Ethel and James Kearney
Educators | Class of 1995
Thomas James (called James or “T. J.”) Kearney and his wife, Ethel Virginia Curry Kearney, were cotton sharecroppers who were recognized for their contributions to childhood education and Christian service by the state of Arkansas; Johnson Publishing Company of Chicago, Illinois; President William J. Clinton; and the country of Israel. Of the couple’s nineteen children, eighteen were college graduates, and a number of them served the state of Arkansas and the U.S. government in leadership roles.
T. J. Kearney, one of nine siblings, was born on June 25, 1906, to Thomas Clayton (T. C.) Kearney and Cynthia Davis Kearney in Lake Village, Arkansas. His parents were farmers. It is believed that both T. C. and Cynthia were the children of slaves. Cynthia is believed to have grown up in Lake Village and T. C. in Mississippi or Louisiana. They married on October 6, 1901, in Lake Village and began their lives as itinerant farmers, moving often throughout Chicot, Lincoln, and Jefferson counties.
T. C. Kearney died during the Flu Epidemic of 1918 at the age of forty-six. T. J. Kearney was only eleven at the time of his father’s death. He began his life of “traveling the world” that same year—first, in nearby cities and towns and, later, to every region of the country, working as an itinerant farmer in fruit orchards, as a chauffeur on a ranch, as a cook in a Greek restaurant in Chicago, and on the railroads throughout the country. He also hired himself out as a mercenary worker on ships that sailed as far away as Cuba and Liverpool, England. In 1926, T. J. married Temperance Watson of Plum Bayou, Arkansas; they were both about twenty-one. They had one child. The marriage ended in 1937.
Ethel Curry was born on February 4, 1917, in Magnolia, Arkansas, to the farming family of Luther Curry and Mattie Emma Russ Curry; Luther and Mattie, who was a native of rural Columbia County, had married in 1913. Luther’s parents, Ned Curry and Priscilla Watson Curry, had been born into slavery—Ned in 1833 and Priscilla around 1847. They are believed to have married shortly before the Emancipation Proclamation set them free. Ned died in 1894 at the age of sixty-one. Priscilla died at eighty-three in 1926. The former slaves sought to rear their son Luther and his twelve siblings to fear God, to work hard, and to strive for an education. The couple had ten children who survived to adulthood—two died in infancy and one at the age of seventeen. Luther Curry died at the age of eighty-three in 1969. Mattie Emma Curry died at the age of ninety-nine in 1989.
Ethel’s childhood was more traditional than her husband’s. Each of her siblings graduated from grammar school in Union County and then attended high school in another town. Ethel was not allowed to attend high school. Her first child was born in 1934.
Thomas James Kearney and Ethel Virginia Curry met in December 1936 at a community “hog killing” in Pastoria, Arkansas. He was thirty years old, while she was nineteen. They married on March 17, 1937. The Kearney family resided for more than seventy-five years on Varner Road, eight miles north of the city of Gould, Arkansas. Ethel attained her GED certificate at the age of fifty at Gould High School, the school where most of her children received their high school diplomas.
T. J. and Ethel Kearney were recognized throughout the southeastern Arkansas region for their non-traditional roles of childhood educators, who taught their children the rudiments of education well before they set foot in their segregated and substandard schools. They were also religious leaders in their community and served in various roles—such as deacon, teacher, usher, women’s missionary president, laymen president, and Sunday school superintendent—at Rankin Chapel Church during their decades-long membership. They also co-led the Parent Teacher Association at Fields High School, where their children attended school.
In spite of their poverty, the Kearney children were high achievers, who attended colleges and universities such as Harvard, Yale, Brown, Stanford, Syracuse, and Vanderbilt, as well as the University of Arkansas (U of A) at Fayetteville. Two served in the Clinton administration—Jude Kearney was deputy assistant director for international finance for the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, and Janis F. Kearney was the first person ever to be appointed as personal diarist to a U.S. president. Other Kearney siblings have served as federal and local judges, lawyers, city administrators, and educators.
In 1989, John H. Johnson of Ebony magazine recognized the family as outstanding based on the number of college graduates in the family. In 1999, President Clinton invited Thomas James Kearney to the White House to recognize his ninety-third birthday. Upon his death, the Jewish National Fund planted a tree in memory of Thomas James Kearney in the Coretta Scott King Forest in the Galilee region of northern Israel. The tree was planted “in memory of Thomas James ‘T. J.’ Kearney, family patriarch, bible scholar, and man of wisdom and peace.”
Ethel Kearney died at the age of sixty-four on March 19, 1982. James Kearney died on December 29, 2013, at the age of 107. They are both buried in Union Cemetery in Gould.