Fayette County

After roof caved in, there’s finally a plan to save ‘monumental’ Native American school

When Choctaw Academy's roof collapsed last winter, it also destroyed part of the back wall. Tressa Brown, the Kentucky Heritage Council's African American and Native American Commission coordinator, surveyed the damage in April.
When Choctaw Academy's roof collapsed last winter, it also destroyed part of the back wall. Tressa Brown, the Kentucky Heritage Council's African American and Native American Commission coordinator, surveyed the damage in April. teblen@herald-leader.com

With winter coming, contractors next week will begin building a pole barn over the crumbling Choctaw Academy in Scott County as a first step toward restoring one of the nation’s oldest buildings linked to Native American history.

“I feel like we’re in a race against gravity and mother nature,” said Dr. William “Chip” Richardson, a Georgetown ophthalmologist who bought the circa 1818 stone structure four years ago and has been trying to raise money to stabilize and restore it.

The building near Stamping Ground is the last of five that housed a boarding school that trained many Native American boys who later became tribal leaders as their families were being relocated and their cultures all but erased by white settlement.

Started by Kentucky congressman Richard Mentor Johnson, who later became vice president, Choctaw Academy was the first federally funded, non-missionary school for Native Americans. And because the school’s quality also attracted local white children, it became one of the nation’s first interracial schools.

The stone building has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1972, and on preservationists’ to-do list for decades. Those efforts got more urgent a year ago when the roof collapsed and took out a section of the back wall.

The Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma and the tribe’s Chahta Foundation recently raised most of the $17,000 needed to build a pole barn to protect the building from rain and snow.

“It was monumental to our people and our history,” Seth Fairchild, executive director of the Chahta Foundation, said of Choctaw Academy. “Native tribes don’t have many historic facilities — castles and other buildings — like European cultures have.”

Richardson said CKR Pole Buildings of Richmond will begin work next week on the cover structure. The next step will be raising several thousand dollars for a temporary internal skeleton to stabilize the building’s floors and walls and allow debris inside to be safely removed.

The Kentucky Heritage Council is helping Richardson with the project. In addition to the Choctaw money, he said he has spent several thousand dollars of his own money and received several thousand more in donations, including $1,000 from Scott County Fiscal Court. He has created a Gofundme.com page for donations and a Facebook page for project updates.

The Dry Stone Conservancy, which works to preserve and perpetuate Central Kentucky’s historic stone fences and structures, has evaluated the building and is working on a restoration proposal.

“We’re extremely interested in doing what we can,” said Russell Waddell, the conservancy’s program coordinator. “We’re trying to figure out the best approach to stabilizing the building and see where we go from there. It’s a pretty exciting project.”

Despite damage done by age and weather, Waddell thinks the building can be restored, but he doesn’t know yet what it might cost.

Richardson said he is talking with Lexington filmmaker Michael Breeding about raising money for a documentary about Choctaw Academy’s history. He thinks that will be the best way to raise the public awareness necessary to fund a restoration.

The structure may have been built for a Native American school that the Kentucky Baptist Mission Society opened in 1819 on Johnson’s farm, but closed two years later for lack of money.

The school was reopened in 1825 with federal funds after leaders of the Choctaw Nation, forced to sell their homeland in Mississippi as they were resettled in Oklahoma, insisted that part of the price for their land be a school to educate their young men for tribal leadership in a white man’s world.

Over the next two decades, annual enrollment grew to nearly 200 boys from 10 different tribes. Eventually, though, federal policymakers decided that educating Native Americans would make it harder to control them, so the emphasis was shifted from literacy and higher education to vocational skills.

The school was closed in 1845. The remaining building is thought to have been a dormitory. It was used as a barn for more than a century.

A number of Choctaw Academy students died during their studies — many of them in the 1833 cholera epidemic — and are thought to be buried on the property in unmarked graves.

Richardson said he would like to have the building restored, designated as a national landmark and be opened occasionally to Native American groups and the public.

“Once we get a roof over the top of it, we can take our time with a full restoration,” he said. “The history there is unique.”

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen