Ex-enslaved man broke barriers to become a Kentucky teacher
Published 8:07 am Saturday, February 19, 2022
Behind the gold-trimmed glass doors of the Breckenridge Research Room at the University of Kentucky library, brothers Bill and Bobby Stone walk past shelves of books and years of archived material to the only table in the room lit with lamps.
On the table, underneath the soft glow of light, sits an off-white document that reads “Teacher’s Certificate” across the top, and just below — separated by a seal of sorts — reads another statement: “There is no excellence without labor.”
Bill puts on cotton archival gloves and delicately pulls the document closer. The certificate was issued on March 16, 1878, to Benjamin Franklin Spencer — a formerly enslaved person and his and Bobby’s great-great-grandfather.
Though Spencer was not the first formerly enslaved person to become a schoolteacher in Kentucky, according to UK archivists, his story of becoming a teacher at a time when any Black advancement or achievement was admonished should not be overlooked.
“I cannot say that B. F. Spencer was the first African American certified teacher in Kentucky,” said Reinette Jones, librarian at UK Archives. “The records are long gone. Though B. F. Spencer’s certificate is definitely one of the oldest to still be available.”
In 1986, Ben’s family donated his teacher’s certificate to the Special Collections Research Center in UK’s Margaret I. King Library. While UK holds proof of the family’s historic legacy, Bill, 65, and Bobby, 64, are responsible for keeping the story of their great-great-grandfather alive and passing it down to the next generation.
Without their commitment to telling his story, the brothers are sure it would fade as most Black history has. But they won’t allow it. The story was passed on to them from their great-uncle Johnny Spencer — the grandson of Ben — in the 1970s.
“If Uncle Johnny wasn’t interested in knowing the family history we would’ve never known,” Bill said.
Bobby cuts in, adding: “(The document) shows that through trials and tribulation you can succeed, and even with the plight of slavery, (Ben) was still able to obtain an education and went on to teach other Black people. Can you imagine how inspiring that would have been for other slaves?”
Bill spreads out the family documents on the table — pulling out old family photos and a 19th century leather boot from safe boxes the library had set aside on a cart for them. Then he reaches into a weathered-black leather briefcase and pulls out a Vox cassette recorder and presses play.
“Spencer family,” Uncle Johnny’s voice crackles out of the cassette player. “It seems incumbent of me to give the history of the Spencer family.”
The tape rolls and Johnny begins to tell the story of Ben Spencer. Bill leans forward and places his elbows on the table, clasps his gloved hands together, tilts his head back — eyes closed.
Quiet and still, he listens and the tape takes him back in time — back to the first time Uncle Johnny told him the story of his great-great-grandfather, Ben; back to Detroit in the fall of 1974.
Bill was a 19-year-old sophomore at Kentucky State University when he made the trip to Detroit. He remembers flying from Frankfort, Uncle Johnny picking him up from the airport and arriving at his uncle’s home.
There, his Aunt Ruth was cooking dinner while Johnny began laying out old black-and-white family photos. Bill had traveled here under the counsel of his Grandmother Blanche Spencer-Stokes, who told him about some certificate that Johnny had that claimed Bill’s great-great-grandfather was one of the first Black teachers to be accredited in Kentucky.
As a budding political science major who minored in history, Bill listened to his grandmother, and Johnny explained the rest.
“Now, Billy boy, we have a lot to talk about,” Uncle Johnny told him.
The tape continues to roll.
HUNGRY TO LEARN
Ben Spencer was born in 1853 and grew up on a small plantation in Scott County, Kentucky, just north of Lexington. There were only three enslaved families on the farm owned by a man named Edward Spencer.
Johnny, Ben’s grandson who was raised by Ben and his wife, Sue, in Frankfort, said his grandfather didn’t talk about his experience often, but when he did, he boiled it down to one sentence: “They were terrible times for our people.”
But what Ben did tell Johnny of his time on the Spencer plantation is that his duties as a boy consisted of chopping wood for the fireplace, assisting his mother, who worked as a maid in the master’s home, and, maybe most important of all, keeping tabs on the master’s son, Edward.
Ben and young Edward were the same age, but Ben was assigned to keep Edward away from playing around the horses and the cattle.
Beyond those duties, when it was time for Edward to learn, Ben was to attend class with him whenever his teacher would visit the plantation as a means to catalyze Edward, who was described as a “reluctant learner.”
This gave Ben the opportunity to learn the basics of reading and writing, and the teacher would even call on Ben to answer questions that Edward would get wrong “in order to shame him.”
