Black History Month – Honoring 5 Humane Education Pioneers

By Kim Korona

In celebrating Black History Month, we honor some of the first humane educators who endeavored to promote both anti-racism and the humane treatment of animals. They worked selflessly for the American Humane Association and promoted a message of justice and kindness toward people and nonhuman animals. 

This work took an incredible amount of bravery. They often traveled alone from town to town, which was dangerous for any person of color, but especially for them, as they were recognizable for being outspoken about racial injustice.  And still, they held these positions for many years to spread their message of justice and compassion. 1

1. Dr. William “Bill” Key 

Despite Dr. William Key being born into a system of enslavement in 1833, he was able to learn reading, mathematics, and writing. He was fascinated by veterinary textbooks and studied them thoroughly, learning animal care and dentistry. From an early age, he had a special bond with animals, particularly horses. As Dr. Key practiced veterinary medicine, he also used his skills to provide medical services to other enslaved individuals, who would otherwise not have access to healthcare. After the Civil War, when Dr. Key was no longer enslaved, he planned to breed horses for the racetrack. When his first horse gave birth to a very weak and sickly colt, he knew the horse was not strong enough to compete. Most people would have put the colt down, but instead, Dr. Key cared for the horse, nursed him back to health, and named him Jim. Instead of breeding horses for the track, Dr. Key focused on using humane training techniques, patience, and treats to teach Jim incredible feats. 2

Dr. Key and Jim began traveling and showing off Jim’s incredible talents, such as how to spell and write his own name. An investor with the American Humane Association (AHA) observed Dr. Key and Jim performing together and hired them to work for the AHA. Some of the leaders in the organization were concerned about the idea of promoting a program that was seen as an “animal act,” but George Angell, who founded the AHA, recognized that Dr. Key treated Jim with nothing but kindness, and together they were disproving a common belief at the time about nonhuman animals lacking the capacity to think and feel.3 They became known as Dr. Key and Beautiful Jim Key, and at the end of every program, Dr. Key emphasized the importance of humane training and his core message, “Be kind to animals.” Children were thrilled when Dr. Key and Beautiful Jim came to their town. Many waited in long lines to talk to Dr. Key at the end of the program, say their “I promise to be kind to animals” pledge, and receive an official Jim Key Bands of Mercy card. (Bands of Mercy was a youth organization focused on promoting kindness toward animals.) Dr. Key and Beautiful Jim promoted a message of compassion for almost a decade to several million people. Dr. Key worked to break down racial barriers by performing for not only white audiences, but Black audiences as well. He demanded that venues he performed at open their doors to the Black community and at a discounted rate. For a time, some considered Dr. Key to be the most recognizable African-American in the country. When he passed away in 1909, he was “universally praised for his service to humanity.”4

John Lemon, Richard Carroll, Frederick Rivers Barnwell, and Seymour Carroll all worked as humane educators, continuing the legacy of Dr. Key. 

2. John W. Lemon 

John Lemon was a distinguished teacher and preacher who worked to uplift the Black community. He was remembered by his family as someone who could never be pushed to anger but staunchly committed to his convictions nevertheless. He lectured about injustice and encouraged the Black community to stand with each other. He founded a cooperative in which Black families invested their money together to purchase a large farm and then divided the land into plots for each family. There was a covenant governing the collective that the involved families agreed to, and one of those guidelines was a pledge to eat less meat in order to reduce the demand to kill animals for food.5 It is not surprising that Lemon was hired by the AHA to be another early humane educator; he was a skilled orator and educator, advocated against racial injustice, and believed in compassion toward animals. Lemon traveled throughout Alabama and Virginia giving hundreds of lectures promoting the humane treatment of animals and helped to organize the development of 500 Bands of Mercy youth groups.6  

