Summer Issue 2020

The Legacy of Liberty

By Emily Jones Hudson

The only visible evidence that remains of Liberty High School is a stone wall covered with kudzu standing behind the Housing Authority’s Apartment 325 on Liberty Street in Hazard, Kentucky. A Memorial Wall was erected adjacent to the original wall in August 1998 and proudly displays the names of former students and teachers. Although memorialized in stone, the legacy of Liberty lies in the lives lived by its students and teachers. Liberty’s roots rest in Higgins High School, a school for African American students located 12 miles southeast of Hazard in the small town of Vicco. George Higgins, an African American minister from the neighboring community of Red Fox in Knott County, provided land for Higgins High to be built in 1928. Students from Hazard and the surrounding Perry County coal camps rode a bus to Vicco to attend Higgins High. The student population grew so fast that the school was relocated from Vicco to Hazard when a new school building, Liberty High School, was erected in 1936.¹

According to former students of Liberty, the one word that best described the character and personality of the school was “community.” Liberty High stood prominent in the African American community located in what was known as Big Bottom. Homes squatted boldly on the hills on either side of the holler. Handy’s Store was located halfway up the road on the left. A Holiness Church of God anchored the head of the holler. Liberty High hugged the hill on the right side of the road facing Handy’s Store. Liberty was the heart of the community.

Teachers came from Alabama and Georgia, as well as from Owensboro, Louisville, and Berea to join with a few homegrown teachers to sow seeds of success in their students. Liberty’s teachers made a lasting impact, teaching students self-worth and respect and preparing them for life beyond Liberty. 

Lillian Anita Rose Davis graduated from Liberty in 1951 and left for Chicago, where she worked as an assistant teacher and for the Chicago Board of Education from 1962 to 1998.

They would stand up and talk to us about life, what we were expected in life, you know. We were supposed to be ladies. Our parents taught us that, too, that we were supposed to be ladies and gentlemen. They taught us a lot of respect.

Lillian Anita Rose Davis (Phone interview, April 5, 2020)

Paulette Combs Roberts attended grades one through eight at Liberty, leaving in 1961 to go to Hazard High School for the ninth grade. She eventually moved to Columbus, Indiana, where she taught for 33 years. She talks about the closeness the students had at Liberty and the drive that her teachers instilled in her, which contributed to her successes in life, including authoring children’s books.

I remember the camaraderie behind the kids. Just seemed to love each other. I don’t remember us fighting. It was a community where we were cared for and we were nurtured towards education and learning…It’s a drive within us that keeps us moving. When we retired, we didn’t just sit down. We kept going. I always credit Liberty and the teachers and administrators for that spirit in us. We just kept pushing, and if there are barriers in the way, we figure out how to jump over them.

Paulette Combs Roberts (Phone interview, April 5, 2020)

Scharleen Walker Graham attended Liberty from 1947 to 1956. An educator with a doctorate in education and curriculum development, she explains what makes Liberty so special and how the teachers took an interest in their future.

I think the teachers. I think the community. The interest they took in the school and the activities they provided for us to know and get to know one another… I think they made it real special. We felt like a big family… I think they gave us a sense of confidence and pride. Pride and self-respect for our elders, pride in our work, their expectation, motivation, encouraging us to do our very best. I remember when the schools were about to close due to the law of desegregation, they would say in class, ‘This is a very painful time, but it was a great time. We may lose our jobs, but this is an opportunity for you to step forward, and to shine, and to become whoever you want to be in life.'

Scharleen Walker Graham (Phone interview, April 5, 2020)

The years between 1956 and 1970 were tumultuous times filled with challenging tests and obstacles to be overcome, where prejudice and hatred clashed with the cry for a new day, for respect and dignity, for equality. The nation was ablaze with change, and the residents of Hazard and Perry County were not exempt. The students from Liberty were about to be tested beyond the walls of their beloved Liberty. 

Ovetta Basey, who taught students in the lower grades at Liberty, wrote a letter in 1995 detailing the implementation of desegregation at the school and the role urban renewal played in closing its doors.

When the City of Hazard focused on the Liberty Street location as an area for urban renewal for low rent housing and purchased all the property from the owners, and when the United States Supreme Court’s historic decision of 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas was handed down, it became quite evident that the days of Liberty Street School were numbered.

In 1956, the Liberty High School students were integrated into the city and county high schools, leaving the lower grades still at Liberty. Paulette Combs Roberts remembers the troubled times well:

The transition to me wasn’t very good at all. I think that we were just like any other group of Black children who did not feel that we fit in. We associated only with our race group. We were not accepted well in the classroom…I remember when my brother Vernon came along, he was offered several scholarships as a basketball player. And the coach at that time would take the offers and stick them in his desk, and nobody ever knew about it. So, when they guy retired, they found all these scholarship offers to my brother, and he never knew about it.

