GEORGETOWN, Ky. — Time is running out for the restoration of a historical site in the county, prompting a desperate plea for help from the founder of Georgetown Eye Care.
Dr. Chip Richardson, who has served the community as an ophthalmologist for roughly 15 years and is a member of the Native American Heritage Commission, recently submitted a 1:1 grant match request to the Scott County Fiscal Court for a restoration project to preserve the 1825 Choctaw Academy. Richardson explained to the court the importance of such a project, and how the Academy is an integral part of American history.
“This is a plea for the county’s help for a project that I think is of paramount importance. Everyone knows that the 1825 Choctaw Academy is obviously a structure in need. It is currently protected from rain but not protected from thunder, wildlife, and of course, these blowing storms we’ve had lately,” he said.
Richardson said since a collapse in 2012, the Academy has continued to decline, especially with each thunderstorm. He added the opportunity to apply for a Saving America’s Treasures federal grant might be the only option left to restore the county’s 200-year-old landmark.
“The grant requires an applicant and a fiscal agent. The county would actually score extremely high to be both. The grant would be almost unsurpassable in terms of other competing applicants,” he said. “We’ll have someone write the grant for us if you guys will help me. I also envisioned for the fiscal part of it, maybe some kind of a county partnership. The grant is somewhat loose in terms of how you define what the fiscal agent part of it is.”
The funds would be a 1:1 match by the fiscal court, that would pay between an estimated $140,000 to $150,000.
“On your desks, I have the appraisals that came from the 2017 work. There was no budget in there for the stucco that goes on the exterior surface. I figure between that and any kind of case work on the windows it might be an extra $30,000 or $40,000. All in, if you take half of what it takes to repair it, the county is looking at about $140,000. That is a bargain considering the impact that this has had on the world,” Richardson said.
A memo Richardson received from the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma was also shared with the fiscal court, which noted the Academy as being a “critical part of a cultural and tangible heritage.”
“Many students built inter-tribal bonds that in post-graduate life help them challenge racial oppression and U.S. Indian policy. They learned lessons there that helped them rebuild the Choctaw Nation in Indian territory and develop a new educational system there. Not only was the Socratic method important to what they learned here from 1820 to 1848, but it was important because it took a system to Oklahoma, which is still used today to educate the natives,” Richardson read.
Christina Snyder, a McCabe Greer Professor of History at Pennsylvania State University, also sent Richardson a memo on the important history the Academy shines on Scott County.
“Founded in 1825, Choctaw Academy was the first federal boarding school in the United States. Over the next two decades, the Academy became home to over 600 Native American boys and men representing 17 different tribal nations. The head teacher at the Academy also secretly educated a small group of free and enslaved African Americans.
“Famous in its day, this school was considered an “experiment” in education that challenged the racist norms of antebellum America. Though Native nations ultimately lost trust in federally-funded education and withdrew their children in 1848, Choctaw Academy educated some of the most important Native American leaders of the 19th century,” Richardson read.
He added he is passionate about the Choctaw Academy and that it isn’t often “someone like myself gets to truly discover a bit of American history that had been forgotten.” Richardson told the fiscal court he believed a story was waiting to be told, and he doesn’t want the county to lose the opportunity to save the national treasure.
District 1 Magistrate Rick Hostetler asked Richardson if there is a timeline for the grant application. Richardson said the most recent application window closed in December 2021, but the next application has yet to be announced. He added he anticipates it would be toward the end of 2022.
A question was also asked about public access to the Academy. Richardson said when he bought the property, there was a driveway leading up to the structure that was part of a neighbor’s gravel road. He added there are also easements allowing for the access for “the purpose of non-commercial restoration and viewing,” and the Georgetown and Scott County Museum helped gather the documents to effectively open it to the public.
Richardson was then asked if the Academy was part of the National Historic Registry, which he explained it became one of the historic sites in the 1970s. He said it was also visited recently by a committee person for the National Historic Landmark Committee to be considered for landmark status.
“There are only about 30 landmarks in the state of Kentucky. That would be huge. The Statue of Liberty is a landmark, too. What it does do when it’s on the National [Historic Registry], the National Park Service becomes part of the management.”
Richardson said some people have also asked why the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma has not invested in the Academy’s restoration project.
“The problem with the Nation is that they have a paradigm where they do not invest or maintain things that are outside of the territory. They will tell you that this is the oldest tangible piece of Choctaw history and it’s sitting here in Scott County, but they won’t invest in it. They don’t want to be involved in making an investment in something that they have to manage a thousand miles away from Oklahoma. I have really, really worked that until I can’t work it anymore,” he said.
Hostetler said he felt the county needed to do research on the legal background and gave an example of how county roads work in a similar situation.
“In a subdivision or wherever, I know we can’t go on the homeowner’s property and repair something. That may not be an apples-to-apples example, but it's something worth considering,” Hostetler said.
Judge-Executive Joe Pat Covington said the fiscal court would work with County Attorney Rand Marshall to look into the legalities of pursuing a grant for the project and it would be considered as an addition to the 2022-23 fiscal budget.
Local historian Ann Bevins added a statement in closing to the court, sharing her thoughts on the important role the county would play in the Academy’s restoration aid.
“I think it’s really important for all of us in Scott County, under the leadership of our county fiscal court and the magistrates, to pitch in to save what is one of the most important landmarks in, not only Scott County, but American history,” Bevins said.