Lessons learned: Elijah Marrs, if we empower our minds we can overcome any obstacle

The story of Elijah Marrs is one of American greatness and one to be celebrated for Black History Month. As a member of the Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War chapter in Lexington, Kentucky whose namesake is Elijah Marrs, several of my ancestors fought in the Civil War for the Union Army, as did Marrs.  

Living in Kentucky and working with our great Kentucky hauler partners to reinvent the waste industry both here in Kentucky and around the world, I am reminded on a daily basis of the immense history and unique historical position of Kentucky on the United States and world stage. In the time of Elijah Marrs, Kentucky was a "border state" — between the North and South — and the site of several battles. 

A minister, educator, and soldier, Elijah was born in 1840 in Shelby County, Kentucky, during slavery. His father was a free man, but his mother was a slave meaning he, too, fell into slavery, an ethical pandemic of its own back then. 

Growing up, Marrs secretly learned to read and write but it was religion that caught his attention. Marrs would read the bible to his fellow sadly illiterate slaves. Reading enabled Marrs to teach other people forced to endure the ravages of slavery that if they enlisted in the Union Army, they would be set free. On September 25, 1864, Marrs escaped from slavery. Rallying a group of 27 men armed with clubs and pistols, they set off on foot for the nearly 40-mile journey to Louisville. 

Over the next 18 months, serving in minor skirmishes and helping to relocate freed slaves to refugee camps, Marrs quickly drew attention for his work ethic, drive, and perseverance. In his autobiography, Marrs writes that “they looked to me as if I were their Saviour.” 

The experience made a mark on Marrs. While still in the Army, he took up leading prayer meetings in the barracks. And after the war, he would go on to teach and lead in a variety of roles, helping his fellow freed slaves find the opportunities he had been given to better themselves and reach for a better life. 

Marrs left rural Kentucky a slave, but in his own words “returned a free man and a school teacher.” In becoming a school teacher, he would remark that often he was the first black school teacher most white people had ever seen. He also took up preaching in earnest and became a Baptist minister in 1875. 

Perhaps Marrs’ most notable accomplishment was co-founding the Kentucky Normal and Theological Institute in Louisville in 1879, along with his brother Henry. Marrs was named the college’s first President, although he would say he felt ill-suited for the role. After one year, Marrs convinced another former slave and educator, Dr. William J. Simmons, to take over as President, and the college would later be renamed after Simmons and become one of the most renowned historically black colleges, Simmons College.   

Marrs considered his ministry “the most important period of [his] life,” and fittingly, he left being the President of a college to take over a small Baptist church. Let’s remember Marrs and commit to challenging ourselves to the realization that if we empower our minds we can overcome any obstacle.

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