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Meet Lawrenceburg’s James Bond

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By Bill McHugh

Mention the name James Bond to any moviegoer and images of the dashing and debonair secret spy 007 comes to mind.
Bond could be searching for a missing secret agent or perhaps trying to find a secret Russian decoding machine. Inevitably Bond comes across an attractive female agent who has questionable intensions of her own.
In contrast, arguably, Lawrenceburg had the first James Bond. However, Lawrenceburg’s James Bond was not a secret British agent. Lawrenceburg’s James Bond was born 150 years ago in 1863, as a slave. Before his death in 1929, Bond became a prominent civil rights advocate in the South, during a time when white supremacy was the rule of the day.
Bond’s grandson, Julian Bond, served as a US Congressman from Georgia for over 20 years and spent 12 years as chairman of the NAACP.
James and his mother were slaves until the passage of the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery. With their new found freedom, James’ mother Jane decided to move James and his younger brother to Barbourville. Here Jane was reunited with her sister who she had not seen since being separated during slavery. It was here that James began his education. Schooling was rudimentary at best. Organized by local blacks and sympathetic whites, textbooks consisted of the Bible and Webster’s “blueback speller” while concentrating on the “three R’s.”
As a teenager, James had an unsettled appetite for more education than was available at his home. In the summer of 1879, James packed his few belongings in a pillowcase and travelled 55 miles on foot to Berea College to continue his education. Jim was not alone on his journey. His traveling companion was a steer, given to him by his mother. The steer was used to pay his enrollment costs once at Berea.
Berea College is a remarkable story in and of itself. Founded in 1855, from its outset Berea was meant to be open to both whites and blacks at the same time. Founder John Fee was mobbed 22 times and left for dead on two occasions for his beliefs in interracial education. The college was the only racially integrated school in the South. Berea was as devoted to teaching Christian values as it was to biracial education.
James graduated Berea in 1892. Bond was only one of about 2,000 blacks in the country at the time to have earned a college degree. From there James went on to Oberlin College in Ohio and earned a divinity degree. Bond was then ordained a minister into the United Church of Christ, a denomination long founded on the traditions of abolitionism and interracial harmony. Afterword James moved on to serve churches in Birmingham Ala., Nashville and Atlanta.
Wherever the young minister lived he did not hesitate to intellectually challenge the white establishment on racial matters. During a period in the South dominated by “Jim Crow” laws, Bond often went to the newspapers on behalf of the black population.
For example, in Nashville Bond challenged the city council’s policy on limiting black education to the eighth grade. He wrote “Hundreds of law-abiding, peaceable, tax-paying negro citizens of Nashville were deeply grieved … as an unfortunate, struggling race, a race for whose very presence here others are responsible, whose misfortunes are the result of conditions for which he can no way be blamed … ”
Bond’s arguments went unheeded at the time but his refusal to accept inferior facilities and treatment of his people undoubtedly hastened the dismantling of Jim Crow laws and segregation in the South.
In 1896, Bond became a trustee at Berea College. In 1904, Kentucky’s “Day Law” was passed which officially segregated Kentucky schools. It was specifically designed to target Berea College. Kentucky Rep. Day told the press that the law “was to prevent the contamination of the white children of Kentucky.”
As a trustee of Berea College Bond led a fundraising campaign that allowed the opening of the Lincoln Institute in 1912 near Simpsonville.
The Lincoln Institute became a prominent boarding school for African American students that offered vocational instruction and standard high school classes, which were not offered to blacks at the time.
Bond eventually moved to Louisville where the Kentucky Commission on Interracial Cooperation was formed; Bond became its first director. As director he organized interracial committees in 60 Kentucky counties with significant black populations.
James Bond died Jan. 5, 1929 at the age of 63. Upon his death, Louisville’s Courier-Journal editorialized that the loss of Bond “will be seriously felt not only by his race, not only in his community, but by blacks and whites of the whole state….”
The paper concluded its accolades of Bond: “Louisville had no more useful citizen or one whose memory merits more honor.”
From a slave to a prominent civil rights leader in the South, Lawrenceburg’s James Bond was an agent and a hero for African Americans in Kentucky at a time when blacks had little standing as American citizens.

William McHugh teaches at the Lawrenceburg campus of Bluegrass Community Technical College.