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Kentucky by Heart: Celebrating Kentucky’s own James Bond, and all of the state’s ‘overcomers’

By Steve Flairty
KyForward columnist

Reading and writing about overcomers from Kentucky is a passion of mine. Overcomers are often fueled by faith and an amazing persistence, along with the capacity to lay feelings of bitterness and self-pity aside. They don’t come “a dime a dozen,” and celebrating their stories, I believe, can inspire others with their struggles. A good place to find such noble people from Kentucky can start with reference books such as The Kentucky African American Encyclopedia and The Encyclopedia of Louisville, which I perused for this column.

James Bond (Photo from Berea College)

I found a sterling example of an overcomer named Bond…James Bond, but not the one you’ve seen in a series of late 20th century movies, a sort of “made up” hero and short on realism.

James M. Bond was born a slave in the middle of the American Civil War, 1863, in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. His father was Preston Bond, a white Methodist minister. His mother, Jane, along with James and his younger brother, Henry, moved to Barbourville, in Knox County, after they were emancipated in 1865.

Growing up, going to college became a driving desire for Bond. That desire was so strong that he helped pay his way by selling a steer to attend Berea College in the early 1880s. Amazingly, he first “walked” the animal 75 miles for the sale of it. He also took less than glamorous jobs to pay for his college expenses, working as a janitor and a bell ringer at the school. He graduated in 1892 from the college, and it is reported that he was one of only 2,000 blacks in America to have a college diploma, demonstrating his strong nature to overcome.

A few years later, Bond graduated from Oberlin College, in Ohio, with a divinity degree. There, he would meet his future wife and have a family of four children. He later served as pastor of the Howard Congregational Church, in Nashville. In addition, he became a trustee of Berea College and in 1901, received a doctor of divinity degree there.

But the overcoming part for Bond and his race was not over. Is it ever?

Berea Article (Image provided, via statelegalhistory.com)

The passage of the 1904 Day Law, signed into law Kentucky law by Governor J.C. W. Beckham, was a negative game changer, and it had a dramatic effect on Berea College. It decreed that black (then called “coloreds”) and white students were prohibited from attending the same school. Berea College took proactive measures, however, by establishing Lincoln Institute, a college for blacks, near Simpsonville, in Shelby County.

Berea College hired Bond to raise funds for the new school and became a member of its governing board. He again overcame, this time by working with a difficult Berea College president in the process. With help from another alumnus, he was successful with the fundraising campaign and Lincoln Institute opened in 1912. The school would later boast of well-known black civil rights activist Whitney Young, Jr. as an alumnus.

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

Remarkably, the selfless Bond, while living in Louisville, volunteered to join the United States Army during World War I but was turned down because of his age (gasp!) of 55. Consequently, he served as YMCA service director at Camp Zachary Taylor, near Louisville, then became the first director of the Kentucky YMCA for blacks. He finished his outstanding career as a public servant, becoming the first director of an advocacy organization that eventually became the Kentucky Council on Human Relations.

Let me also mention that James’s younger brother by two years, Henry, also proved successful despite his birth as a slave. His path didn’t see him spend as much time in school as James, however. He attended, but did not graduate from Berea College. He married a woman from Williamsburg, Kentucky, and the couple had nine children. Henry had two jobs. One was as a lawyer, but he attained the position by “reading law” under a local judge because he did not have a college degree. He opened a law office and the results were respectful, but worked under “Jim Crow” laws of the times and white lawyers had an advantage.

At the Williamsburg Colored Academy, Henry was both the principal and the only teacher at the school. And what about the educational attainment of the Bonds’ children? It was pretty good, as all nine earned degrees. Five attained M.A.s and two became physicians.

James also was the grandfather of famed modern civil rights advocate Julian Bond, who is noted as helping many overcome the scourge of racism. Robert Treadway, in a 2013 article in KyForward.com, made this point in that regard: “I wonder if Julian Bond, now in his own retirement, ever thinks back to the time that his grandfather, James Bond, walked 75 miles leading a calf from Barbourville to Berea to get an education. Because of the efforts of the Bond family, thousands of black youths did not have to make that walk themselves.”


The Kentucky African American Encyclopedia (The University Press of Kentucky, 2015); The Encyclopedia of Louisville (The University Press of Kentucky, 2001)

(Editor’s note: This column originally appeared at KyForward on July 10, 2018.)

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