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WIllis Russell open house event in Danville offers education, history lessons

Exhibits, info give glimpse into early schooling

February 20, 2012|By BRENDA S. EDWARDS | Contributing Writer

Boyle Landmark Trust will host an open house 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Willis Russell House on East Walnut Street.   

Information will be available about Russell, who opened the first school in the early 1800s for black children in Danville.

Charles Gray of Danville, who has been researching the life of Professor John Bate, will talk about Bate’s life as an educator. 

Other history and exhibits of the period will be on display, said Barbara Hulette, president of the Landmark Trust, which owns the Russell House. Landmark Trust was established in 1971 by Cecil Dulin Wallace.

In 1984, the Willis Russell Historical Society was formed by Wallace for the purpose of renovating the historic Willis Russell school property and eventually opening the house as a museum. This was the first black historical society in Boyle County. Renovations began in June 1984 with a matching funds grant of $10,000.

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The house looks like it did when Russell had the school. It is a two-story log house with a stone chimney on the west side and fireplaces on each floor.

“Our mission is to use the house and reveal history about Russell and other early educators, and to further education,” Hulette said. “We want to portray education as it was in the early 1800s.”

Russell and Bate were slaves before they became educated. Russell was a slave to Lt. Robert Craddock, who served in the Revolutionary War before he came to Kentucky. When Craddock died, his will included Russell, who got the land, house, outhouse and additional acreage along Rolling Fork River. Craddock also emancipated all his slaves and left them land.

Gray has been researching Professor Bate more than six years. He will tell Bate’s story during the open house.

Bate grew up as a slave on a plantation in Louisville. He left the plantation when he was nine years old and began school at the age of 10. He entered Berea College in 1873 and graduated in 1881.

He came to Danville in 1882 at the age of 26 and established a one-room school for black children, according to Gray. 

The classes included eight grades from 1890 to early 1900s. The first graduating class was in 1917.

A new two-story building was constructed in 1912 on the same site.  The school was enlarged in 1946 and again in 1950. 

The school closed in 1964 when schools were integrated to include all students in the district. It became Bate Middle School. 

A few years later, the old school was razed and a new school was built nearby. A portrait of Bate is displayed in the school.

Bate was 85 years old when he retired in 1943 after teaching 59 years. 

“Bate left a wonderful legacy in Danville,” Hulette said. “We hope to do more educational activities at the Russell House in May during National Preservation Month.”

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