A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

History preserved at Newport History Museum Southgate Street School connects us to our past

By Maridith Yahl
NKyTribune reporter

History is intertwined with today and that history needs to be preserved.

“The point of preservation is to keep things like this [building, the Newport History Museum at the Southgate Street School]. History is all about stories. A building is just a building, but it’s the people, it’s the interactions, what happened here, and how it happened that makes this building important,” Scott Clark, Executive Director of the Newport History Museum at the Southgate Street School, says.
The school “operated as separate but equal,” said Clark about this incredibly historic school and notable building. Newport has a colorful yet progressive past. A progressive past very significant to the people who called the city home and raised their children there. It is among many of the stories told and preserved.

In 1873 the City of Newport built the first and only school in Campbell County for African-Americans. It operated as separate but equal to all other schools in the district until desegregation in 1955.

“One of the reasons they needed to educate black children was because there were soldiers at the barracks who were living there, who had families and children needed to be able to be educated. The citizens wanted this,” Clark, explains. The Newport Barracks sat at the mouth of the Licking River where General James Taylor Park sits today. The military past, the park in the present, stories that are related.

The Newport multiple connections woven through this former schoolhouse are intriguing. City founder General James Taylor, a slave owner who freed his slaves upon his death, is connected. Some of the children from his freed slaves were instrumental in getting the school started, Clark says, while standing on the original floors of the addition around the early 1890s.
Interpretation of Newport’s spirited past includes segregation, abolitionists, mobsters, authors, people, military, buildings, cemeteries, and boundless other categories. Clark says, “They are part of the history of what goes on.”

A generous portion of the museum is dedicated to preservation, woven throughout the museum. Wisely, the museum is using its building to show the process and showcase its historical features. The stone walls of the basement will be left exposed after renovations. Different types of wall plaster will be salvaged and left intact to present different periods. Beams and structures will be left for the eye to see former construction techniques. A 1890s staircase is left untouched to show the wave on the steps from use by students for more than 80 years.

Preservation of the building is paramount, but there is more than just bricks and mortar to preserve. The importance of preservation is illustrated through fascinating artifacts from Newport’s history that fill your mind with imaginative stories of their uses and stories they could tell if they could talk.

“We need to be able to discuss the impact of Newport’s history on a building like this,” says Clark. After the school was desegregated, the building became a warehouse for one of Newport’s mobsters, Frank “Screw” Andrews. The museum covers this history too. “We have to talk about this history,” Clark says. “The gangster days are a tiny bit of history but we have to cover it.” Another thread is woven.
Today the building is owned by Newport Masonic Lodge No. 120. Once all-African-American, the Masons are invested in preserving the building, its stories, and its history with the Newport Foundation, which pays for the expenses of the building. The museum is required to fundraise for its exhibits and renovations.

“My future plans are to explain more about segregation. There are generations that really don’t know what segregation is,” Clark said with concern.

He is adamant about a need to explain it and is exploring unique ways to present it so that individuals can investigate on their own. Making the story more accessible to more people spurred the idea of sending exhibits out to libraries or businesses. That is on the drawing board too.

On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, attendees of the NAACP luncheon were invited for tours of the museum. Knowledgeable board members greeted visitors and talked about the history, the stories, and their importance for all of us. In February, the museum will be open for Black History Month on Saturdays 12-2.

The Newport History Museum at the Southgate Street School offers plenty of ways to get involved. If you would like to share your expertise with the museum, make a monetary donation or a donation of an artifact(s) related to the school or Newport history, contact Scott Clark at sclark@newportky.gov.

Scott Clark

Holding pertinent and relevant events is part of the museum’s preservation plan.

Frequently, talks are held there, including upcoming on February 27 a discussion on Margaret Garner, “Mystery Behind the Murder,” by local author K.A. Simpson.

September will bring the 3rd Annual Newport Arts & Music Festival. All their events are easy to find on their Facebook page.

“This building has seen over half of the history that’s happened in Newport,” the very analytical Clark says. “This stuff is really not all that important but it’s important to tell the stories as to why all this means something. You can’t erase history but you need to embrace it. However uncomfortable history is if you don’t tell about it and don’t explain it, no one will know.”

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