Local pastor reflects on Black History Month and advancements made through the past 60 years

By Terry Simpson
“This…wouldn’t have been possible back in my granddaddy’s day,” explained Pastor Frank Tooley while waving his hand back and forth across the space between him and I as we sat talking on his couch in the very house where his grandfather , Marvin Tooley, spent his life. He, a black man, and I, a white woman, just sitting and chatting about his brother— and Black History Month, which I had come to speak with about. “Things were a lot different back then,” he continued, “I wish more people understood.”
He explained,”If my granddaddy was walking down the sidewalk and a white woman came along, he would step out in the street for her to pass…,”he paused, as the horror of that which was reality for so many Monroe Countians ancestors, sank in to me. Back then, I would have been one of those women who Tooley’s Grandfather was considered “beneath,” simply because of the color of his skin. As I sat next to him, listening intently, I felt a new appreciation of my era.
He paused for a moment and continued speaking, “Monroe County doesn’t do much with Black History Month. A lot of places have parades and different events but there is so much more to it—so much more than one month—or one day honoring Martin Luther King Jr.,” he passionately explained. “Don’t get me wrong,  Martin Luther King Jr. did so much for us and that is great, but how many kids understand—really understand—their history?”
He shared that he would love to have some type of forum to educate the children of today—to not just have a parade  or hear that this person did this or that, but to actually have them listen to stories of people they can relate to and learn—to educate themselves—on how far they have come. “Kids today don’t understand. They know the days of slavery until now. They don’t know that folks died to do something as simple as vote,” he said. “I would love to see kids learn the value and appreciate the struggle of those who got them to where they are today. They don’t know that just going to school is a privilege and that their education is so important.”
It was not that long ago that African American children in Monroe County were not able to get an education,” Tooley noted. “After the slaves were freed, a lot stayed on the plantations. Folks don’t understand that, but they don’t realize it is all they knew—all they knew to survive. They had their freedom, but they stayed, and when they were allowed to go to school—most times it was just to learn the basics—’til about third grade. Once you learned a little reading and writing you went back into the fields.”
Yet, the times were changing, albeit slowly, Tooley’s cousin, local entrepreneur and owner of the world famous R and S BBQ Anita Bartlett, explained. “In the early 60s there was a colored school in the Kingdom. It was a two-room school with first, second and third grades in one room and fourth, fifth and sixth in another.” She noted that all of the African American children in the county went to that school. While the different communities in the area all had one room school houses, those were for white children only.
“There were children who lived in communities, such as Sulphur Lick, who were bused to Tompkinsville for school…,” she paused as she noticed the look on my face, which I assume was incredulous in my shock. In my naivety, I, like the children Tooley spoke of, never really put much thought into the way things were done back then. I spoke without thinking, “well that is just ridiculous..,” as she nodded — a certain understanding between us.
She continued, “When it was time for middle school, the kids were transported by bus to Glasgow or Hodgenville.” Again, I assumed, wrongly, that the children were taken by bus to school and back each day as the buses of today do. That was not the case, Bartlett informed me. As if the stories I was hearing were not bad enough, she cleared up my misunderstanding, “The superintendent at the time took them and dropped them off for the week. He would go back and get them on Friday and bring them home to spend time with their families on the weekends.”
“Things were a lot worse in little towns back then, but Martin Luther King, Jr. gave us a chance to get an education,” she said with reverence, “and the schools here were integrated in 1964. It was funny, the white kids would say things like, ‘where did y’all come from,’ because they had never seen us.”
At that time Tompkinsville Elementary and Joe Harrison Carter were being built and everyone was moving from the one room schools, she noted. The African American children joined the Caucasians in the city schools, both in elementary and at Tompkinsville High School. Things continued to change and while nothing was perfect the African American children were given the same opportunities to play sports and other activities during their school days, and in 1975 the first black homecoming queen was named.
The honor went to Rachel (Tooley) Mathews, now of Indianapolis, Ind.,who was also the first black cheerleader at Tompkinsville High School, as she and her escort, Bartlett’s brother, Greg Hamilton, were named Mr. and Mrs. Basketball. Bartlett shared this story, noting that Mathews was also the second African American woman in Monroe County to join the military, with Betty Sue Tooley being the first.
The Tooleys and the Hamiltons were making their names known in Monroe County history. Those names, which were inherited from their slaves days. As local historian Connie Goodman, Fountain Run, explains, slaves were freed with many not having their own surnames so they took on the names of their former owners while some kept part of the name and dropped part of it. An example of that is the African American family of Monroe County, the Kirks, who dropped Patrick from their former owners name, and the Tooleys who kept theirs.