“Even this little slave boy knows the right answers,” the teacher would say, and after two or three years of Ben shadowing Edward, the teacher began to give Ben old books to take home with him to read.
He would study the words on each page in his cabin at night and began to master English and math, learning shared division and times tables around the age of 8 or 9.
By the age of 10, Ben could read the newspaper, and he kept old newspapers and magazines from the master’s house, even though his job was to dispose of them. His parents encouraged him to continue to read anything he could get his hands on, especially the newspaper, so he could tell them about what was going on in the outside world.
Many enslaved people were not up to date on current events. They were unaware of the impending Civil War, the meaning of the war when it began and the implications if either side won.
Ben read and explained it all.
Once his father learned that if the North won that would mean the end of slavery for the South, his father secretly spread the news to others in the field, explaining why his master seemed so concerned all of the time.
When the Civil War was over and the enslaved people were set free, Ben’s father took a job as a blacksmith’s helper and Ben began to deliver telegram messages because he could read the addresses. He did this until he was 22 years old.
READERS AND WRITERS ONLY
Back in the Breckenridge Research Room, Bill opens his eyes and pauses the cassette tape, while Bobby looks through pictures of their ancestors.
Bill leans back over to the teacher’s certificate and again reads the statement at the top of the page: “There is no excellence without labor.”
It’s ironic to him the document proclaims that, considering what his great-great-grandfather had to go through not only to receive accreditation but to simply know how to read and write as an enslaved person.
“It’s almost like there’s no courage without fear,” Bill says. “How can you be courageous if you’re not afraid of what you’re trying to be courageous about?”
Bill reaches for the Vox player and presses play again. The room transports back in time once more, this time to 1878 when Ben, then 25, had learned that Scott County was administering a teacher’s exam.
He entered the county courthouse to take the test, but examiners thought his presence was a joke and told him: “Only those who could read and write could take the exam.”
The examiner, in an attempt to fuel his own amusement, handed Ben a piece of paper and told him to write his name. Ben stroked his name with “excellent penmanship,” Johnny says on the recording.
His competency startled the examiner, who proceeded to let Ben take the test. Ben passed and was granted his teaching certification to teach the first four grades. His certification would not expire until 1880.
Ben went on to organize the first Black school in Scott County, Johnny says, and the county provided the building and paid his salary — $10 a month.
That lasted until 1882, when Ben took a trip to the state capital of Frankfort. He had always wanted to see the city and while there, he came upon a boot shop, owned by a German gentleman named Mr. Gessler.
He stared into Gessler’s windows and was fascinated with the way the boots came together. Gessler invited him in and asked if he was interested in learning. Ben inquired how much Gessler made for each pair and how long it took.
A pair of boots sold for $10 and could be made in two days. He did the math in his head and realized the potential earnings would far outweigh the $10 per month Scott County gave him to teach.
Gessler offered him $2.50 a week while he learned the craft and he told Gessler he would like to learn as soon as possible. Upon Ben’s search for a place to stay in Frankfort, he met his future wife, Sue Thomason, and began as an apprentice to Gessler.
His apprenticeship lasted for a year, and in the spring of 1881, he married Sue. Their union produced six children, and Ben insisted they attend public schools — all became graduates of Clinton Street High School.
One of his three daughters became a teacher, and his sons were taught the boot-making trade. But because of Ben’s audacity to earn an education and a teacher’s accreditation in a time when it was nothing less than a “joke” for a Black person to do so, there have been five generations of college graduates produced from his lineage.
Including Uncle Johnny, the keeper of the tale, and a former teacher before he died in 2004.
The tape winds to an end.
‘THERE IS NO EXCELLENCE WITHOUT LABOR’
Today, Bill and Bobby try their best to carry on Ben’s legacy, even as they pack up the family’s archived materials, take off their gloves and head for the exit.
Bobby is retired after working for the Kentucky state government for 27 years, and he’ll head back home to Frankfort, just a couple of miles from where Ben Spencer is buried. While Bill spent 15 years working for the Louisville/Jefferson County Metropolitan Sewer District as an affirmative action officer, he is now a long-term substitute teacher for Jefferson County Public Schools, keeping the educator’s spirit alive in the family.
The two share the story of their ancestor whenever they can.
They understand it’s not just an important piece of their family’s history but also for Kentucky.
They hope by sharing Ben’s story, it will inspire others to have the “audacity” to learn, to yearn for more.
Because a fearless willingness to learn irrespective of the circumstance can produce wonders the world has never seen, Bill said.
Simply put: There is no excellence without labor.