge added that the requirement of local approval made it “doubtful if this school could be conducted in any desirable location in the state.”

The decision was upheld a year later by the state Court of Appeals, which affirmed: “Religious and scientific education instead of being injurious or dangerous to public safety, moral, health or welfare is to be desired and promoted rather than prohibited or impeded.” But by then, the project was well on its way.

In September 1910, 444 acres along the Louisville and Shelbyville Pike (now U.S. 60) just west of Simpsonville were purchased from parcels belonging to the Pace, Owens, Goodknight, Byars and Blackaby families for $37,000.

After the purchase, the Herald announced that a “careful investigation” showed “very few people” were opposed to the location of the institution, while “some are indifferent, and a large number are in favor of the school.”


A school at last

Construction began soon after, and A. Eugene Thompson, a white faculty member at Berea, was chosen as the Institute’s first principal. Before the school’s opening, Thompson wrote a letter to the Herald affirming the need for Lincoln Institute to keep young black students from leaving Kentucky in order to receive an education. “The reason for the emigration is the lack of opportunities for the negro in Kentucky, especially in the educational line....The establishment and support of such a school as Lincoln Institute is the only way to stop this great leak.”

So on Oct. 1, 1912, Lincoln Institute welcomed its first class of 85 students. Lincoln’s educational philosophy stressed cultural values along with vocational training that included the first course of study in maintenance engineering and a working dairy farm that supplied fresh milk for the students and for sale. When free from their educational demands, the students were involved in extracurricular activities such as football, baseball and basketball.

In 1935, J. Mansir Tydings and Whitney M. Young Sr. conceived and implemented the “Faith Plan,” which raised money and recruited new students, enabling Lincoln Institute to thrive. Young served as educational leader for more than 40 years and in 1949 became the school’s first black president. Under his leadership, Lincoln became a prominent boarding school for blacks.

Following the 1954 United States Supreme Court ruling that outlawed separate but equal schools, Lincoln experienced a steady decline in enrollment. After the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and more than 50 years of education, Lincoln Institute held its final graduation in 1966.


Athletic powerhouse

Those are the historical facts about Lincoln Institute, but sometimes facts exist only to frame our memories. For me, the most vivid memories of Lincoln Institute include my father’s milk-hauling business that picked up milk at the Lincoln dairy, and, of course, its athletic teams.

The first great high school basketball team I remember as a child was the Lincoln Institute Tigers of 1959 and 1960. Because I was only 11 or 12 at the time, I remember them only in short swatches. I remember sitting among the Lincoln fans at the 30th District basketball tournament at Shelbyville High School, swaying to such Lincoln cheerleaders’ chants as:

“We had a little pig, We put him in a pen,

He rooted for Lincoln, ‘cause he knew they would win,

Hey, Hey O’ Lincoln,        We gonna win this game, HEY!”

Even an 11-year-old boy remembers an athlete doing things he had never seen before, especially when the act seemed impossible. Of course, in 1959 we were not benumbed by today’s information explosion of the Internet, Twitter, Facebook, blogs, 24-hour sports channels and 500 stations on your flat screen.

No, those were the days when The Sporting News, Sport Magazine, two local TV  channels and the baseball Game of the Week gave us about 99 percent of our information about sports. Which brings me back to the Lincoln Institute Tigers and forward Bill Crayton.

When he took his patented jump shot from the corner, it seemed as though he elevated four feet, then hung there while the hapless boys assigned to guard him went up and back down like stones. Crayton appeared to levitate, looking down at the mere mortals he had baffled again. 


Memories of greatness

I wanted to check my memory, so I contacted my friend Bob McDowell to see if he remembered more about “Old L..I.” McDowell played basketball at Simpsonville High School in those days and being a little older than I, his memory of Crayton and the Tigers might be more vivid. They were.

“Crayton wore No. 21,” McDowell said as if he was recalling an old flame who rejected him but whose face he could not erase from his memory. “I guarded him and spent most of the night looking at his knees. Boy, could he jump!”

McDowell recalled that Crayton was a junior the year Lincoln went to the State Tournament, and he remembered most of the other starters. Center Jewell Logan wore No. 41 and today would have been called a “beast” on the boards. Clyde Mosby wore No. 35 and played guard while John Watkins, No. 5, was probably a forward, for McDowell remembered his quickness and “the wingspan of a 747!”

He thinks the other starter was John Cunningham, although he was not as memorable as his teammates.

McDowell also remembered Lincoln winning the 8th Region tournament but getting “jobbed” by two white officials in the tournament at Freedom Hall. “They were the best team in the state that year,” McDowell said. “It’s a shame they got screwed in the tournament.”


A ‘prep school’

I did not recall those details. All I remembered was that Lincoln was so much better than my favorite team at Simpsonville High School or any of the other high school teams in Shelby County such as the Bagdad Tigers or Waddy Warriors or even the hated city slickers, the Shelbyville Red Devils.

The answer was simple, my father explained. Lincoln was a boarding school that could recruit beyond Shelby County. They had players from everywhere, he said. Kind of an early-day Oak Hill Academy or Findlay Prep in Nevada.

A father’s wisdom always made sense, even though it might be administered in discretionary doses. As I matured, I learned other reasons why the Lincoln Institute Tigers were so much better than the other teams I had seen, and why schools such as Lexington Dunbar, Louisville Central and Bowling Green High Street won their regional tournaments and participated among the Sweet Sixteen in the 1958 State Tournament.

“Integration of high school athletics came with desegregation of education,” writes William E. Ellis in his splendid A History of Education in Kentucky,  published in 2011 by the University Press of Kentucky. “In 1955, the first African-Americans, John ‘Pie’ Liveious and Jim Beck of Louisville Central High School were named to the Kentucky All-Star ream, which competed against Indiana in a two-game series.”

Ellis wrote that separate black and white state basketball tournaments had been held in the commonwealth since 1932. All-black schools became eligible for district and regional tournaments in 1957, although they could not compete in the State Tournament until 1958.

In 1957, Goebel Ritter’s integrated Hazard High School team became the first to have black players in the State Tournament. Cynthiana’s Louis Stout and Dunbar’s Julius Berry in 1958 became the first African-American players to be named to the all-tournament team.


He knows his stuff

Ellis was eminently familiar with Lincoln Institute and athletics. Before he earned his PhD in history and became a prolific writer, Bill Ellis was my head football coach at Shelby County High School. A graduate of all-white Shelbyville High School, Ellis played at all-white Georgetown College then took a job as the 22-year-old head football coach at Harrodsburg High School.

After Ellis took the job, he discovered that 25 percent of his team was black, the result of Harrodsburg’s successful integration several years earlier.

It was his first direct contract with black athletes, but he said he learned more during his first season when a restaurant refused to serve the non-white members of his team. Ellis put them back on the bus and found a Jerry’s Drive-In that would serve the whole team.


End of era

Integration of Shelby County schools spelled the end of Lincoln Institute and its athletic teams. By the time I was at Shelby County High School, we played Lincoln’s teams in basketball and baseball, but they were nowhere near their teams of the late 1950s. Skilled players who might have attended Lincoln a few years earlier were now spread out among a variegated high school spectrum.

But the memories of Lincoln’s greatest team, and the history behind it, will not soon fade away.


Author’s note: Historical facts about Lincoln Institute were gathered from old newspapers and from the Web site of the Lincoln Foundation. The memories, hopefully accurate, are my own. Jim Miller, a native of Simpsonville, lives in New Orleans. His book, When the Water Kept Rising, is available at Amazon.com and JWMillerSports.com.