When the City of Newport set out to open a museum showcasing its rich history, the Southgate Street School, with its links to the city's efforts to combat racial discrimination, turned out to be an ideal location.
African American history can be found at many sites in Northern Kentucky, and perhaps none exemplifies that history more than the Southgate Street School, built in 1893. Located now by Historical Marker No. 2071, the Southgate Street School led the way in Northern Kentucky in African American education.
The school was opened well before the more commonly known Rosenwald schools, funded by the Julius Rosenwald Fund beginning in 1912, enhanced education for blacks in the South.
“Before the Rosenwald schools, and before there was funding for segregated schools, the city of Newport voted to build a school for African Americans, using general city funds," explains Scott Clark, Newport’s historic preservation officer and executive director of the Newport History Museum.
Today, the Southgate Street School still stands and, since 2017, has housed the Newport History Museum.
I got a tour of the small museum by Clark, my first experience entering the building. When you walk through the building, you’re walking on the uneven, creaking floors that were laid over a century ago. The doorways are slanted in some spots from the building’s settling. It was an eerie feeling, almost as though the souls of the past students were still there.
For many, African American history isn't just a mass of dates and places scattered around the region. It’s personal history.
A number of us learned in school about the Great Migration that occurred between 1916 and 1970, where 6 million African Americans left the rural South to find a better life in northern states. The members of my family were a bit ahead of the game, with my great-grandmother turning up in the 1910 census as toddler, living at Sixth and Saratoga in Newport.
At the time, Saratoga Street was one of the most undesirable streets to live because the railroad ran the length of the street, separating the town. It was where many African Americans lived. That same home where she was documented living in 1910 was the same as when she was counted in 1980. That home was my history.
But as it turned out, so was the Southgate Street School.
Walking into that building for the first time, I felt a belonging that was familiar and true. I felt as though there was a familiar presence welcoming me. It is not unlikely that many of my relatives, ones I knew and many that I didn’t know, entered through that door thousands of times, and I was just following their lead.
“The cool thing about the museum is that, if you look a certain angle up the stairs, you can still see the footmarks of the students,” Clark said as we looked up the wide staircase leading to the second floor of the building where the upper grades were taught. “Talk about eerie!”
Outside of Southgate Street School, there are many more forgotten schools of the past, like Second District School, formerly located on Greer Street and the Seventh Street Colored School, both in Covington.
Second District school was the first school administered by Covington Independent Schools for African American students. It opened in the 1870s. In 1879, the school had grown considerably to an enrollment of 173 students.
The Seventh Street Colored School was located on the south side of Seventh Street in Covington, between Scott and Madison Streets. It wasn’t until 1909, when the city of Latonia was annexed to Covington and the Lincoln Colored School in Latonia was merged with the Seventh Street School, that the area first sees a school named Lincoln-Grant School.
The original school building was torn down once its new location, at 852 Greenup, was built. The school stood on the current site of the first St. Elizabeth's hospital, now home to the headquarters of Covington Independent Schools district offices.
Beyond schools, places like Wenzel Hall and the Thomas Carneal Home are examples that hold African American history.
Wenzel Hall, hidden away in the middle of the block surrounded by Madison, Scott, Fourth, and Fifth streets in Covington, housed the Colored Odd Fellows Hall Lodge during the turn of the 19th century.
The Thomas Carneal Home, at 405 E. Second St. in Covington, is the oldest home in Covington. As a city architect, Carneal was not shy about supporting runaway slaves on their way to freedom.
Unfortunately, shifting demographics, diminishing resources, and cost of maintaining large and aging facilities have contributed to cities forgoing the preservation of old, seldomly used buildings, and some have been lost.
The home of Jacob Price, the namesake of the former Jacob Price Housing Development, was located at the southwest corner of Tenth and Prospect streets, but is now gone.
Price was the first black entrepreneur and minister of the first African American church in Northern Kentucky and an early advocate in providing educational opportunities for Covington’s African American population.
The Jacob Price Housing Development used to be located on Greenup Street between 11th and Robbins streets.