Despite disputes over historical narrative, restoration of Choctaw Academy continues

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Paul Prather wrote a recent Herald-Leader article on the life and times of Richard Mentor Johnson (1780-1850), the US Senator and Vice President from Scott County hugely famous in Jacksonian America but largely forgotten today. Johnson was remarkable in his time for his legally unrecognized marriage to his slave Julia Chinn, in addition to his and Chinn’s involvement in Native American education through the Choctaw Academy on Johnson’s plantation.

Prather is right to acknowledge that R.M. Johnson’s story “demonstrates how complex and hard-to-pigeonhole our forebears actually could be.” However, Prather has relied on dubious internet sources that risk distorting the historical facts and complicate ongoing efforts to restore and interpret historic resources on Johnson’s former property.

Prather’s article and an outdated photograph of the Choctaw Academy’s roof collapse give a misleading impression that Johnson’s property has been “lost” or “abandoned.” This elides the eight-years-long campaign of current property owner Dr. Chip Richardson, in partnership with the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and other key allies, to restore the remaining dormitory as an interpretive museum. This story has featured multiple times in the Herald-Leader, the Georgetown News-Graphic, KET, the Choctaw Nation’s YouTube channel, among others. Since 2017, a $17,000 pole-barn has protected the structure from further deterioration.

Prather perpetuates a claim by Dr. Amrita Chakrabarti Myers that the Choctaw Academy’s remains lie neglected due to racism. Myers, a historian publishing a forthcoming biography of Julia Chinn, acknowledges in a blog post her opinion that Johnson’s Blue Springs farm, contrasted with the well-preserved Ashland estate of Johnson’s contemporary Henry Clay, “has everything to do with race.” Prather irresponsibly quotes Myers’ words as gospel truth, as well as the false pronouncement that “the only remaining school building is about to crumble into the ground.”

This melodramatic image serves Myers’ argument that Chinn was deliberately erased from the historical record. True, Johnson’s interracial family was victim to racist political smearing, including one by Abraham Lincoln in 1858, but there is no proof of a connection between racism and Blue Springs’ obscurity. In contrast with Henry Clay’s Ashland in a wealthy district of Lexington, Johnson’s farm lies far in the country on fallow grazing land. For several generations, Blue Springs was owned by farmers financially unable to maintain historic structures. Myers’ assertion could be turned on its head by saying that Clay’s profiting off the slave trade enabled his estate to be preserved for posterity. Ironically, Ashland has no surviving slave cabins, whereas Julia Chinn’s cottage still stands at Blue Springs.

Prather also promulgates an amateur website’s claim that “many of these young men” who graduated from Choctaw Academy “would go on to commit suicide.” The serious claim is not backed by scholarship. Dr. Christina Snyder’s “Great Crossings: Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in the Age of Jackson” (Oxford University Press, 2017, p. 168) cites only two instances of suicide, both during the declining years of the Academy. Both occurred well after forced removal of the Choctaw Nation to Oklahoma, and there is no evidence that direct experiences at Choctaw Academy led to their tragic fates.

Prather should take more heed to fact-check sources on a subject that bears impact for living Native American communities. Choctaw Nation Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Ian Thompson contends that the Academy, while far from perfect, was instrumental to his people’s persistence during a time of transition and duress. “At Choctaw Academy, many students built intertribal bonds that, in post-graduate life, helped them challenge racial oppression and U.S. Indian policy.”

For Richardson, the Choctaw Nation, and allies in the restoration project, setting the record straight is imperative as they search for a new fiscal agent. Spreading of misinformation was the main culprit behind recent withdrawal of sponsorship for the brick-and-mortar rehabilitation. We owe it to the descendants of Native students and Johnson’s enslaved workers to tell this story accurately and restore this significant site to its proper place in our state’s history.

Sean Jacobson is a Louisville native and current PhD Candidate in Public History and American History at Loyola University Chicago.

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