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The author’s mother, second from left, with others in front of the Liberty School Memorial in Hazard, Kentucky. Photo: Steve Jones Collection/Provided.

Hello, everyone! 

I was born in 1956. It was a historic year – not because I was born, but due to other events that unfurled. The Suez Crisis hit, “The Ten Commandments” movie premiered and IBM developed the first hard disk, Dwight Eisenhower was re-elected president. 

When you look at these timelines, they don’t say much about Black historical events in 1956, but I know they were there making history, too. For example, the Supreme Court affirmed a lower court decision that deemed the Alabama bus segregation laws illegal. 1956 was also the year that integration arrived in Hazard, a full two years after the Supreme Court ruled school segregation unconstitutional. 

Whispers of “urban renewal” accompanied news of integration, growing into a shout that interrupted life as they knew it in Black communities. I want to share that story, and about Hazard’s Liberty High School in that year of transition. It was once a school full of life, but now has only a “memorial stone” left to tell its story.

In the last newsletter, I shared the Old Testament story of how God held back the waters of the Jordan River so the Israelites could cross into Canaan on dry land. Joshua instructed a leader from each of the twelve tribes of Israel to remove twelve stones from the river so that a memorial to this miracle could be constructed. This way, when their children and grandchildren came upon these stones and asked why they were there, the Israelites could explain who God is and how God performed His miracle in making a way for them.

We need more “memorial stones” today to point to the historical African American events and people in our local communities. Today, I want to share with you one such memorial stone that is the springboard for many success stories lifting African American history here in Perry County, Kentucky. 

Midway up Liberty Street in my hometown of Hazard, the Liberty School Memorial stands tall and proud. It was erected in 1998 through efforts by the Liberty School Reunion Association in collaboration with the City of Hazard. Every name printed on its memorial bricks speaks of the person’s relationship with Liberty – and a bygone era of Appalachian history.

The Liberty School Memorial in Hazard, Kentucky, on August 4, 2012. Photo: Provided.

Built in 1936, the Liberty School housed both grade school and high school students. My mom attended the high school and often shares stories of how she and her siblings walked two miles off Town Mountain to the school in the Big Bottoms section of downtown, regardless of rain, snow, or sleet!

Liberty School was the center of life in this African American community. Respect and self-esteem were instilled into the students by Black teachers who also stressed the importance of knowing their history. Many of the alumni credited their successes in life to the teachers at Liberty, who also tried to prepare them for one of the greatest transitions that took place in 1956: integration into the white schools.

Change does not come without challenges. Ovetta Basey was one of a few teachers brought over from Liberty to the white schools. She became a well-known teacher in Hazard and wrote this testament of the times in a letter in 1995:

I was employed by the Hazard Independent School System Board of Education in 1945 and assigned to grades 3 and 4 at the Liberty School. The school population consisted of Black students from Hazard city proper and from all the surrounding Perry County mining communities. 

The parents of those students, a closely knit group, were very supportive. Their assistance and involvement in the academic, social, cultural, and athletic programs at Liberty enabled the Liberty School faculty to instill in its students a love and desire for learning. Often, there was much to be desired in textbooks, materials, and athletic equipment, but they persevered in spite of the odds. Many were the times when the teachers used their own funds to secure supplementary materials. The superintendent of schools during those years, Mr. Roy G. Eversole, being aware of the situation, used his influence with the Board of Education to alleviate many of the problems called to his attention. 

When the City of Hazard focused on the Liberty Street location as an area for urban renewal for low rent housing and purchased all the property from the owners, and when the United States Supreme Court’s historic decision of 1954
(Brown V. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas) was handed down, it became quite evident that the days of Liberty Street School were numbered. 

When the new school year rolled around in August 1956, 40 students left the halls of Liberty and walked through the doors of Hazard High School. It takes time to change attitudes and prejudices, but it began that day. Parents had the option of leaving their elementary-aged children at Liberty or enrolling them in the now integrated school system. 

This option was removed in 1960 when the voice of urban renewal sentenced the Liberty school building to be demolished to make room for a housing project. The Liberty Memorial is the brick-and-mortar memorial stone that points to the history of the school that sat on that spot. It is the evidence of the school’s existence.

Teachers from the Liberty School are seen in a composite photograph. Next to it, another photograph shows the Liberty School. Photos: Provided.

The Liberty alumni and every student that attended the school at some point in time are also living memorials testifying of the school that helped them become who they are today. Up until a few years ago, many of the alumni would converge on Hazard and gather at the Liberty Memorial Wall as part of the Liberty School Reunion. They shared stories and sang their school song with such sentiment you would think you were standing in the halls of Liberty. 

When these alumni are all gone, none returning to share their stories of their beloved Liberty, the Liberty Memorial Wall will speak in the dawn of the day, “We were here.”

We need more memorial stones.

It has been a pleasure writing the February newsletters. I hope you have enjoyed reading them.


Emily Jones Hudson

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