Despite multiple organizational changes, Reverend Lucey’s groundbreaking school, the Colored Industrial Institute, lasted more than 120 years.
Image Credit: https://digitalheritage.arkansas.gov
In 1874, Reverend John M. Lucey, a racially progressive white Confederate veteran, moved from Fort Smith to his first parish assignment as pastor of St. Joseph’s Church in Pine Bluff. He soon founded the Annunciation Academy at St. Joseph Catholic Church and became the driving force behind establishing a vocational school for African-Americans in 1889.
By the 1880s, he began holding a separate mass in the afternoons for African-American Catholics after noticing the decline in their numbers and the lack of a parish to serve them. Lucey also believed that establishing a school for African Americans under the banner of the Diocese of Little Rock would be an effective means of evangelizing the African-American community. So in the spring of 1889, he began fundraising to establish the first Catholic-supported school for African-American children in Arkansas. During his fundraising, John O. Harrison and his wife, Mary Belle, deeded a block of land between East 15th and 16th Avenues and State and Alabama Streets to Bishop Fitzgerald of the Little Rock Catholic Diocese for the construction of this vocational school.
Other supporters of the school included Pine Bluff’s mayor J.W. Bocage, County Judge J.W. Owens, Circuit Clerk Ferdinand Havis, Jefferson County's largest cotton planter John M. Gracie, and Wiley Jones, a successful entrepreneur of Pine Bluff. Wiley Jones and Ferdinand Havis, two wealthy black Pine Bluff entrepreneurs, were among the local influencers recruited to serve on the first board of directors and contributors. Lucey’s unwavering effort ensured that the Colored Industrial Institute opened in the fall of that same year with the enrollment of six students.
Billed as a day school, the classes were taught by two Sisters of Charity from Nazareth, Kentucky. The school accepted girls of all ages and boys up to fourteen years old. The Sisters of Charity taught the girls sewing, knitting, crochet, embroidery, dressmaking, cutting by charts, machine sewing, and vocal lessons, along with mathematics and literature. The boys, on the other hand, were taught woodworking along with their mathematics and literature courses.
Less than a year later, Arkansas legislators were considering separate-coach legislation, which would require separate coaches on railway trains for white and black passengers. Lucey adamantly spoke out against this legislation, even writing letters that were printed in the Arkansas Gazette. Lucey also publicly expressed his views against lynching. He believed that lynching represented the lawless taking of human life and caused a breakdown in law and order, as well as justice served through the courts. He also actively supported Act 258 of 1909, aimed at preventing the lynching of African-Americans by white citizens. Even though many of Pine Bluff's white residents criticized Lucey, believing that his support of African Americans went too far. He never wavered in his pursuit of academic excellence for the students at the Colored Industrial Institute. This academic excellence was reflected in the achievements of the Institute's students.
In May of 1893, ten bound volumes of the student's work at the school were sent for display at the World's Fair in Chicago where the Institute received two medals and two diplomas from the general authorities and one diploma from the Catholic Educational Exhibit. The students’ exhibit was described as “The most remarkable of the schools for colored children…There was no exhibition of work from colored children at the World’s Fair to compare with it.”
In 1894, a single-story extension on the east side of the Colored Industrial Institute was built to accommodate more students. It included a kitchen and boarding area so that the school could introduce cooking and housekeeping while enrolling female boarding students. By June, the enrollment had increased to approximately 200 pupils. With the school’s increased popularity and success came the need for future expansion. A larger school was constructed which housed the literature classes, while the earlier building was used for cooking instruction and boarding areas. The combined facilities served as a day and boarding school for girls and young women. Boys up to 16 years of age were instructed during the day. By 1894, 235 students were attending the Colored Industrial Institute with six teachers from the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth.
During this period of growth, Lucey accepted help from the Josephite priests, an order established to evangelize African Americans before the Civil War. Josephite priest Rev. J. J. Ferdinand was sent to assist Lucey with the Institute and Pine Bluff’s St. Peter’s Church. Lucey also brought in an African American order of sisters, the Sisters of the Holy Family, to teach at the school and help evangelize Pine Bluff’s African American community.
In 1901, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth withdrew from the Colored Industrial Institute. So, in September 1904, the Josephite order sent the Reverend John H. Dorsey to assist Rev. Ferdinand. Lucey, (now the Monsignor) and Ferdinand clashed over the running of the school. Ferdinand left abruptly, leaving Dorsey in charge. This resulted in the Colored Industrial Institute becoming the first school run by a black priest and black nuns. Lucey and Dorsey also disagreed over the direction of St. Peter’s Church, as Lucey held Dorsey responsible for the lack of increase in church membership after he became pastor.
Tensions mounted until Lucey and Bishop John Morris of the Diocese of Little Rock asked the Josephite fathers to officially remove Father Dorsey in 1909. Soon after Dorsey’s removal, attendance at the Colored Industrial Institute plummeted, and the school was closed by 1913. St. Peter’s then took over the Colored Industrial Institute buildings and continued operation as St. Peter’s School. Lucey was still the pastor of St. Joseph’s Church when he died in 1914 while undergoing treatment for his declining health in Texas.
In 1960, St. Peter’s School was one of only ten predominantly black Catholic schools in Arkansas, most of which closed throughout the 1960s and 19070s. In 2012, St. Peter’s closed its doors for good, due to dwindling enrollment. Despite multiple organizational changes, Reverend Lucey’s groundbreaking school, the Colored Industrial Institute, lasted more than 120 years.
Written by: Ninfa O. Barnard