BHM: Substitute teacher traces family to prominent educator in Kentucky history

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William Stone poses for a JCPS headshot. Photo courtesy of Bill Stone.

From the life of a slave down the ancestral line, a loved and locally famed substitute teacher, Mr. William (Bill) Stone has traced his family history back to Benjamin Franklin Spencer, the first former slave in Kentucky to become a registered teacher. Benjamin Franklin Spencer is Mr. Stone’s great great grandfather and Bill is proud to know his heritage and Ben’s story.

In 1853 Spencer was born in Scott County, Kentucky as a slave to Ed Spencer. That same year his wife was born in Woodford County, Kentucky; however, they wouldn’t meet for 20 more years.

Raising his children, Ed Spencer hired a teacher for his sons. He taught young Ben and encouraged him to become an educator. By age 25, Spencer was a freed man and on his way to the Scott County courthouse to retrieve his teaching certificate.

Benjamin Franklin Spencer poses next to his wife Sue Spencer for a portrait. Photo courtesy of Bill Stone.

While Spencer was serious about his occupation, the court thought Spencer was joking about his aspirations and they gave him his certificate as a gag. It was good for two years and he taught colored kids, like himself, for 10 dollars a month in Scott County.

Issued in 1978, Benjamin Franklin Spencer was permitted to work as a teacher for two years. Document courtesy of Bill Stone.

In the summer of 1879 Spencer visited Frankfort, Kentucky on a whim. After first arriving in the capitol, he found himself in a local boot shop and was automatically interested in the trade. After working for many years in the shop, he went on to own his own shop that stayed in the family and in Frankfort until 1975.

Mr. Stone was not always as invested in his family history as he is now. As a high school student, he rarely thought about where he had come from.

“Once I found out about my heritage, my GPA went from like a 2.7 to a 4.0 by the time I got my master’s degree,” Stone said.

Attending Kentucky State University, Stone drew his curiosity of his family while in an African-American history class. Once intrigued, he was able to get in contact with his great uncle Johnny who lived in Detroit, Michigan at the time. Luckily for Mr. Stone, his beloved uncle had documented the family’s history on a tape recorder and had stored old photographs.

Around the same time, Stone was raising his youngest son and together, they got involved in the Cub Scouts of America. With a new knowledge of his family, Stone provided the group with their own “roots” chart in order to map out their own lineage.

“Students ought to do exactly as I did,” Stone said. “Start with a roots chart and talk to your family. Once you start doing this family project on your own, it gets really interesting. It could be a catalyst for something really cool.”

Mr. Stone’s personal “roots” chart helped him to map out his lineage. He encourages Manual students to do the same. Document courtesy of Bill Stone.

Through the process, Stone was able to unearth even more about his family and find documents and family photographs in newspaper archives and local libraries.

“It gives me a great sense of pride and responsibility [knowing about Ben,] because it was a catalyst for me to take my education seriously,” Stone said.

Benjamin Franklin Spencer and his wife Sue Spencer pose for a family photo with their children and children from previous relationships. Photo courtesy of Bill Stone.

The Stone/Spencer family legacy doesn’t just end there either; Mr. Stone was the first African-American drum major in his high school marching band. Taking pride in his heritage, Mr. Stone expresses his love for education on a daily basis.

“Ben’s motto as a teacher was ‘you can’t hunt a bear with a switch. You have to load your gun with education.’ And I think it’s really interesting that he emphasized that the more you learn, the more you earn. One of the few avenues for black kids is to become educated because it’s better to have it and not need it rather than to need it and not have it,” Stone said.

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Piper Hansen is the Social Media Director of RedEye this year. She appreciates good books, original movies, labrador retrievers and art museums. When she’s not outdoors with her camera Alfred, she’s hanging out with her friends or volunteering at summer camp. Piper enjoys traveling and can always be found planning her next adventure. You can contact her at [email protected]