Last week I had the pleasure of aiding a librarian from the public library in Danville, KY in her research on Berea alum, John W. Bate. I had never heard of Mr. Bate before her inquiry, but by the end of the week, I knew so much of his moving story that it was no longer enough to simply answer her questions about him; I knew I would have to share his story with others. So, this post is a tribute to Mr. Bate, class of 1888, a freed slave who went on to dedicate his life to educating African-American children in Kentucky.
John W. Bate was born into slavery in Jefferson County, Kentucky on December 22, 1855. At the age of 8, John, along with his mother and three siblings, was freed. Soon after their emancipation, the family moved to Louisville, a common destination for freed slaves in the region at the time. Life was not easy there for the Bates family; the family was homeless for a time and soon smallpox claimed the lived of his two brothers and left his mother permanently disabled. Not long after, young John was caught stealing to support his family, at which point a missionary took an interest in him, choosing to enroll John in the Mission School rather than punish him. It was here that John found his calling.
John worked at a tobacco factory to support himself and his family while continuing his studies. Eventually he left the Mission School in order to follow his favorite teacher, Miss Kate Gilbert, to her new employer – Berea College. The change was difficult for him to deal with at first; there was a dramatic difference between the tobacco factory back home, where sin had reigned, and the quiet Christian campus he suddenly found himself on. Of this he said “it was some weeks before I could adjust myself entirely to this change, but the personal kindness and unselfish devotion of the faculty members to the students, and especially to me, soon won my heart and started me cheerfully in my determination to secure a college education if that were possible” (“Flowers for the Living”, 132).
Mr. Bate graduated in 1881 with a Bachelor of Arts and soon after opened a one-room schoolhouse in Danville, KY, serving African-American youth in the area. The school grew with time, from “one room to twenty, from one teacher to fifteen, and from six students to six hundred” (“About Berea People”, 20). Mr. Bate led the school forever forward, serving as its principal for an amazing fifty-nine years until he retired at age eighty-five. On Commencement day in 1944, Berea College conferred a Citation of Honor on Mr. Bate, noting his “sincere devotion to the Cause of Education” and commending him as the college’s “oldest living graduate, a son who has treasured and practiced the finest teachings of this college” (Hatcher).
“About Berea People.” The Berea Alumnus 16.1 (1945): 20. Print.
“Flowers for the Living.” The Berea Alumnus 16.1 (1941): 131-33. Print.
Hatcher, J W. “Citation of Honor.” Berea College. Berea. 22 June 1944. Address.
John W. Bate. Berea College, Berea. Berea Digital. Web. 18 Jan. 2013. <http://cdm16020.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/ref/collection/p272901coll11/id/160>.
Wilson, Shannon H. Berea College: An Illustrated History. Lexington, Ky: University Press of Kentucky, 2006. Print.