Tom Eblen

It’s a landmark on Transylvania’s campus. Was it more than just a cabin?

The Robert Patterson cabin was built about 1779 and been in several places in Lexington and, between 1901 and 1939, in Dayton, Ohio, where his grandson moved it. The cabin is now on Transylvania University’s campus.
The Robert Patterson cabin was built about 1779 and been in several places in Lexington and, between 1901 and 1939, in Dayton, Ohio, where his grandson moved it. The cabin is now on Transylvania University’s campus.

Could it be that the 238-year-old log cabin on Transylvania University’s campus housed the first school for black students in Kentucky?

That possibility struck me as I was reading through a thick notebook of research that Yvonne Giles lent me. Giles is an authority on Lexington black history, and she helps me with Black History Month columns each year.

Giles suggested a column about how Kentucky was an early leader in educating black students at a time when it was illegal in some other slave states. Kentucky had 15 black schools by 1826. Within months of the Civil War ending in 1865, Lexington had two black public schools.

But the first known school for “people of color” was started much earlier, and it’s something of a mystery.

The Kentucky Gazette published this notice on Oct. 17, 1798: “A Sunday School is now open at Col. Patterson’s old house on High Street, for the use of the people of Color. Those who wish to have their servants taught, will please to send a line, as none will be received without. N.B. There is no expense attending those who send.”

Col. Robert Patterson was a founder of Lexington — and later Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio. He owned 400 acres on the west side of downtown Lexington and built a stone house 150 feet south of High Street about 1794. The last surviving part of that house was demolished in 1973 to make way for the Rupp Arena parking lot.

One of Patterson’s “old” houses is more famous: It’s the one-room cabin that since 1939 has stood on various spots on Transylvania’s campus. Even before that, the cabin was moved around so much it could qualify as Kentucky’s first mobile home.

Patterson probably built the cabin in 1779 before heading back to Pennsylvania to marry his wife, Elizabeth, and bring her to Kentucky. The cabin was originally built in Davis Bottom — the valley where the Newtown Pike connector is now being finished.

About 1783, Patterson built a larger, two-story log cabin closer to town. It faced High Street in what is now the Rupp parking lot. By 1794, the Pattersons had five children and needed a bigger house. After the stone house was finished, the first cabin was moved from Davis Bottom and put in the backyard for use as slave quarters.

Patterson owned at least eight slaves — five adults and three children, according to 1802 tax records. He would take at least six slaves with him in 1804 when he moved his family to Ohio, which allowed indentured servants but not slaves. Patterson used several ruses to try to keep from freeing his slaves in Ohio, and they would involve him in seven trials in four courts.

Oddly enough, Patterson was philosophically against slavery. He was among those who tried to get Kentucky’s constitution changed to require the eventual emancipation of enslaved people, but they failed in 1799. The Patterson paradox wasn’t unusual in Lexington: several prominent slaveholders, including Henry Clay, favored eventual emancipation — just not their own slaves anytime soon.

Patterson was a Presbyterian elder, and the church’s Kentucky leaders in 1794 called for slaves to be taught to read and write to prepare them for freedom. That likely explains the school in Patterson’s “old” house on Sundays — the only days enslaved people would not have been required to work full-time. Patterson also was a big promoter of education: He helped start Lexington’s first school and library and became a Transylvania trustee in 1795.

Although several books cite the newspaper ad for the black school, historians know nothing else about it, or how long it lasted. In March 1799, John Hargy and his daughter moved their school to the “old” Patterson house and it continued there until Hargy’s death in 1802, the Gazette reported. That school appears to have been for white students, although its “patrons” included two Presbyterian ministers.

Did black students continue attending the school on Sundays? Good question. Two more good questions: Which “old” Patterson cabin housed the schools, or were the black and white schools in different cabins?

Much has been written about the 1779 cabin, but that fact is unclear. In 1901, the cabin was bought by Patterson’s grandson, John H. Patterson, who in 1884 founded the National Cash Register Co., now the technology company NCR. He moved the cabin to Dayton, where it was a landmark until being returned to Lexington in 1939. In the Lexington Leader that year, local historian Burton Milward wrote that the returned cabin might have housed the black school. A 1948 Leader story assumed that it did.

Here is what Giles and I think, after several hours of studying more than a dozen old books and articles: Both schools were probably in the long-gone 1783 cabin, which was “on” High Street rather than 200 feet or so behind it. But it is likely that some of the students who attended this first school for “people of color” lived in the cabin that now stands at Transylvania.

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen