Laura Garrett ’13 uncovers little-known Centre Civil War stories
As an institution nearly two centuries old, Centre is a place with a rich history, and Laura Garrett ’13 now knows that better than anyone. Inspired by a CentreTerm class, she recently delved into Centre’s past and came back with a fascinating array of stories—particularly those of women and African-Americans at Centre leading up to and after the Civil War.
“I took a class with Dr. Robert Murray called ‘Slavery, Memory, and the College,’ in which we discussed our public memory of slavery and the Civil War,” she explains. “Each student in the class wrote a paper on some aspect of Centre’s or Danville’s history from the period of enslavement and the Civil War.”
The following summer, the iconic Abraham Lincoln statue was unveiled, inspiring Garrett to dig deeper into Centre’s past.
“It felt to me that only one small part of our history—Centre’s connection to Lincoln through John Todd Stuart—was being remembered. My classmates in the ‘Slavery, Memory, and the College’ course made a lot of great discoveries about our history that were not being discussed in relation to the Lincoln statue.”
The result of Garrett’s careful and thorough digging was a fascinating array of people and stories, including Mrs. E.B. Patterson, wife of Centre math professor Robert Patterson; confederate soldiers who camped on Old Centre lawn; and Harrison Wickliffe, an African-American who worked at Centre both as a slave and free man.
Wickliffe was originally owned by Centre president John C. Young and worked as a janitor at Centre until the 1840’s, when Young, an emancipationist, freed him. Wickliffe continued to work at Centre for several decades before moving to Chicago in 1893. Upon his departure, the Danville newspaper referred to him as “our venerable colored citizen…who will long be remembered as the former efficient and respected Professor of Dust and Ashes in Centre College.”
Garrett credits the discovery of Wickliffe’s story to Jim Randsell ’12, though Garrett was the one who pored through census records, city directories, bills of sale and military records to piece together the details of Wickliffe’s life.
“Genealogical and archival research is my favorite type of research,” says Garrett. “It’s like solving a mystery—I’m trying to discover something that nobody else has discovered before.”
Above all, Garrett’s research reveals the complex and controversial state of affairs at Centre during an important era for Kentucky and the nation.
“We were a divided school,” she says. “We had both slave owners and abolitionists, supporters of the Confederacy and the Union. While all of our faculty and students were white men, there were many African-Americans and women who lived and worked on our campus. In the election when Lincoln became president, only three people in the entire county voted for him. Boyle County was a very Southern county in many ways—our economy was based on agriculture, and in the decades just prior to the Civil War, a third of our county was enslaved.”
In the process of uncovering Centre’s past, Garrett ran into several surprising discoveries, including the College’s connection to the Battle of Perryville, which Mrs. E.B. Patterson’s memoirs revealed.
“After the Battle of Perryville, Confederate soldiers who were hospitalized on our campus built campfires on the lawn in front of Old Centre and would sit around them at night singing ‘Dixie’ and other Rebel songs,” says Garrett. “Since Old Centre hasn’t changed much in appearance since then, I can imagine what that scene would’ve looked like. It’s pretty amazing to think of our campus being occupied by soldiers.”
The research was especially helpful to Garrett, who says it solidified her desire to pursue history at the graduate level.
“It gave me the opportunity to do two of my favorite things: archival research and study public memory,” she says. “I’d like to enroll in University of Louisville’s public history program, which could lead me into jobs in museums, with the government, or in libraries and archives.”
Despite how this research may have contributed to Garrett’s career plans, ultimately she hopes it has helped bring important people and their stories into Centre’s public memory.
“I hope that this project will give the Centre community today an accurate story about our past,” she says.
By Mariel Smith