Dr. Bernard Minnis is leading an interesting life by any measure. The product of a distinguished family of Louisville educators, he has been a classroom teacher, a middle school principal and deputy associate superintendent for instruction with the Kentucky Department of Education. He also served as communications chief for the Charleston, S.C., school system.
During Louisville’s tumultuous period of school desegregation in the 1970s, he was one of the leaders tapped to ease the transition to an integrated system. For 40 years, minus his stints in Frankfort and Charleston, he served Jefferson County Public Schools, rising to assistant superintendent for diversity, equity and poverty programs.
In 2009, Metro Louisville awarded him its Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Award for “promoting justice, peace, freedom, non-violence, racial equality and civic activism.” (When they were college students in the ’60s, Dr. Minnis and his wife, Ethel, marched with Dr. King on Frankfort.) Today he is an assistant professor in Bellarmine’s Annsley Frazier Thornton School of Education, where he teaches instructional leadership and social justice. In short, he has dedicated his career to helping children gain access to the public education system.
All of this would no doubt delight Dr. Minnis’ great-grandfather, Madison Beaumont Minnis (1833-84), who was born a slave. Like his great-grandson Bernard, Madison Beaumont Minnis lived an interesting life and became a community leader in Louisville.
According to family research, and sources including the 19th-century Weeden’s History of The Colored People of Louisville and the Louisville Bulletin, Madison Beaumont Minnis escaped slavery and returned after the Civil War to local prominence.
“He was born in slavery in Versailles, Ky., but ran away to the north with the Underground Railroad when he was a youth,” Dr. Minnis said. “His mother encouraged him to run away because she didn’t want him to be sold off to the Deep South,” where plantation conditions were harsher than they were in Kentucky. “He went to Canada, then came back to Louisville as an adult and a freedman soon after the war’s end.”
In Louisville, Madison Minnis became a leader in the black community and was appointed to the position of chief janitor at City Hall. He served as the first vice president of the Colored Orphans Home and was an active member of Fifth Street Baptist Church, establishing the church’s choir and serving as its chorister. He also served on the Building Committee of the Colored Public School Board. (“Madison’s mother, Rebecca, worked for the orphanage, so she lived for a long time,” Dr. Minnis said.)
Madison Minnis “was a prominent African American, although his job was not prominent,” said Dr. Minnis. “He was head of maintenance at City Hall. He was the first African American to be in that position. He had a good relationship with Charlie Jacob, who was the mayor who contracted with the Olmsted Brothers to build the parks.”
When Madison Beaumont Minnis died in 1884, “the mayor closed City Hall for his funeral,” Dr. Minnis said. The city engine bells were tolled and the flag was lowered to half-staff in his honor, the first time either was done in recognition of a black man in Louisville.
What the mayor could not know at that time was that Madison Beaumont Minnis would continue to lift the area for decades to come, because at least four generations of his descendants would become educators.
Among them are his daughter, Emma L. Minnis (1880-1972), a teacher, college professor, perhaps the first female African-American principal in Kentucky and a piano instructor for whom the Emma L. Minnis Junior Academy on Magazine Street is named; his daughters Ella and Elizabeth, who were both educators and music teachers; his grandson Albert Meade Minnis Jr., who taught engineering at the Lincoln Institute in Shelby County; and his great-grandson, Bellarmine’s own Dr. Bernard Minnis.
Madison Beaumont Minnis’ wife, Elizabeth Minnis, also co-founded the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Louisville and taught music. “My great-aunt told one of her students that Elizabeth, who was probably a house servant, played her piano for President Lincoln,” Dr. Minnis said.
Now, in addition to teaching tomorrow’s education leaders at Bellarmine, Dr. Minnis occasionally shares his great-grandfather’s story with Louisville schoolchildren.
“I have a student who teaches at Schaffner Elementary School,” he said. “She asked me to come to her fourth-grade class and talk to her students about slavery. I talked to them about my great-grandfather escaping, going through the Underground Railroad, coming back to Louisville. They had very poignant questions about slavery and the treatment of slaves.
“My great-grandfather was literate, and they wanted to know about that. I asked them if they’d ever heard about anybody drinking at a segregated water fountain, and showed them pictures. We had some very rich discussions! I was really impressed with the students. I gave them some quizzes and they had the answers. They were well prepared.
“I also talked to the Boys Club at Camp Taylor. It’s so important to reach these young men. I told them I grew up on Grand Avenue and I’m the same age as Muhammad Ali, and that gets their attention. The Ali Center is so good for young people.”
Dr. Minnis can also teach his students about his direct experience with school desegregation. “The merger of the Louisville and Jefferson County districts started in ’74, and desegregation began in ’75. I came back to Louisville to work for [Jefferson County Schools superintendent Richard] Van Hoose, who was concerned about getting the community ready for desegregation. He took me around and introduced me to anti-busing leaders and PTAs. When the desegregation court case came, they brought me in as the head of the department in community relations. Those were very interesting times!”
Despite great progress in education equity, there is still much work to be done, said Dr. Minnis. “Things are better. We now have second-generation desegregation issues – suspensions, high levels of special-education classes, achievement gap – those are second-generation issues. The district and board have worked hard to keep equity, and that is significant. You will always have problems. Racism is not something of the past. But Jefferson County has really made an effort. I can remember people being fired upon, the National Guard riding on buses, protest lines outside schools. Schools that did not have any African Americans that do now. So things are better now.”
Bellarmine has long played a leadership role in desegregation. A decade before school integration, Bellarmine’s first president, Msgr. Alfred F. Horrigan, served as vice chairman of Louisville Human Relations Commission and then as chairman of the merged Louisville-Jefferson County Human Relations Commission. Despite an avalanche of hate mail and thousands of protestors, he brought city officials and civil-rights leaders together to work toward desegregation in restaurants and housing.
His successor at Bellarmine, Dr. Eugene V. Petrik, was similarly involved in the ’70s. “I met Gene Petrik because he was trying to get the community ready for what was going to happen,” said Dr. Minnis. “He organized groups and was a leader during desegregation. So there’s a history here.
“The Bellarmine Ph.D. [in Education and Social Change] program was created to deal with social justice and issues of poverty. The people we turn out in that program will become leaders in schools and non-profit agencies working with the poor and issues of diversity.”
After retiring from JCPS, Dr. Minnis heard about the Ph.D. program and decided to get involved. “A friend of mine said, ‘I want you to meet Dr. Robert Cooter [the School of Education dean] and see what they’re doing at Bellarmine.’ And when he told me about it, I came out of retirement to work on this program.
“The Cooters really understand how to work on justice and issues of poverty. [School of Education professor] Kathy Cooter is a master teacher and she’s also a master at creating these programs – ways of helping students learn. What they’ve done at the West End Boy’s School is phenomenal. The program puts primarily female teachers in with African-American male students, and her program produces very powerful students. That has been a great experience here.”
And so the education legacy of Madison Beaumont Minnis lives on. And yet, there’s more: “I have three children,” said Dr. Minnis. “One of my sons knew he wanted to be a teacher early on. My daughter started in another career and decided she wanted to be a teacher. And so they are the fifth generation of educators.”
Jim Welp | email@example.com