The Tooley name became deeply rooted in the county with members going down in history, Goodman noted, “We wouldn’t have the Fountain Run BBQ Festival if it wasn’t for Sarah Tooley or Anita’s (R & S BBQ) in Tompkinsville, which has been featured in the New York Times.” So much history in the county can be traced back to the Tooleys and Hamiltons. Even the house that Pastor Tooley lives in — his grandfather’s — which it will soon be renamed Tooley Ave.
As the years wore on, another Tooley would make his mark as well. Dwight “King” Tooley — the son of Franklin Tooley and Brenda Sue Tooley, and the brother to Pastor Frank and cousin to Bartlett and her brothers. Pastor Frank explained,”Things were different by the time he was in high school. He still had struggles but it wasn’t as bad.”
King, who earned his nickname from his family because he was, as Bartlett explained, “the King of Basketball,” loved the sport since he was a small child. The elder Tooley noted that he and his siblings and their cousins would play outside til their mother called them in and then King would sneak out and play some more.
“We lived in the old Kingdom and all of us would play outside. We played baseball in the back yard and basketball in the front. We were always outside—our little group—always together, always doing something. We ran drills and everything. We were all talented in sports.”
Bartlett noted that it was her brother Ricky  who got King hooked on the game and that they would nail an old tire rim to a piece of wood to use for a goal. Frank agreed,”we used anything we could find for a basket — old milk crates… an apple barrel…” he trailed off laughing,”I will never forget when we got our first real basketball goal. We thought we were something—we were like the Jeffersons, we were moving on up!”
Frank notes that King played other sports, including football and baseball but that basketball was his passion.”He was a good kid. He made me think of Michael Jordan. He had that drive. It would be raining or even snowing and he’d be practicing his free throws. Mama would call him inside and he would sneak right back out.”
It was that determination that shaped the young man and eventually led him to Lindsey Wilson College. From his older siblings and cousins to the basketball coach at the time—Larry Moore—he was influenced and encouraged to chase his dream. At a time that one would think a young black man might not even have the chance to play for the school, King not only played but he started varsity in most of the games.
“He was good so he played,” noted Frank of the point guard who also played as a forward,”points and rebounds was his thing.” He smiled fondly,”Coach Moore—people around here still have a lot of respect for Coach Moore—he didn’t let anyone get in his ear, if you were talented, it didn’t matter who you were, your last name or your skin color—you played.”
The younger Tooley, his brother said, played the sport throughout his elementary years, winning tournaments and making quite an impression in the world of basketball. By eighth grade, he was playing varsity for the Tompkinsville Bears, Frank shared as he showed off albums full of his brothers accolades, cut out from newspapers over the years.
Among those, was a notice that he made the 1984 All State Basketball Squad and was chosen as a member of the Courier-Journal-All-State High School Basketball Team, which was chosen by a board of coaches, sports writers and officials from around Kentucky. Upon his graduation, the same year, he was awarded a full scholarship to play basketball for the Lindsey Wilson Blue Raiders and continued to make his name known throughout his college career.
At a time, when just a few years prior, a black man of his age would have either not been allowed to go to school at all or would have had his education cut short and been forced to return to the cotton fields just to survive, this young man was breaking records and changing the world. And while to today’s generation, it may not seem like that big of a deal,that is exactly what he was doing.
King, doing something so simple as playing basketball alongside white boys — not in separate schools — not segregated — but together as friends, family and teammates. He a black boy and his best friend a white boy — Dwight “King” Tooley and Steve Kirkpatrick. Each coming from two heritage families in Monroe County—one having slave ancestors and one having ancestors who owned slaves and choose to free them and give them land to start their own homesteads.
As Frank noted earlier, that would have never been possible just a few years before and Bartlett agreed, “I never really thought about it that way, but it is true… and those boys were close… that has just gave me cold chills.”
This knowledge—this appreciation for how far his family and other families in Monroe have come—has stuck with Pastor Frank through the years and he noted that it occurred to him that his brother stayed in school quite possibly for his love of a sport. Yet, had he been 20 years younger, he may never have been able to pursue that love, to get an education or to even walk down the sidewalk if a white woman were present.
These changes in the times, he says, amaze him, but he worries as that time speeds on and more and more advancements are made… more and more of history is forgotten. It is his hope, as well as Bartletts, that the African American Youth of today learn to appreciate their blessings without ever forgetting their history and that the Caucasian youth and even adults, such as myself, will seek out that knowledge as well.
As Black History Month is celebrated across Monroe County and the country, Tooley hopes his dream of that forum will come true and encourages anyone who would like to learn more to contact himself, Bartlett or Goodman.
If you would like to learn more about your family history,  a Genealogy room is available at the courthouse, on the second floor, on Wednesdays, from  9 a.m. to 12 noon, with historians available to help you. This is encouraged, with the ongoing Bicentennial Celebration. The Bicentennial Committee is also seeking Heritage families to be recognized and would like to hear from you. For more information, contact Sheila Rush at 270-487-8481 or [email protected].

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