3. Richard Carroll

Richard Carroll was also a respected minister who began working for the AHA as a field organizer in the early beginnings of humane education. Carroll has been seen as a controversial figure by some for appeasing white people, but others argue that he was a master of framing his message to effectively influence white leaders. He would sometimes appear to validate the feelings and thoughts of white people to the shock of the Black community, and then flip their bigotry by describing positive examples of how Black and white people could interact with one another through the framework of equality. He believed in the importance of promoting kindness toward animals, and he also used that message as a means to open the hearts of white audiences in particular. He had the respect of many white politicians, and he used those relationships to encourage policies that would improve working conditions and wages for the Black community. 7

4. Frederick Rivers Barnwell 

As a Baptist minister and the director of Negro Health Services at the Texas Tuberculosis Association, Frederick Rivers Barnwell had a background in effective oratory and public health education. He applied those skills to his work as a humane education leader, serving as a field organizer traveling to schools, churches, and communities offering programs about kindness and respect toward animals. He promoted competitions for young people to build birdhouses to support wildlife, established more Bands of Mercy groups composed of thousands of Black children, and spoke to soldiers about the humane treatment of horses used in war. Barnwell condemned both oppression toward people and animal cruelty. Black civic leaders praised Barnwell for “accomplishing vast good for righteousness,” recognizing the connections that he was making between justice for people and kindness to animals.8

5. Seymour Carroll 

Seymour Carroll followed in the footsteps of his father, Richard Carroll, and also became a field organizer. At the time, he was the youngest field representative ever hired by AHA, and he became the most traveled. He put in thousands of miles each month reaching children and teachers. He was extremely dedicated to the cause and even helped to pass animal protection legislation. Carroll was simultaneously dedicated to fighting racial inequality and advancing economic justice by leading a Black delegation to the National Recovery Administration in South Carolina. He was elected as the secretary of an advisory group to ensure that Black people were given “a fair share of the employment created by the New Deal” to help the United States out of the Great Depression.9

These pioneering humane educators devoted their lives to fighting against anti-Blackness, poverty, segregation, and cruelty to animals. We thank them for their work in promoting racial justice and kindness to animals. 

  1. Clifton, Merritt. Black humane history found in great-grandpa’s attic near a town called Ark https://www.animals24-7.org/2022/01/15/black-humane-history-found-in-great-grandpas-attic-near-a-town-called-ark/, Animals 24-7; (2022 Jan 15).
  2.  Neal, James H. William Key, Tennessee Encyclopedia, https://tennesseeencyclopedia.net/entries/william-key/. The Tennessee Historical Society; (2021).
  3.  Rivas, Mim Eichler.  Beautiful Jim Key, http://www.beautifuljimkey.com/history.htm, (2007). 
  4. Neal, James H. William Key, Tennessee Encyclopedia, https://tennesseeencyclopedia.net/entries/william-key/. The Tennessee Historical Society; (2021).
  5.  Clifton, Merritt. Black humane history found in great-grandpa’s attic near a town called Ark https://www.animals24-7.org/2022/01/15/black-humane-history-found-in-great-grandpas-attic-near-a-town-called-ark/, Animals 24-7; (2022 Jan 15). 
  6.  Davis. Janet. The Gospel of Kindness: Animal Welfare and the Making of Modern America, Oxford University Press; (2016 Apr 29).
  7. Clifton, Merritt. Four Black Leaders Who Built the Humane Movement––Long Before MLK! https://www.animals24-7.org/2022/01/14/four-black-leaders-who-built-the-humane-movement/, Animals 24-7; (2022 Jan 14). 
  8.  Davis, Janet. Vast Good for Righteousness: Animal Welfare, Human Rights, and the Work of Frederick Rivers Barnwell in Texas, 1914–45, https://aha.confex.com/aha/2018/webprogram/Paper23591.html, American Historical Association; (2018 Jan 4). 
  9.  Clifton, Merritt. Black Humane History Found in Great-Grandpa’s Attic Near a Town Called Ark, https://www.animals24-7.org/2022/01/15/black-humane-history-found-in-great-grandpas-attic-near-a-town-called-ark/, Animals 24-7; (2022 Jan 15).

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