John W. Bate (December 22, 1855 – September 8, 1945) was a Berea College alumnus who is best known for his work teaching at and serving as principal of the Bate School for 59 years. The Bate School was a public school which exclusively served the African American population of Danville, KY, until school integration occurred in the 1950s.
Early Life and Education
John Bate was born a slave on the Bate Farm, six miles from Louisville, Kentucky, on December 22, 1855. When John was 9, he and his mother and three siblings were freed by their master, who was also John’s father. Soon after their emancipation, the family moved to Louisville, a common destination for freed slaves in the region. Life after freedom was not easy for the family as they had no money with which to begin their new life. The family was homeless for a time and even when they did secure housing, they never stayed in one place for very long, for their options were limited to dirty, run-down, poorly ventilated or flooded rooms. These poor living conditions soon proved deadly. John’s sister died from a fever she contracted from living in the perpetual dampness, and shortly thereafter, smallpox claimed the lives of John’s two brothers.
John’s mother did not emerge from the smallpox epidemic unscathed. She managed to live, but was she permanently disabled by it and no longer able to work. John assumed the responsibility of supporting the two of them, stealing food scraps from trashcans and fresh vegetables from farmers’ produce wagons to supplement the 50 cents per week he earned for feeding the geese of a Jewish family. John was caught in the act of stealing by a white missionary, one of many from the North who had recently arrived in the area, intent on educating the freed slaves who had been denied access to education. The missionary took an interest in him, choosing to enroll John in the Mission School rather than punish him.
John attended the mission school from 1866-1869, but eventually he decided to leave in order to follow his favorite teacher, Miss Kate Gilbert, to her new employer, Berea College. First he took time off from school in order to work at a tobacco factory, saving money for his tuition. After two years of such work, he enrolled at Berea. At first he found himself unsettled by the quiet Christian campus in which he found himself. There was a dramatic difference between Berea and the tobacco factory back home, where gambling, drinking, and all other manner of sin had reigned. Of this he said, “It was some weeks before I could adjust myself entirely to this change, but the personal kindness and unselfish devotion of the faculty members to the students, and especially to me, soon won my heart and started me cheerfully in my determination to secure a college education if that were possible” (“Flowers for the Living”132). John graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1881.
After graduation, Bate decided that what he wanted more than anything was to serve his people through teaching. He accepted a position in Danville, KY, serving as the lone teacher in a one-room schoolhouse which had been built by the Freedman’s Bureau after the Civil War. He encountered many obstacles during his first year there, including a shoddy building and resistance from the local African-American community, many of whom believed that only private religious institutions could provide a quality education. The principal at the local black private Baptist school even urged Bate to give up his “common school” and return to Berea (Wilson 39). Bate persisted, however. He recruited the daughter of a local black minister as one of his teachers. She brought ten children with her from her father’s congregation. More students followed the initial ten, and soon so many children were enrolled at the Bate School that the private black Baptist school was driven out of business. During his tenure, Bate watched his school expand from “one room to twenty, from one teacher to fifteen, and from six students to six hundred” (“About Berea People” 20). Mr. Bate led the school forever forward, serving as its principal for an amazing fifty-nine years until he retired at the age of eighty-five.
On Commencement day in 1944, Berea College conferred a Citation of Honor on Bate, noting his “sincere devotion to the Cause of Education” and commending him as the college’s “oldest living graduate, a son who has treasured and practiced the finest teachings of this college” (Hatcher).