News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion Columns

December 4, 2013

MARK BENNETT: Walk of Fame inductee would stand tall in any era

TERRE HAUTE — Unlike most of us, Amory Kinney didn’t let the wall around his comfort zone grow taller as time passed.

If such a barrier existed at all in Kinney’s life, it apparently couldn’t keep him from pursuing a just cause. Neither could loud, angry, powerful resistance.

Amory Kinney simply had guts, and Indiana became a better place as a result.

Last month, the Terre Haute Walk of Fame selection committee announced that Kinney and seven other notable former citizens would be remembered with plaques embedded into city sidewalks. The Walk of Fame now totals 30 members. Kinney lacks the local name recognition of “Three Finger” Brown, John Wooden, Eugene Debs or Scatman Crothers, but in terms of gumption, he stands tall, even 154 years after his death. The Walk selectors chose wisely.

Two particular episodes reveal Kinney’s spirit. Both prompt you to ask yourself, “What would I do?”

He lived 68 years, from 1791 to 1858. The era wasn’t exactly conducive to progressive thinking, yet Kinney forged ahead. Born in Vermont, he came to Indiana as a young lawyer from New York — strike one against him, in the court of Hoosier public opinion. Practicing in Vincennes, Kinney took on a case no other local attorney would touch. Polly Strong had been kept as a slave in that Knox County town by businessman Hyacinth Lasselle who “purchased” her before the 1787 Northwest Ordinance and 1816 Indiana Constitution abolished the heinous concept of slavery.

The county court backed Lasselle, but Indiana’s Supreme Court overturned that decision. Strong went free. Kinney became known as the state’s first abolitionist.

By representing the woman, Kinney faced “violent opposition, [humiliating treatment], hatred and reproach,” according to the 1880 book, “The History of Vigo and Parke Counties,” by H.W. Beckwith. Vincennes harbored a “nucleus” of people “determined to hold onto” slavery, despite its illegality, the book explained. Shortly after the Supreme Court ruling, a mob attacked an unarmed Kinney, with no forewarning. The help of friends prevented the assailants from killing him.

That spunk didn’t fade as Kinney aged.

In 1826, he moved to Terre Haute, “pretty liberal compared to where he had been,” said Vigo County historian and attorney Mike McCormick, also a Walk of Fame selection committee member. He wound up representing Vigo County in the Indiana House of Representatives, became a county court judge and a founder of the First Congregational Church in Terre Haute. Then, in his 50s — when lots of folks settle into their comfort zone — Kinney challenged the status quo on behalf of kids in every corner of the state.

His mission? Free public education for all.

As the 1918 book, “A History of Indiana,” put it: “The campaign for free schools was not an easy one.”

Kinney waded into shark-infested waters anyway. Advocates of free, graded public schools asked Judge Kinney to criss-cross Indiana, pitching the virtues of such a system. Instead of choosing the path of least resistance, Kinney said yes. In many communities, his message wasn’t popular. People aware of the benefits of education — primarily the wealthy — were already sending their children to private schools and didn’t want them in classes with unrefined youngsters. Many people with no school-age children had no interest in paying taxes to educate others.

“There certainly was an overwhelming sentiment in the state for schools,” wrote “A History of Indiana” author Logan Esarey, “but these schools were to be free; poor and rich all jumbled together; common; devoted to reading, writing and arithmetic; non-sectarian; where the children of infidels mingled with those of Christian parentage; and last and worst, to be paid for by all, whether the payer had children or not.”

In that emotion-charged climate, Kinney stated his case. The Terre Haute judge spoke, citing points raised in a report he compiled on “the necessity of elementary teaching, training teachers, free schools, school taxes, superintendence, district boards and libraries and distributed thousands in his travels around the state,” according to Esarey’s book.

“The people can have good schools if they will,” Kinney stated in his message. “The people are responsible, for they make the schools what they are.”

It worked, sort of. As is often the case in Indiana, change comes gradually. The Legislature approved a public schools system in 1848, but added a local option referendum that allowed individual counties to adopt or reject the law. In counties that voted no, the old system prevailed. Sixty-one Indiana counties (including Vigo and Vermillion) accepted the public-school law, and 29 (including Sullivan, Parke, Clay and Greene) turned it down.

Legal skirmishes dragged out its full implementation. The General Assembly finally gave school corporations the ability to levy and collect taxes for tuition purposes in 1867. Two years later, pushed by the Civil War’s outcome, the Legislature included African-American children in the system, though, sadly, it required trustees to maintain separate schools. Racial segregation in Indiana schools wasn’t abolished until 1949. Kinney saw none of those milestones achieved.

On a rare stint of relaxation, he suffered a heart attack and died while visiting his native state of Vermont in 1858. Apparently, comfort wasn’t his comfort zone. Back in Indiana, Kinney left a mark on his adopted state that lingers still, beyond his well-deserved star on Terre Haute’s Walk of Fame.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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