Kentucky School for the Blind students dig to ensure history doesn’t stay buried
In a lot behind the Kentucky School for the Blind’s campus, there’s digging.
Ropes line rectangular plots in the ground where dirt has been moved. The sounds of shovels clang.
Artifacts reveal themselves: some glass bottles, a fully intact plumbing pipe and a rubber eraser are among them.
Most of them come from for Black students who attended KSB during segregation.
The Kentucky School for the Blind (KSB) and the University of Louisville’s archaeological program partnered in May on a project to excavate the old schoolhouse.
“It’s important to recognize our history, that at one time we were a segregated school,” KSB principal Peggy Sinclair-Morris said.
KSB opened at its current location in 1855. It provided state-funded education for children with visual impairments.
In 1884, the state legislature passed a bill to build an addition to the school for Black students to attend.
Black and white KSB students were segregated until the 1950s, when KSB became the first school in Jefferson County to integrate. A few years later, the building that served as the dorms, learning and recreational space for Black students was torn down.
Now, more than 60 years after the school integrated, current KSB students are working to uncover pieces of that building and artifacts left behind.
Sinclair-Morris said the current political climate and recent racial reckonings seen both in Louisville and across the country make projects like this one essential.
“I think it’s important for our students to understand that history,” Sinclair-Morris said.
Officials from KSB approached the U of L anthropology department about an excavation project.
Professors Ashley Smallwood and Thomas Jennings have overseen the dig.
Jennings is the director of the Center for Archaeology and Cultural Heritage (CACHe), which aims to preserve Kentucky history through archeological work.
“KSB students and staff wanted the opportunity to connect to their history, but also to provide KSB students with a safe learning environment and opportunity to learn about archaeology,” Smallwood said.
The hands-on opportunity helps fill in the gaps of history.
“We have some historic records, but those often don’t have the personal stories, daily lives, what life was like here at the school,” Jennings said. “Archaeology helps find some of the remnants of those lives and help complete some of those stories of the past.”
Before the actual digging process could begin, the location of the building had to be determined. U of L brought in ground penetrating radar to find the corners of the schoolhouse's foundation. The process was made easier by old KSB photos.
“It’s just good to remember the people that were here…and to not have it forgotten,” said U of L anthropology student Emily Roth.
While current KSB students reflected on the past of their school and what it could’ve been like if they were attending pre-integration, alumna Janet Williams was able to give a first-hand account.
Williams, a Black woman, began attending KSB in 1948. She is the last known living student who attended KSB during segregation.
The old schoolhouse is where she lived, learned and leisured.
“We had all of our classes here, we ate here and just about everything we did, we did in this building,” Williams said.
She still remembers what was on each floor of the three-story school building.
During her time attending KSB, Black students went to the main campus for medical reasons and performances. She said during those visits, she and the other Black students connected with white students.
The history that KSB students were digging up is one she lived through.
“I just think it would give them a good insight to how things were then and how things are now,” Williams said.
For many KSB students, the excavation was the first time they realized their school was once segregated. As they dug, many of them realized if they were attending at different times, they might not have been on this project together.
Taveon Taylor, a 12-year-old KSB student, learned about his school’s history for the first time. It caught his attention.
“It sounds like you could make a book out of it,” Taylor said.
That comparison of the present and the past was an important part of the learning process for the project’s planners.
“It’s learning about that history and thinking through those times and how times have changed and how we’re still working towards improving things,” Jennings said.
The project doesn’t stop at the on-site dig.
During the summer, KSB students will come to U of L to process artifacts in a laboratory setting.
Ultimately, KSB administration hopes to create an exhibit in the school’s library and at the American Printing House for the Blind.
There are plans to use some of the found bricks to create a memorial site where the segregated school house once stood. That way KSB students will have context for the ways history manifests itself today.