Tom Eblen

Crumbling landmark tells a 'challenging story.' Now, Choctaw Academy will be saved.

It's an historic landmark to diversity. New group will restore 1820s Choctaw Academy.

Filmmaker Michael Breeding interviews Choctaw Academy owner Dr. William Richardson and historian Christina Snyder about the Native American school in Kentucky where 600 students from 17 tribes were educated from 1825-1848.
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Filmmaker Michael Breeding interviews Choctaw Academy owner Dr. William Richardson and historian Christina Snyder about the Native American school in Kentucky where 600 students from 17 tribes were educated from 1825-1848.

It was a unique experiment in Jacksonian America: A federally funded school where for 23 years more than 600 Native American young men and boys from 17 tribes came to study together with a few whites and be served by black slaves.

It was a culture clash, organized on the plantation of a future vice president, designed to see if Native Americans could be “civilized” according to white men’s ideas.

Choctaw Academy educated two generations of tribal leaders. But a dozen years before the Civil War, amid tensions over race, class, money and land, the federal government abandoned the project and it was largely forgotten. The school’s last surviving building stands crumbling in a rural Scott County pasture. But not for long.

Dr. William Richardson, a Georgetown ophthalmologist who five years ago bought a farm that included the building, has finally found partners with the money and expertise to restore Choctaw Academy.

RCI Inc., an international construction trade association with 3,600 members, has adopted the project and will encourage its members to donate money, materials and expertise for a restoration.

“One of our core focus areas is bringing diversity to the industry,” said Lionel van der Walt, CEO of the group that represents companies and professionals that design and construct building exteriors. “This project is all about diversity.”

The other major partner is the Choctaw Nation, now centered in Oklahoma.

“This place is very important to us,” said Ian Thompson, a Choctaw Nation representative. "This is the oldest standing structure associated with Choctaw history that we’re aware of. Several of our chiefs were educated here.”

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The roof of the last remaining building at the 1820s Choctaw Academy in Scott County collapsed a few years ago, taking part of the back wall with it. A shed was constructed over the building to prevent further deterioration until it can be restored. Tom Eblen teblen@herald-leader.com

Other partners in the restoration include the Kentucky Humanities Council, the Kentucky Heritage Council, the Dry Stone Conservancy, local building restoration experts Thomas McDowell and Tony Vince, Penn State University historian Christina Snyder and Lexington filmmaker Michael Breeding.

The partners visited the site this week and signed a memorandum of understanding. Their work will begin with a computer analysis of the circa 1818 building so McDowell and Vince can develop and manage a restoration plan.

After Richardson bought Choctaw Academy in 2012, the roof collapsed, taking out part of the back wall. The Choctaw Nation and its foundation raised money in 2016 to cover the structure with a shed to reduce further damage.

McDowell and Vince, whose restoration projects have included the Old Executive Office building beside the White House in Washington, said the stone building’s condition is better than it looks.

“It's got a really good foundation, it's got four good corners,” Vince said. “Nothing about this scares me.”

Snyder is the author of “Great Crossings: Indians, Settlers & Slaves in the Age of Jackson,” published last year by Oxford University Press. It recently won a prestigious award from the Society of American Historians in New York.

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In the lower level of the 1820s Choctaw Academy building, stone masonry experts David Kenley, left, of Stamping Ground and Tony Vince of Versailles discuss the building's construction with Jane Wooley, executive director of the Lexington-based Dry Stone Conservancy. Tom Eblen teblen@herald-leader.com

Choctaw Academy was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. Snyder plans to write a nomination seeking National Landmark status. This is one of the few surviving structures related to Native American history, and its story of struggles over race, class and diversity is as current as today’s headlines.

In the early 1800s, Native American tribes east of the Mississippi River were forced to cede millions of acres to the federal government for white settlers. The Kentucky Baptist Mission Society opened a school for Native Americans on Richard Mentor Johnson’s plantation in 1819, but it closed after two years for lack of funding.

The school was revived in 1825 after Choctaws in Mississippi asked that part of the money the government paid them for land be used to educate young men from their elite families for tribal leadership. Choctaw Academy was the second school funded by the federal government. The first was West Point.

Johnson was a Kentucky congressman and militia colonel in the War of 1812 whose political career took off after he was credited with killing the Shawnee chief Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames. He was elected as a senator and later vice president under Martin Van Buren, 1837-1841.

But Johnson’s personal life scandalized antebellum society. His common-law wife, Julia Chinn, was a mixed-race woman he legally owned. She bore him two daughters they raised as white. Johnson was perpetually in debt, and Choctaw Academy became an important source of income for him.

Students were given English names and a classical education. At least one went on to study medicine at Transylvania University. The academy was so good that some local white families sent their sons there. Johnson also insisted that the headmaster privately educate his daughters.

Eventually, amid reports that their sons were being hired out as laborers, tribal leaders contested Johnson’s financial management of the school. White populism that swept Andrew Jackson into the White House soon led to Native Americans being forced to move West so whites could seize their land and property.

Native Americans by the 1820s were very different from modern stereotypes. About 10 percent of them had become wealthy, lived in fine homes and owned black slaves to work their land. Many saw themselves as more civilized than most white people — and better than any black person.

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Dr. William Richardson and historian Christina Snyder discuss a dilapidated stone building that was once the home of Julia Chinn, a slave who bore two daughters with U.S. Vice President Richard Mentor Johnson. Choctaw Academy was built on Johnson's plantation in Scott County. Snyder is author of the award-winning book, "Great Crossings: Indians, Settlers and Slaves in the Age of Jackson." Tom Eblen teblen@herald-leader.com

Meanwhile, white politicians realized that educated tribes were harder to manipulate and control. Choctaw Academy was refocused from academics to vocational training, and enrollment declined. Clashes between students and Johnson’s mixed-race family and slaves led to the campus being moved a couple of miles away from his home during its last years. The school closed in 1848.

Most Choctaw Academy buildings, as well as Johnson's brick mansion, were demolished decades ago, but Chinn's stone house stands deteriorating on a neighbor's property. Richardson hopes to donate the restored academy building, which is thought to have been the main dormitory, to the Choctaw Nation. At the least, he said he wants to open the site regularly to the visitors, because it has an important story that needs to be told.

“In antebellum history, we often separate out different groups,” said Snyder, whose book tells the Choctaw Academy’s story in fascinating detail. “This is a place where all those stories come together, so you can really see the diversity of antebellum America, how people are interacting in really intimate ways.

“I think that's why this story hasn't been told, because it is a challenging story,” she added. “At the time it was seen as a failure, but I think it's so much more complicated than that, because it's got all these different legacies. American diversity is still a work in progress.”

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