Merlene Davis: Fayette County scholarship fund seeks applicants

Robert Henry Hughes, who left $100,000 in his will for scholarships for black and white students to honor his mother, a former slave, and his wealthy horseman father, is buried in Calvary Cemetery.
Robert Henry Hughes, who left $100,000 in his will for scholarships for black and white students to honor his mother, a former slave, and his wealthy horseman father, is buried in Calvary Cemetery.

There is a scholarship for Fayette County students — high school students and those matriculating from a two-year to a four-year program — that administrators are having a difficult time awarding.

The deadline to apply for the Robert Henry Hughes Memorial Scholarship is May 31, and takers are few.

The $1,000 scholarship, administered through Fayette County Judge-Executive Jon Larson's office, gives recipients $500 a semester and is renewable each year as long as the student maintains a 3.0 grade-point average.

Deputy Judge-Executive Stephen McFayden, who has been assigned to get the word out, said he has visited most Fayette County high schools and spoken with guidance counselors.

There is $35,000 available, he said, not including money that has been set aside for recipients who have maintained the required grade-point average.

Applicants need to submit a "hand-written essay" describing their accomplishments or need for the scholarship. The "hand-written" part might be the most difficult for some students in this age of computers.

The scholarship will be given equally to black and white students, McFayden said, according to the wishes of Hughes, who left $100,000 in his will to fund the scholarship.

Hughes died in 1935. He was biracial, with a black mother, Ellen Davis, and white father, John T. Hughes, a wealthy horseman and landowner.

That leads to another fascinating fact. Davis, a slave, was bought by John Hughes' mother. Davis gave birth to Robert in 1862, when she was about 18.

According to newspaper accounts in May 1925, Davis testified that she and John Hughes had had a relationship for 60 years. Others testified that Robert Hughes was John's "natural son."

The court proceedings arose from a challenge to John Hughes' will, which left a major portion of his considerable estate to Davis and 160 acres of land to their son. Another $100,000 or so went to the Kentucky Female Orphans Home in Midway, which evolved into Midway College.

John Hughes died in 1924, with Davis, listed as a housekeeper, constantly at his side in the hospital. Four months before he passed, he rewrote his will and signed it in front of two witnesses. Relatives thought Davis forced him to.

Lawyers for those relatives called Davis an "evil genius that dominated John Hughes throughout his life."

Nevertheless, Davis won in circuit court and on appeal.

Yvonne Giles, a local historian, said she knows of only six black women who, at the turn of the 20th century, successfully inherited large sums from white men with whom they lived, ostensibly as servants.

Davis died in 1927, leaving everything to Robert Hughes. When he died, he left $10,000 to the Lincoln Institute in Shelby County and $100,000 in a trust for the scholarship.

According to the Notable Kentucky African Americans Database at the University of Kentucky Libraries, Robert Hughes had spent most of his life in Buffalo, N.Y., but returned to Lexington, living at 340 East Third Street, where Smith & Smith Funeral Home is now.

During court proceedings for the contested will, The Lexington Leader noted that Hughes sat on the front row throughout.

He funded the scholarship to honor his parents.

Although applicants' grades are important, McFayden said, he understands that "every kid doesn't start shining in the 10th grade." Last year, he said, there were 23 first-time recipients.

Applications are available in counselor's offices at local high schools, McFayden said. Students also may email him at or call (859) 255-1001, and an application will be mailed to them. Remember, the deadline is May 31.