From Maine To Kentucky: Letters Of A Schoolteacher 

By Eleanor W. Cunningham - 2000

(Part Three In A Series)

Editor's Note: This series of articles are excerpted from a book manuscript, "From Maine to Kentucky: Letters of a Maine Teacher, 1920-21." Sources are personal letters and records of Ethel V. Applebee, interviews, the Lexington Leader newspaper, 1889-1920, and several books on the history of the American Missionary Association.

The schoolteacher from Maine, my mother, Ethel Applebee, had settled into the routine of teaching 35 students in the seventh and eighth grades at Chandler Normal School, Lexington, Kentucky. It was December 1920, and this year it would be hard for her to be so far from family at Christmastime. On December 18th she wrote her mother in Bucksport, Maine:

School closes on Wednesday noon for 10 days' vacation. Exams will take up all of the week, and then it's time to make out rank cards.

Have you received the Christmas box? I sent it good and early, about two weeks ago, so you would surely get it on time. There are things for everyone inside.

School goes about the same. Some days the children are all right, but maybe just as I am settling down with the feeling that at last they are going to do the proper thing, they let loose worse than ever.

All of us have to teach physical training in our own room. Some nights I am more tired than others, but we have a pleasant home, good things to eat, and nice rooms, so it might be much worse.

Thursday was Lena's birthday, and we had a party for her. Mrs. Werking gives everyone a party on their birthday, so we have nice times then. We eat by candlelight and have the dining room all fixed up, prettily. On Wednesday we are going to have a little Christmas program for chapel. Two of my girls are to have a little dialogue, and five or six of them are to read original stories, which they wrote for English. They are Christmas stories and real good ones, too.

Wish I could be home for Christmas, but can't, so will make the best of it. The Werkings and other teachers are my family here, and I'm lucky to have them. Best Christmas wishes to all.

Ethel writes again to her mother after the Christmas vacation:

I am also teaching Bible in school, and agriculture, in addition to everything else. Forgotten how many subjects that makes, but quite a few. These children are different from the ones I taught in Maine. When you think you are giving them a great scolding, they usually go into gales of laughter (could it be my New England accent?). If you lose your temper, you may as well pack your trunk, for they get the sulks or get more noisy than ever. About all you can do is be 'firm,' as you would say, and keep a twinkle in your eye.

Hope the boys will get along somehow. Hope you are able to make your dress. You haven't mentioned your eyes, so suppose they must be well as ever.

Most of Ethel's students came to like her, and even called her "Miss Apple." However, the teachers from the North were not well-received by either the white citizens of Lexington, nor the Negro parents. Perhaps, they did not understand that these were well-intentioned missionaries who had come to help educate the needy children of the South. Off campus they found a cool reception, but on the campus of Chandler, they enjoyed the friendship of the colored teachers and also Negro guests, who came to visit during that winter.

Ethel wrote to her mother in January:

We were invited out Sunday to the home of one of the colored teachers. We went about five o'clock, had supper, and spent the evening there until about 9:30. On Friday there was a man here to speak in the interest of the school, a colored minister from New Orleans. He was full of fun and could sing and recite.

However, there was one instance in which Ethel was rejected by one of her students, one from whom she least expected it. It happened one day when she missed Robert Jackson from class and then the next day and the next. Seeing his older sister in the hallway one day, she inquired as to where Robert was. She told him he was 'in jail,' for having stolen 50 dollars. Ethel decided to go visit him. She had high hopes for Robert. There seemed to be more than average intelligence in this handsome young man, a favorite of hers.

Ethel found he was actually on a juvenile farm for delinquent boys, and she could get there by trolley. One afternoon after school, she took the trolley and headed out to visit Robert. The building was obviously old, dilapidated, and ill-kept. A grim-faced officer sat at an old desk, reading a newspaper. When she asked to see Robert Jackson, he gave her a sneering look of disapproval and slowly led her down the hall to a square, plain room and told her to wait.

There was an old, battered table in the center of the room and two rickety chairs. Ethel took one of the chairs and waited. Soon Robert shuffled in behind the officer, handcuffed and sullen. When he saw his teacher, his eyes opened wide, and the semblance of his old smile appeared fleetingly. He sat down, and the officer stood at the door watching them.

Ethel told Robert about school, the baseball team, the work he had missed, and told him she hoped he would be back soon. He made no reply and hung his head, while Ethel talked. She hoped to cheer him, but felt she had not succeeded as she said good-bye and walked out.

A few weeks later, when Robert still had not returned to school, Ethel took the trolley to visit him a second time. The grim officer again admitted her, but there was cold hostility in his eyes, as if to say, "Why have you come again?" Ethel sat down in the same room to wait. When Robert walked in, again handcuffed, she sensed something had changed.

There was no smile. He refused to look at her, keeping his eyes on the floor. He would not speak and sat sideways on the chair, his elbow on the table and his hand shielding his face from her. No matter what she said or asked, he made no response.

It suddenly struck her; what she had been told was true. A black man in the South does not dare associate with nor make friends with a white woman. She realized she must leave immediately.

As the jailer walked her down the hall he muttered under his breath, "If you teachers from the North were as smart as you think you are, you'd stayed home where you belong. We in the South know how to handle these people, and we don't need your help."

A cold, rainy drizzle wet her face and mingled with her tears as Ethel almost ran to the trolley stop. She was appalled. She had never heard such ugly words. She was chagrined, hurt, and angry; chagrined that she had unwittingly placed Robert in such a terribly precarious position; hurt that he had spurned her when she only wanted to be his friend, and angry at the surly jailer telling her she wasn't wanted in the South. She was shocked, horrified at the terrible discrimination of one race against another.

She looked at the math book in her hand that she had meant to leave with Robert. He was not to be blamed for his attitude toward her. Now she understood he had been scared, terribly scared. A smile, a look of recognition, could get him a brutal beating or worse. She remembered that lynchings were still common in the South. This awful hatred and animosity seemed to pervade the very air.

But it was not so at Chandler School. Here was friendly territory and the Negro children knew it. Here no one threatened them for having a white teacher friend. Here they were valued, encouraged, loved. But there was no doubt other inmates at the juvenile institution, and no doubt the officer as well, had made it painfully clear to Robert that he would be in major trouble if he so much as spoke or acknowledged this white teacher. With all her heart Ethel hated this racism, and a love for the unfortunate children in her classes, who had to live under such prejudice, swept over her.

As she rode the miles on the trolley, a longing for her sweet Northern homeland brought the tears. She arrived home during the supper hour; cold, wet, heartbroken. She went quietly up the staircase to her room, lay on the bed, and cried.
Ethel's birthday fell on February 12th, but because she was born near Valentine's Day, she grew up making that her own special holiday. Her students gave her a big birthday surprise on that day.

Her letter home of February 20th describes it:

I must tell you about my valentine. Each classroom had Valentine boxes. When school opened that afternoon, two of my biggest boys were late, which was against the rules. When they got back I asked where they had been, but they wouldn't say. Later I saw one of them place something on my desk. It was a great big red envelope addressed to me. I opened it as I realized they expected me to, and inside was the cutest valentine; a little girl in a hammock, and beside her, a little boy with a bunch of roses. They were fastened together so that when you pull the roses, the boy swings the girl in the hammock. The students looked so pleased that they had surprised their teacher. I think they are beginning to like me.

(Series continues next month) 

Eleanor W. Cunningham, 221 Hutton Street, Gaith-ersburg, MD 20877, e-mail: [email protected], shares this series and photos with our readers.