Tom Eblen

Alumni recall teachers, community at first reunion of historic black school in Madison County

Sharyn Mitchell, a Berea College archivist and former student at Middletown Consolidated School who organized Saturday's reunion, talks about the school's history and shows a bell that the school's only principal, her great-uncle Robert Henry Clay Mitchell Blythe, used to get students' attention.
Sharyn Mitchell, a Berea College archivist and former student at Middletown Consolidated School who organized Saturday's reunion, talks about the school's history and shows a bell that the school's only principal, her great-uncle Robert Henry Clay Mitchell Blythe, used to get students' attention. teblen@herald-leader.com

People old enough to remember segregated public schools recall the irony of the legal concept “separate but equal” that created them: They were always separate, but rarely equal.

From the day it opened in 1927 until it closed in 1963 when Madison County Schools were desegregated, Middletown Consolidated School was nicer than most black primary schools in rural Kentucky, if not equal to many white ones.

But the education received there was first-class, according to many of the more than 50 graduates and former students who attended Middletown’s first reunion Saturday.

“The teachers were fabulous; absolutely the best,” said Sandra Ballard Price, who came to the reunion carrying her eighth-grade diploma from 1957 and a newspaper photograph of her and classmates wearing caps and gowns.

“The things those teachers introduced us to; the expectations they had for us,” Price said. “The things they did with what they had.”

Price went on to graduate from Berea College and teach in public schools around the country where her husband was stationed in the military.

“The lessons I learned here really stuck with me,” she said. “The school was a major part in forming the foundation of my life.”

Pat Ballard, a 1959 graduate who also went on to Berea College, agreed. She recalled a strong sense of community — where school, church and family fostered expectations of success and inspired her to pursue a long career in social work.

“They were some of the best teachers I ever had,” she said. “Such loving and caring people.”

Michael White, who came back for the reunion from New Jersey, recalled the school’s strong sense of family. For him, it was literal: when he attended Middletown in the 1950s, all three teachers were related to him.

“I wasn’t able to get away with anything,” White said with a laugh, then fondly recalled how students helped oil the floors and bring coal up from the basement to feed the potbelly stoves.

“The education was tough, but I enjoyed coming here,” he said. “Classes were small, so you could observe the older students. It was individualized education.”

Berea College supplied the school electricity and drinking water, although there were no indoor bathrooms.

White said Middletown gave him a strong academic foundation for studies at Berea College, work as an early IBM computer programmer, then law school and a career as a prosecutor in Essex County, N.J.

Middletown’s graduates and former students are now at least 60. The oldest in 103, although she was unable to attend the reunion. The oldest alumnus present Saturday graduated in 1938.

Middletown was built in 1927 on four acres donated by nearby Berea College. The four-classroom brick structure was financed by the sale of three smaller black schools, community donations and a grant from the Rosenwald Fund. It was one of nearly 5,000 black schools built in the rural South by philanthropist Julius Rosenwald in partnership with black educator Booker T. Washington.

Berea College was founded in 1855 by John G. Fee as the South’s first interracial, co-educational school. That lasted until 1904, when the Kentucky General Assembly outlawed interracial education — a ban that persisted until 1950.

Throughout its existence, Middletown was run by “professor” Robert Henry Clay Mitchell Blythe, who taught seventh- and eighth-graders and served as principal. The son of slaves who became Berea College students, he was a World War I veteran and Kentucky State University graduate.

Middletown was outfitted with a 250-book library and a sewing machine for domestic instruction. The community built a playground and organized scouting, 4H groups, theater productions and “boys’ manual training” workshops at the school in such skills as chair-caning and basketry.

Berea College supplied the school electricity and drinking water, although there were no indoor bathrooms. A three-seat outhouse is preserved behind the building, which after several years of abandonment was restored and enlarged by the college in 2007. The building now houses the college’s Partners for Education program, which works to improve education throughout Appalachia.

The reunion was organized by Sharyn J. Mitchell, a Berea College archivist and former Middletown student. The effort grew out of a 2006 oral history project that Janice Blythe, a Berea College professor of child and family studies, organized as the Middletown building was being restored.

“It’s easy for us to restore buildings and forget about the people,” Blythe said.

The oral history project, which is continuing, prompted former Middletown students to reconnect and share experiences that put them on paths to success.

“It was a good reminder of the distance we have come,” Blythe said.

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