ARKANSAS A-Z: Black school opened by Confederate soldier-turned-priest

Students of the Colored Industrial Institute in Pine Bluff (Courtesy of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Central Arkansas Library System)

The Colored Industrial Institute in Pine Bluff was one of the first Catholic-supported schools for Black children in Arkansas. The school was established by the Rev. John Michael Lucey, an Irish Catholic former Confederate soldier who became a priest after the Civil War and later took an interest in civil rights for Black Americans, speaking out against Jim Crow legislation and the practice of lynching.

John Michael Lucey was born on Sept. 29, 1843, in Troy, N.Y. While living in Troy, the Luceys heard about an Irish colony at Rocky Comfort (present-day Foreman), Arkansas. The Luceys settled in Rocky Comfort in 1847. After three years, they moved to Fort Smith, where John Michael Lucey studied at St. Andrew's College and Ward Academy. At the start of the Civil War, Lucey joined the Fort Smith Rifles, Company A, Third Regiment, Arkansas State Troops, serving alongside future Arkansas Gov. Daniel Webster Jones. Later in the war, he was transferred to the Quartermaster's Department (possibly Company C, Seventeenth Arkansas Infantry).

After the war, Lucey was ordained a priest by Bishop Edward Fitzgerald of Little Rock. Despite his service for the Confederacy, he was considered progressive for his views toward Black Americans. He estimated that only 400 Black Catholics were in Arkansas by 1890. There was no separate parish for them at that time in Pine Bluff, but Lucey held a separate Mass in the afternoons at St. Joseph's Church. He believed that establishing a school for Black children under the banner of the Diocese of Little Rock would be an effective method of evangelization.

Planning for the school began in May 1889. Lucey approached leading citizens of Jefferson County to fill the school's board of directors. This integrated board included wealthy Black Pine Bluff citizens, including Ferdinand "Ferd" Havis and Wiley Jones. Jones was also one of three members of the school's executive committee and served as secretary. The other two executive committee members were Pine Bluff mayor J.W. Bocage and Lucey.

The Sisters of Charity (from Kentucky) were teaching at Pine Bluff's Annunciation Academy when they were asked by Lucey to teach at what would become the Colored Industrial Institute. The mother superior initially sent two sisters for the school's opening with a promise to send two more shortly.

The Colored Industrial Institute opened on Sept. 9, 1889. It was situated on a city block on State Street between 15th and 16th avenues. Originally, the school consisted of a two-story wooden building that could accommodate 200 students. It opened as a day school accepting girls of all ages and boys up to 14 years old. Girls were instructed in traditional curricular subjects such as mathematics and literature, as well as sewing, crochet and vocal music. Boys also studied traditional subjects and woodworking. Lucey advertised a possible agricultural program on a working farm for boys, although it is unclear whether the program was ever started. Moral instruction was also stressed, and students attended Catholic Mass, but the sisters promised there would be no interference in the students' "religious principles."

The school participated in an exhibit at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and earned two medals and two diplomas. By 1894, the school had a three-story brick building and 235 students with six teachers from the Sisters of Charity. With a growing school, Lucey recognized that he needed more assistance and, in 1898, accepted help from the Josephite priests, an order established to evangelize Black people prior to the Civil War. In a further move to evangelize them, Lucey brought in a Black order of nuns, the Sisters of the Holy Family, to teach at the school.

In September 1904, the Josephite order sent the Rev. John H. Dorsey to assist the Josephite priest, the Rev. J.J. Ferdinand, with the Colored Industrial Institute and Pine Bluff's St. Peter's Church. When the white Ferdinand left abruptly after clashing with Lucey (now a monsignor), the Colored Industrial Institute became the first school to be run by a Black priest (Dorsey) and Black nuns. Dorsey also became the first Black American Catholic pastor of a church (St. Peter's) upon Ferdinand's departure.

Lucey and Dorsey disagreed over the direction of St. Peter's Church, with Lucey charging that its membership failed to increase after Dorsey was made pastor. Eventually, Lucey and Bishop John Morris of the Diocese of Little Rock asked the Josephite fathers to officially remove Father Dorsey in 1909. Soon after Dorsey's removal, attendance at the Colored Industrial Institute began to drop, and the school was closed by 1913. Eventually, St. Peter's took over the Colored Industrial Institute buildings and continued operation as St. Peter's School until closing in 2012 as a result of dwindling enrollment. -- Amanda L. Paige

This story is adapted by Guy Lancaster from the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas, a project of the Central Arkansas Library System. Visit the site at