'It's an honor': Tolbert reflects on journey to becoming district's first Black principal

Feb. 28—ASHLAND — From poverty to principal, Uriah Tolbert paved the way as he showed what an impoverished Black man could accomplish.

Tolbert, 37, is the first Black principal in the Ashland Independent School District.

The Crabbe Elementary principal and basketball coach said when he was offered the position in 2018 he didn't know he was shattering a glass ceiling by becoming the first African-American to take that administrative position.

"I didn't even know until I was told that when I got the job in 2018. One of my cousins called me and was like 'so proud of you, cuz,'" Tolbert said. "They said, 'Cuz, you are the first one' and I am like, what do you mean? I am thinking at Crabbe for sure."

"It's an honor being the first Black principal and I am proud to embrace that title, knowing the history and segregation," he said. In the early 1960s, C.B. Nuckolls was Principal of Booker T. Washington, an all-Black school in Ashland amidst segregation. The school was not part of the Ashland school system.

A sense of "belonging" and sense of "home" fills Tolbert's body while being in Crabbe's building. He said with his struggles and facing poverty, he overcame them with the help of people; now he is striving to be that individual for Crabbe students.

"I'm a Hillcrest (Bruce Apartments) kid," he said. "I was raised up there after my grandmother passed. I know about the projects and I love how when I come here I can see myself in these kids and I know what it's like to go through a struggle that they are going through. It definitely reminds me of being in elementary school when I was in elementary."

He recalled growing up in poverty.

"I know what it's like to not have a home," he said. "To eat beans and cornbread for days, sometimes no cornbread, I know what it's like to not have sugar in your Kool-Aid.

"I know the struggle of not having food, adequate water and shelter, but my grandmother always made it happen somehow."

Tolbert credits Hatcher Elementary for his career success.

"The teachers and the principal there at the time really pushed and embraced me. They took care of me and I wanted to be one to help take care of others," he said.

During his time at Hatcher, he said he was the only Black child in his classes kindergarten through fifth grade.

"We had some bi-racial students as well and classmates, but they weren't Black; we had some Native Americans, Hispanic ... not being able to see a lot of me growing up was also encouragement."

As Principal, Tolbert aims to inspire children of all races and backgrounds to realize they could achieve what he has or reach even higher, he said. His presence gives kids a "sense of hope" and "self-worth."

"Letting my kids here see that, yes this can happen, or that can be me one day ... or I can do anything I want to put my mind to," Tolbert said.

Tolbert left Ashland in 2004 and moved to Richmond, where he attended Eastern Kentucky University. He said it was the "best" decision he ever made.

"It wasn't easy, I was (in that area) for 14 years," he said. "If it wasn't for the people who pushed me from Hatcher from Verity Middle School from Paul G. Blazer High School, I would not be where I am at. I am a man of faith and God put people in my life to help guide and lead me."

Hired as music teacher straight out of student teaching, Tolbert was on his way to make his mark.

From 2010-15, Tolbert was a music teacher at Yates Elementary School in Lexington. During that time, he said he also worked as an interventionist and worked in Behavior Intervention.

He spent one year at Deep Springs Elementary, also in Lexington, after he got word of the school not having a music program.

"When I found that out, I said 'What can I do? Let me come over here and even if it's a club,'" he said.

After teaching at Deep Springs every Friday for the school year, Tolbert said it fueled and prompted the district to hire a music teacher.

"They saw the value," he said.

Tolbert recently led fourth- and fifth-grade Crabbe students on a tour inside of C.B Nuckolls Community Center and Black History Museum — the first Black history museum in northeastern Kentucky.

"Looking at that generation," Tolbert said, "they didn't know about 'colored only' signs on bathrooms and water fountains. They didn't know about how Black and whites could not be together. They didn't know about Dawson Pool and Southside Pool. They didn't know that Blacks couldn't go to Camden Park, but once a year. It was an eye-opener for them."

He expressed the significance of teaching "old wounds" of America's past to not indoctrinate, but to remind people what the country used to be and serve as a reminder to not repeat the same cycle.

"It's not that we are trying to open up old wounds because that is not it," Tolbert said. "We have progressed, we have moved forward. Those that don't study history are doomed to repeat it.

"We all have our own heritage and traditions, we should learn about each other so that way we can come together and respect each other. It's very important to have these kids teach their children later on as well."

Crabbe has a counseling program that is consistent in promoting diversity.

"She teaches every day in the classroom. Once a week everyone gets guidance and she includes it in her curriculum," Tolbert said. "We also have days where we honor diversity, like right now, they are learning about Black history.

"We know that this month is very precious and very important," Tolbert said.

(606) 326-2657 —