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Georgetown School was pivotal part of many lives

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By Jerianne Strange

The house with blue siding sits along Tanner Road, looking much like many other homes in the region.

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However, its history is vastly different from similar structures: For many years it was the Georgetown Colored School.

It has been remodeled and updated, and no longer looks as it did in pictures from the 1940s through the 1960s, but its importance in the community is clear as former students share their memories of their school.

Sue (Weathers) Best started first grade there in 1949. She was in the last graduating class in May 1957.

“I went from first grade through eighth grade here,” Best, 70, said while sitting in what is now the living room of the home. “My dad also went to school here.”

Woody Handley, 74, of Hodgenville added: “Everybody did.”

The school was the only public education available to black children in Hodgenville and surrounding areas. According to information from the LaRue County Clerk, the site has been known as the Georgetown School since 1884. There was also a school for black children in Buffalo.

“Children from Sonora also came here,” added Joan (Doty) Shipp.

Following Emancipation in Kentucky in1865, black educators began their pursuit of public schools for the black children of the state. The Legislative Act of 1874 established the state’s first system of public schools – often called “common” and/or “colored” schools. 

Teachers at the school taught first through eighth grade. Spelling, reading, writing, penmanship, geography and arithmetic were the subjects taught. The building was heated with a large wood-burning stove and the inside was divided into two sections: first through fourth grades on one side and fifth through eighth grades on the other. 

The terrain around the building was gravel. Two outhouses sat behind the structure – one for boys, one for girls. The hand-pumped well was just a few feet away from the steps leading into the school.

“We used to go out with paper cups to get something to drink,” said Carrie (Garrett) Arnette, 74, of Hodgenville. “There was no plumbing in the building.”

Shipp adds: “We were scared to death to go to the bathroom,” because of snakes in the warm months and freezing temperatures through the winter.

Conditions were not comfortable and things were far from easy or fair, the former students said. But the school was vital in their lives.

“Our teachers were wonderful,” Arnette said. “There was no passing just to pass. If you didn’t learn and do the work, you didn’t pass. They were committed to what they were doing. They taught us how to act, how to conduct ourselves. They always told us we could be whatever we wanted to be.”

Parents came to the school regularly. “We had a little program every Thursday,” said John Cox, 82, of Hodgenville. “Our parents were invited to come.” Each May the school hosted a May Day celebration, featuring a maypole gaily decorated with ribbons. 

The lessons weren’t all scholastic.

“Before school we had daily devotion and prayer,” Best said. “What you learned Sunday in church carried over Monday in school.”

School a priority

Education was stressed in the homes of most of the students. Their parents knew that getting an education was instrumental in moving forward.

“The people in Hodgenville … no matter where you lived … you walked to school,” Best said of those who attended the Georgetown site. 

“There were no snow days,” Cox added, noting he didn’t miss a day of school through eighth grade. 

“The Georgetown Colored School was and still is so much more than just a school,” Best said. “It was like a family.”

When former students get together, they laugh, share photographs, reminisce and catch up with each other as well as share information about other classmates.

“It was a knitted community,” Cox said. “Everybody got along. It was nice for people to associate the way we did.”

Once students completed eighth grade, some went on to Bond-Washington School, the black high school in Elizabethtown.

In 1954, the decision in Brown v. Board of Educa-tion, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregation unconstitutional. This decision reversed the Supreme Court’s 1896 ruling supporting the concept of “separate but equal” facilities, which fostered the Jim Crow laws. In some areas, there was a lot of resistance to the desegregation of schools.

According to information from “The Bond-Washington Story,” written by Lottie Offett Robinson, integration in LaRue County had begun by the fall of 1956. Black students were allowed to attend the school of their choice; many elementary children stayed at Georgetown.

Linda Andrews, who now lives in the former schoolhouse, said in 1960 seventh- and eighth-grade students were transferred to Hodgenville Elementary as the county schools moved toward complete integration. The school closed at the end of the school year in May 1967.

Separate but

not equal

In 1896, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in the pivotal case Plessy v. Ferguson. The court ruled that racially separate facilities, if equal, did not violate the Constitution, therefore segregation was not discrimination. 

In the years leading up to the decision in Brown v. Board of Education, it was clear to several students at Georgetown that separate was not equal.

“They had typewriters, we had none,” Arnette recalled, referring to students in the white schools. 

Andrews added: “We had old, brown tablet paper, not the nice paper. They went on field trips; we didn’t.”

Shipp still has some of the used, tattered textbooks that were passed along to the black students.

“It was horrible,” Best said. “The guidance counselor told us we could be cooks in a restaurant …”

“But we could never own one,” Shipp finishes, adding, “Our parents were taxpayers too. They asked for equality; they got integration. We had people who looked like us. When they integrated the schools, they didn’t integrate the teachers.”

The group that was gathered recently at the former school believes they should have had schools, textbooks and opportunities equal to what the white students had.

“Our parents were taxpayers. A lot of parents transported their kids to school because there was no transportation for us,” Arnette said. “Otherwise we wouldn’t have gotten to high school. Regardless, we were determined to graduate high school.”

They shared stories of seeing crews painting the white schools while students at Georgetown were given a pail of oil to treat the wood floors.

“It was the only way to keep the dust down,” from the gravel outside the building, Arnette said.

Cox, along with classmate Charles Thurman, was  paid $3 a month to get the fire started each morning at the school and to make sure it was out at the end of the day.

“We would set a bucket of water on top for some humidity,” he said.

As integration moved forward, changes were slow in coming.

“It was still under Jim Crow,” Best said. “People need to know Hodgenville was as segregated as Mississippi or Alabama.”

Jim Crow laws were enacted and enforced in several states from the 1880s into the 1960s. The restrictions were a practice of discriminating against black people, designed to separate white and black people. It created an environment where black citizens were subjected to inferior treatment and facilities. Education was segregated, as were hotels and restaurants. The military was segregated until integrated by President Harry S. Truman after World War II. 

As blacks prepared to attend LaRue County High School, E.G. Sanders, then principal at the high school, called an assembly

“He said, ‘We will not tolerate any animosity,’” Shipp said. 

For the most part, there was little to no trouble.

“I was one of the first to go to high school,” Best said. “Integration for my class was very successful.”

The classmates believe their elementary school teachers were instrumental in their lives. Each eighth grade class had a motto.

Arnette said her class statement was “In ourselves our future lies.”

For Best, a key lesson she learned early on is to be strong in herself.

 “Don’t allow anybody to tell you what you can and cannot do.”