John William Bate

Historical Marker #2186, located in Danville, Kentucky (Boyle County) commemorates the inspiring life and progressive work of Black educator John William Bate.

Bate was born in 1854 at the Woodside Plantation on the outskirts of Louisville. His mother was Nancy Dickerson, an enslaved woman who was impregnated by her enslaver, John Throckmorton Bate. John William Bate spent the first eight years of his life enslaved, his enslaver granted him and his family their freedom in 1862.

However, this did not yet entail a bright new beginning for John’s family. Their former enslaver provided them neither money nor property of any kind with which to begin their free lives. Thus, John’s mother, with her three sons and one daughter, made for Louisville in 1863 with “not a cent of money and no plans for the future,” as Bate later recalled.

In Louisville, the family struggled through abject poverty. They could barely afford the dirtiest, dampest, barest rooms anyone could spare, and often slept on floors. Within a year, John’s sister had died of a fever, and his two brothers had died of smallpox, which was by that time a preventable disease for those with access to the vaccination. His mother contracted the disease as well and survived, but was unable to work once she recovered.

John worked whatever odd jobs he could find, scavenged through garbage for food, and sometimes stole produce from farm wagons to survive. During one of his thieving excursions, a white woman named Kate Gilbert, an educator with the American Missionary Society, caught him, told him to take a bath in a nearby coal shed, and took him to a school for Black children. He was ten years old at the time. The school, housed in a church basement, was one of several newly-established, partially state-funded schools founded by the Society to extend educational opportunities to Black folks after Emancipation. Two years after meeting Gilbert, Bate attended the school for three years, quitting when Gilbert and other teachers left in 1869.

From 1870-71, John worked at a tobacco factory, supporting his mother and building up what savings he could. At eighteen, he left Louisville and enrolled in Berea College, as Kate Gilbert had suggested. He lived on his savings as a full-time student for two years, returning to the tobacco factory during the summers, until the Freedman’s Savings Bank, in which Bate had stored his savings, failed. Bate, determined to complete his education, paid the College by working jobs around campus. After a couple years teaching summer schools in Berea and Richmond from 1876-1878, he earned his B.A. degree from the College in 1881 and went on to achieve a Master’s degree in 1892.

The same year Bate earned his B.A., he secured a teaching position in Danville at a Black, one-room schoolhouse recently established by the Freedman’s Bureau, a government organization tasked with developing opportunities for Black communities during Reconstruction. Bate found the school unorganized and poorly funded, with only a handful of students. He began an aggressive campaign to advertise and grow the school, consolidating nearby unofficial schools into his own and building a substantial reputation in the community.

In 1912, Bate worked with the Boyle County Board of Education to build the new Bate High School, where they appointed him principal. He remained in this position for twenty-eight years. He chose to focus many of his classes around trade education, offering courses in carpentry, cooking, and other occupations which he believed would be “always in demand.” Despite the emphasis on manual labor, Bate also made sure to provide pathways to higher education, and many Bate graduates also became successful teachers, lawyers, doctors, and social workers.

In an interview, he declared, “I came to the school at twenty-six and retired from Bate School at eighty-five. I found a one-room school and I left a building of twenty rooms. I was the one teacher and now there are fifteen. I found six students and I left a school of 600.”

Bate died in 1945, at the age of ninety. His contributions to the expansion of Black access to education have earned him nationwide praise and awards, and his wisdom, diplomacy, and ambitious spirit are sure to be revered for decades to come.

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