After many years as a student, my younger sister is beginning her first year as a teacher for Jefferson County Public Schools. I thought it would be fun to share some stories and images from the Filson’s collections about the early history of education in Kentucky. The following stories will illustrate how Kentucky’s educational system has changed dramatically over the years.
Teachers today will be glad they don’t have to contend with the physical dangers of educating students in frontier Kentucky. In 1780, a man named John McKinney arrived in Lexington and opened a school. One day as he was working in the schoolroom alone, a noise startled him and he looked up to find himself confronted by a wildcat. Unable to retreat, McKinney fought a terrifying duel with the animal. Hearing the cries of both man and beast, the people of Lexington rushed to the scene. Although grievously wounded, McKinney had killed the wildcat, earning the moniker “Wildcat” McKinney. McKinney’s story is recounted by Lewis Collins in his Historical Sketches of Kentucky.
The “blab school” was a popular form of instruction in Kentucky in the early 1800s. Early immigrants most likely brought this teaching method over the mountains from Virginia. In classrooms lacking in basic materials such as textbooks, blackboards, and chalk, students would “blab” or recite lessons aloud in a singsong fashion. Often, school sessions degenerated into a competition between students to see who could recite the lesson the loudest. As a method of instruction, “blab schools” left something to be desired; children of the landowning elite were educated in private academies instead. The “blab school” remained in use in more isolated areas of Kentucky, particularly in the Appalachians, until the 1870s.
Prior to the Civil War, separate institutions for boys and girls were the norm in education. The first public high schools in Louisville were segregated by gender. Male High School opened in 1856; its counterpart Female High School (also called Louisville Girls’ High School) opened the same year. However, there were a few schools that contested separating the sexes. Adair County’s Presbyterians operated a “mixed school,” declaring that “the mutual influence of the sexes upon each other is necessary to the highest development and happiness of the family, and society at large.”
Unlike many other slaveholding states, Kentucky did not pass any laws restricting the education of its enslaved population. However, opportunities were very limited—few schools would accept African American students and public sentiment was opposed to educating slaves. In 1841, the pastor of Louisville’s Fifth Street Baptist Church, Rev. Henry Adams, opened a school for black students. It continued to operate until Louisville’s first public school for African Americans opened in 1870. Berea College, just south of Lexington, was the only institution of higher education that accepted African American students prior to the Civil War. Berea College educated both black and white students until the passage of the Day Law in 1904. The Day Law prohibited biracial education, forcing Berea to discontinue accepting black students and instead open a sister school, the Lincoln Institute, to exclusively educate African Americans.