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How a 28-year-old first grader overcame the odds after breaking free from slavery

Posted: 1:10 PM, Sep 05, 2019
Updated: 2019-09-05 13:10:08-04

DAVENPORT, Iowa — Supplies gathered, backpack assembled; it's a recognizable scene for a 6-year-old heading to first grade.

It's back to school for Lawrence Thornton, too. He's 58 years old and is pursuing his high school diploma equivalent through Eastern Iowa Community college. After decades outside the classroom, his learning journey is a bit different .

"I'm determined to keep on going. It's never too late," says Thornton.

Without any previous connection, Thornton found that his mindset is strikingly similar to another - a man whose journey most can only begin to imagine, and you can find it in the Davenport Schools Museum.

Pages into a handwritten registry from 1868 for first grade, one line, one student stands out. That name is Moses Bush.

"He was 28 when he registered for school in the first grade. And what's interesting under parents or guardian he lists "owns himself"," explains a Davenport historian.

But why would a 28-year-old be signing up for first grade? We went back in the archives to find out. Moses Bush has quite the story.

Sifting through old newspaper clippings from the Davenport Democrat dating back to 1914, the journey of Moses Bush comes back to life.

Articles say Moses Bush was born into slavery in Mississippi sometime in the 1840s. Articles note his master was violent towards him, and when he died, he had slashes still on his back.

After Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, Moses made his escape North through the Underground Railroad. He found shelter and help in Princeton, Illinois from a man named Owen Lovejoy.  Archives show Lovejoy helped hundreds of slaves make their way safely to freedom. Moses then made his way north and found freedom in Davenport, Iowa.

"That's why it says owns self, he was a free slave," notes a Davenport historian.

Records show after Moses found freedom, he joined the Union Army, fighting in famous battles like Bull Run, Shiloh and Gettysburg. Once the war was won, he enrolled into first grade. He stayed for one year at Davenport's old Madison School, which was once located at Locust Street and Main, to learn to read.

"When I found him in a census record, it said he could read. So he probably achieved what he wanted."

Moses got a good job at a Davenport saw mill. Newspapers note he was an active member of a veterans post in town.

He was 74 when he died.

"I think he had a lot of courage to do that because it takes courage to go back to school," says Thornton.

We all come from different places. Sometimes our paths take unexpected turns.

"When I get in my prime years, I'll have my own business one day," says Thornton.

But no matter what, it's never too late to make a change.

"Don't be afraid," says Thornton.