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KY's Choctaw Academy is a marker of Native American history. Time's running out to save it

Aaron Mudd, Lexington Herald-Leader on

Published in Lifestyles

In a rural Scott County, Kentucky, pasture, stands a monument to Native American history nearly lost to time.

The structure of stacked stone is unassuming, resembling a dilapidated country cottage. For more than a century it had been used as a barn, but in the early 1800s it was a dormitory for native boys and young men studying at a school that held the hopes of nearly a dozen tribes.

In the era of the Indian Removal Act, Choctaw Academy was created and largely funded by native tribes who wanted to break away from the proselytizing model of Christian education that came before. They hoped the school would train their sons not just in the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic, but also in advanced subjects such as geography and surveying, philosophy, history, vocal music and what we now think of as the sciences.

With the help of a largely forgotten Kentucky statesman and the nation’s ninth vice president, Richard Mentor Johnson, Choctaw Academy became the second school funded by the federal government. The first was West Point.

At least one of Choctaw Academy’s students went on to attend Transylvania University and study medicine. The school’s instruction — showcased by exhibitions during which students recited Cicero to large audiences — was so appealing white families sought permission to send their sons there.

Underlining it all was the hope for a new generation of Indigenous leaders who could stand on equal footing with educated white men and defend their communities from exploitation in the halls of American power.

 

Dr. William Richardson, a Georgetown ophthalmologist and a lover of history, has been trying to restore what remains of Choctaw Academy almost since he bought the farmland it stands on more than a decade ago. He posts regular updates about the project’s progress on the page Save the Choctaw Academy on Facebook.

While he’s had some success raising money, his optimism about the project waxes and wanes. Richardson still hopes he’ll find the right investor who can help him reach his fundraising goal of $290,000 and eventually open the building to the public.

“I do know that it’s not going to stand for much longer,” Richardson told the Herald-Leader in an interview late last year. It’s a fate he desperately wants to avoid.

“I can’t let it fade from memory,” Richardson said.

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