Unlike many children, Jean Martin Hill went to the Lincoln Institute instead of Eminence High School.
An uncle who had no children of his own would drive her to the school in Shelby County where she stayed during the week. Occasionally, Hill stayed at the school on weekends. The adjustment wasn’t easy at first, but the hardships Hill and many families endured were a part of life then.
Her parents stressed the need for education and the doors it could open to a better life. When opportunity came, you took it — it wasn’t a choice.
“We didn’t feel slighted because we went to different schools,” Hill said. “It was just a fact of life if we wanted to go to high school. I enjoyed my time at Lincoln, but sometimes I wouldn’t get to come home but once a month.”
Hill stayed in the equivalent of modern day college dorm rooms and had roommates. Lincoln Heights had another wing of dorm rooms for young men. The Lincoln Institute, now named Whitney M. Young Jr. Job Corps Center in honor of the civil rights leader Whitney M. Young Jr., opened in 1912 as a boarding school for African-Americans and closed in 1966.
“Now looking back it seems almost like we were in college. It’s a vocational type school now, but then it had normal classrooms, a big cafeteria that served breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Hill said. “My uncle bought some of my clothes and helped pay for me to go there.”
Hill attended the Merriweather School in Eminence when she was younger. Her siblings and other African-American children walked from West Owen Street in Eminence to the two-room and two-teacher schoolhouse.
“We used old school books that were handed down. Everything we had were hand-me-downs, but we loved to learn,” Hill said. “We were blessed to have both of our parents in the household and they instilled in us a desire to learn. They were very intelligent and knowledgeable people.”
Hill said her mother loved to read and read to eight children every night.
“We were very easy learners in school and picked up on things fast,” Hill said. “Two rooms and hardwood floors, the school wasn’t much. Ms. Sarah Mason would come to the school and cook for us. We were determined to learn as much knowledge as we could. Our parents encouraged us to work hard and do well in school.”
Hill met her husband and married at an early age in high school. She was the youngest, married black female student to get her high school diploma. Hill graduated from Eminence High School in 1961 after leaving the Lincoln Institute. She went back to school after having a child determined to continue opening doors to her future.
“My parents instilled that drive in me and that is why I went back to get my diploma,” Hill said. “I always wanted to work in an office somewhere. We moved to Louisville and I started working in county government.”
Hill worked her way up to the Jefferson County Corrections Department doing payroll and working as a supervisor for telecommunications. She attended Eastern Kentucky University through the county for continued education.
“I have always been good with numbers. I was working, learning and getting paid to do it,” Hill said. “I am thankful for my parents and my uncle. He didn’t have any children of his own and he made sure I went to school. I sometimes regret I didn’t go farther with school; life happens, but I am retired and have had a good life.”
For Hill going back to high school and getting her diploma reflected her drive and ambition. Something she thinks future generations need to remember.
“It was hard sometimes how we lived and we didn’t have the newest things — a lot were hand-me-downs,” Hill said. “You have to have a good mind and keep focused. Parents need to make children realize how many opportunities they have now that we didn’t.”