Boneyville Days: James Simpson
Descendants of former slaves Napoleon Bonaparte "Boney" Hays and Alfred Simpson gathered on Saturday from around the country to the Kentucky "free town" of Boneyville for a celebration of Boneyville Days.
Boney left his life as a slave to join the 12th United States Colored Heavy Artillery, where he trained at Camp Nelson, Kentucky, only 26 miles north. After his service to the United States in the Civil War, he purchased 7 acres of property from J.C. Hays, son of his former owner, Hugh Hays. Alfred Simpson, a former slave from Garrard County, joined Hays. The two made a free life for themselves, where livelihood, church and education became priorities for these two families. After purchasing land to become farmers, Hays helped found the AME Church in nearby Stanford. Alfred Simpson purchased 225 acres in Boneyville and helped found a one-room school.
Boney's children were daughters. The two families became one when in 1877 Boney Hays' daughter, Lucy, married Alfred Simpson's son, Elias.
Pictured here is James Simpson, great grandson of freed slave Alfred Simpson. He is wearing a hat with the greek symbols Omega Psi Phi, a college fraternity of predominantly African American students that was founded at Howard University.
Mr. James Simpson grew up in Boneyville, Kentucky. He loved movies and looked forward to going to the movie theater in nearby Stanford. The young James particularly loved war movies and westerns. One of the earliest movies that he remembers was Gone with the Wind. "The scene of the burning of Atlanta was captivating for me as a kid," said Simpson. He then quoted a famous line by Scarlet O'hara that stuck with him: "I can't think about this now! I'll go crazy if I do! I'll think about it tomorrow. But I must think about it. I must think about it. What is there to do? What is there that matters? Tara! Home. I'll go home.."
After service in the U.S. Army, he graduated from college with financial aid thanks to the G.I. Bill. He received a master's degree from the University of Louisville in social work and spent a career directing social work in Kentucky.
As a slave, Alfred Simpson was not permitted to read or write. James Simpson spoke to me that in spite of that, or most likely because of that prohibition, his great grandfather had a zeal to found a school where his children could. The one-room school on the hill offered first to eighth grade curricula.
James' parents stressed the value of education. His mother also excelled at reading music. He says he remembers her being extraordinary in music and playing the piano at church.
"My mother set an example," said James Simpson to me as we spoke on the grassy field of Boneyville, grounds used by local youth for decades to play ball. "Although she did not receive a high school education she set an example for her children through her love of reading and books. She would go to town and work for people and bring old newspapers back home. She would read them. As youngsters, we would see her reading and understand that this was important. The books that she would get, we would read."
James' older brother was the first in the family to go to college.