Scharleen Graham finished grade nine at Liberty, entering the tenth grade at Hazard High School. She was involved in several school clubs including the Pep Club and Home Economics Club. She recounts an experience she had as a member of the Y-Teens:

I remember when I joined, we had to be initiated. In doing that, you had to have all these plaits with little ribbons, and you had to wear your skirt upside down. It was fun. I didn't take it as an insult until it was time for us to go to lunch, and we went downtown to Don Fouts [restaurant]. The group went in, and when I went in to be seated with them, I was told they couldn't serve me. And of course, I became upset. You're taught to have dignity in ways of handling things.

So, I left, and when I got back to school, Mrs. Caudill, who was the librarian and the advisor, came up and apologized to me, 'Scharleen, I'm so sorry. If I'd known that this was going to happen, I would not have allowed the girls to stay there without out. If they wouldn't serve you, then they wouldn't have served any of them, and they would all had to get up and leave, too.' And I appreciated that because I was so upset. I thought, 'I'm not going to do anything that they ask me to do.' But at that point, I thought, 'No, because that was a lack of respect.' It was a learning experience.

The closing of Liberty School, as it was called in later years, along with the changes that urban renewal brought to town, changed the face of Liberty and the community surrounding it. Senator Robert Kennedy helped usher in this spirit of renewal when he visited the city of Hazard and Liberty Street in 1968. Change can be a good thing, but sometimes it requires a sacrifice. Our interviewees recount how Liberty and its “community” changed after desegregation and urban renewal arrived.

Paulette Roberts Combs said, “I remember when the Kennedys came in as president and they were going to do all these wonderful things for poor people, and at the time I didn’t think anything about it. But they bought up all those houses on Liberty Street. That dispersed the Black community. There was no longer a real Black community after that.”

Anita Davis graduated in 1951, so she wasn’t around to witness the changes that took place with Liberty and the community. But she remembers the times well because her mother was still a resident. 

“I was very upset, especially when they tore down the school. I think they should have left the school there and turned it into apartments. They could have built around the school. At that time there wasn’t nobody fighting for anything.”

Scharleen Graham explained: 

I think when that happened, the transition was not so much as looking at it as urban renewal and urban development but just going in making a change within the community, upgrading the housing somewhat and tearing down properties, and yet not really doing anything that brought any cohesiveness to the community. So, it’s like displacement without replacement of anything. And so, a lot of relationships that the community had as one, people kind of separated. You had people who were in one area like Backwoods or people like Liberty, they called it Big Bottoms, or people from Browns Fork, which then became Town Mountain, so there was more of a separation than it was before. Before it was just 'Liberty.'

Graham remembers when the school was initially called Liberty High School, but when the high school students entered the city and county high schools in 1956, only the grade school remained, so it was simply called Liberty School. But the students from the “older” group and the “younger group” were all still part of the Liberty family. On July 4, 1994, a group of Liberty High alumni met and formed the Liberty High School Reunion Association with the purpose of remembering, cherishing, preserving, and perpetuating the legacy of Liberty.²  The annual reunions were an opportunity for alumni in all corners of the country to reconvene back in Hazard to reminisce and share, to catch up with each other’s lives, to share a meal together, and to remember Liberty. Graham wrote a poem to recite during one of the reunions. The first few lines are a reminder of who they were and still are: family.

We are the Liberty family.
By faith we’ve come this far.
With love and respect for one another,
That’s the kind of family we are.
God has really smiled on us
And blessed us constantly.
I am you, and you are me.
May we forever honor this creed.
Love one another is our Liberty motto.
Show our Liberty spirit in all that we do,
For we are family.
We sit aside to meet, honor, and celebrate
Our alumni every two years.
We come together from near and far
To show our love for each other. 
We are grateful and thankful for our heritage,
Because we are the Liberty family
And stand on the shoulders of those
Who have come and gone on before us.
We are the spirit of Liberty School
And we are proud to be here.
May God continue to bless our family,

1. Miss Liberty (School Annual), 1950.
2. Liberty School Eleventh Class Reunion booklet, Charter of the Liberty School Reunion Association.

Emily Jones Hudson is a native of Hazard, Kentucky. She holds a bachelor's degree in English from Berea College and is a writer, author, pastor, and poet. She is the mother of two children and "Nana" to one granddaughter. A brief former city dweller, Hudson loves the hills of Southeastern Kentucky and loves to tell their story.