Choctaw Academy, the last remnant of a little-known chapter in American history, has been on preservationists’ to-do list for decades. But since the roof caved in several months ago, things have gotten desperate.
“It just makes me sick,” said Francine Locke-Bray of Antlers, Okla., who visited the dry-laid stone structure last week, as she has many times since 1982 because it figures prominently in her family’s history. “It’s in a lot worse shape than the last time I was here.”
A preservation-minded ophthalmologist, who bought the property in 2012, is working with the Kentucky Heritage Council to complete legal paperwork so they can begin raising money to restore the building, which has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1972.
If that isn’t done soon, it might be too late. Since the Blue Grass Trust For Historic Preservation put Choctaw Academy on its list of Central Kentucky’s most endangered places three years ago, the roof and a section of the back wall have fallen in.
“This is a huge piece of Kentucky history, and American history,” said Tressa Brown, the Kentucky Heritage Council’s African American and Native American Commission coordinator. “The Native American story here is deep — convoluted, but deep.”
Altruism — and profit
In the early 1800s, Native American tribes across the Eastern United States were forced to cede millions of acres to the young, land-hungry United States government. The Kentucky Baptist Mission Society opened a school for Native American boys on Richard Mentor Johnson’s Scott County farm in 1819, but it closed after two years for lack of money.
The school was revived in 1825 after Choctaws in Mississippi asked that part of the price for their land go toward creating a school to educate boys for tribal leadership in the new white man’s world.
Johnson, a powerful politician, persuaded federal officials to fund the school on his Blue Spring Farm, near the Great Crossing community between Georgetown and Stamping Ground. After West Point, Choctaw Academy became the second school funded by the U.S. War Department. Johnson might have had altruistic motives, but historians say he also used the school to help get himself out of debt.
Johnson was a Kentucky congressman and a militia colonel during the War of 1812. He claimed to have killed the Shawnee chief Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames, and that propelled him to election as a senator and later as vice president under Martin Van Buren, 1837-1841.
(Johnson might have climbed higher politically, but he scandalized white society by living openly with a mixed-race slave as his common-law wife and marrying their two daughters to white men. But that’s a different story.)
Choctaw Academy began with a class of 25 Choctaw boys. A decade later, it had 188 students from 10 tribes. The Creeks and Pottawatomies contributed money and sent students. Boys also came from the Cherokee, Sac and Fox, Ottawa, Miami, Quapaw, Seminole and Osage nations.
It’s fascinating. How many natives at that time kept a journal?
Francine Locke-Bray, descendant of 1830s Choctaw student
One of the Choctaw students from 1832 to 1836 was Locke-Bray’s great-great-grandfather, Thomson McKenney, who enrolled at age 14. She has his journal from 1840, recalling experiences at Choctaw Academy.
“It’s fascinating,” she said. “How many natives at that time kept a journal?”
The boys were given English names and a classical education: reading, writing, arithmetic, English grammar, geography, practical surveying, astronomy, natural philosophy, history, moral philosophy and vocal music. At least one Native American student went on to study medicine at Transylvania University.
The academy was good enough that local white families sought permission for their sons to attend, making it one of the nation’s first interracial schools.
But as Indian youth “found their voice,” powerful white people didn’t like the sound of it. Locke-Bray said some boys wrote to government officials in Washington complaining that they were being hired out as laborers.
In the 1830s, the school was refocused toward vocational education, and the campus moved a few miles away. But at least 10 students remained forever on Johnson’s farm — victims of the 1833 cholera epidemic. Their unmarked graves are thought to be on an adjacent hillside.
McKenney left the school and went to Oklahoma, where his tribe and family were forced to move while he was in Kentucky. Before his death in 1859, he spent his career as a tribal school administrator, Locke-Bray said.
As Native American tribes were forced West, they wanted schools closer to home. Choctaw Academy’s enrollment and funding declined, and it was closed by 1845.
Saving a landmark
The academy’s second campus has disappeared, and four of the five school buildings on Johnson’s farm were demolished decades ago. The remaining structure, thought to have been a dormitory, was used as a barn for more than a century.
Dr. William Richardson, a Georgetown ophthalmologist and history buff, was looking for farmland in 2012 and bought the property mainly because of its ties to the Choctaw Academy and Johnson, who threw a barbecue there in 1825 for the visiting Marquis de Lafayette, the French hero of the American Revolution.
Richardson said he has been frustrated by slow progress with the state Heritage Council, which has suffered years of budget and staff cuts.
“It’s been really hard to put the documents together for the conservation easement,” which is needed before fundraising and restoration can begin, Richardson said. “The scope of the work is beyond what I could afford myself.”
Richardson said he plans to invest what he can in the restoration, which is estimated at more than $400,000. He also hopes the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma and other Native American tribes will want to contribute.
The Heritage Council hopes to work with a local nonprofit history organization to begin fundraising as soon as the easement is done, said Kitty Dougoud, a Heritage Council official. A meeting about that is scheduled in the coming week.
A future use for Choctaw Academy hasn’t been determined, but Richardson said he would like to have it designated as a national historic landmark and occasionally opened to Native American groups and the public. He thinks it could help bring tourists to Great Crossing, a historic community founded in 1783 where buffalo herds once crossed North Elkhorn Creek.
“This is a nationally significant building,” Richardson said. “I love the history of that place. It’s just so amazing.”