While listening to oral histories featuring Black women in Kentucky I’ve gotten to hear some amazing stories directly from the women who lived them: women who marched in demonstrations in Lexington during the 1960s, women who taught at integrated schools, women who faced discrimination daily no matter what job they held. It is so important that these stories not only be saved, but also passed on. So I’d like to share a few with you.
Marilyn Gaye‘s interview in 1978 by the great historian George Wright (now President at Prairie View A&M University) is one of my favorites out of the entire collection. Gaye grew up in Lexington and was a teenager during the civil rights movement. In her interview she talks about what life was like as a child living in Lexington under segregation, describing her experiences of having to sit in the balcony of the Ben Ali Theater to see shows. She talks about how she became involved in civil rights demonstrations in Lexington and describes the experience of a march from the very beginning, waiting in a basement for a phone call from Julia Lewis, the head of Lexington’s chapter of CORE, to tell them it was time to go.
She describes what it was like to march through downtown Lexington and talks about the songs they sang as they marched. She discusses the reactions of white Lexingtonians to the march, and what the demonstration accomplished. I think this is one of my favorite interviews because the perspective it offers is so uncommon. Of all of the interviews in this collection there are actually very few with women who actively participated in the civil rights movement in Kentucky, and to have done so as a teenage girl makes Marilyn Gaye even more unique.
I found the Rosetta Beatty interview interesting mainly because of her detailed descriptions of the East End area of Lexington during the 1960s. The East End encompasses an area north and east of downtown Lexington, between Main Street and Loudon Avenue. Beatty describes many of the streets in the neighborhood and lists the businesses, churches, and restaurants along each street, including Shiloh Baptist Church, Club Hurricane, and the Lyric Theater. Listening to her describe the neighborhood gives you such a clear picture of the area that you feel like you’re walking along it with her. She talks about which businesses were owned by African Americans, and also describes the relationships between neighbors on Elm Tree Lane, stating that everyone looked out for each other’s children.
Like Rosetta Beatty, Lillian Buntin grew up in the East End area of Lexington. Her interview also provides a great description of the neighborhood, focusing mainly on Ohio Street where Buntin lived as a child, as well as local churches, restaurants, drugstores, and the Lyric Theater. Along with her descriptions of the area, Buntin’s interview is also interesting because she talks about attending a segregated school as a child before becoming a teacher at an integrated school. Her interview provides a personal account of not only what it was like to be a student under segregation, but also what it was like to be a teacher throughout the changes of integration in Lexington, including discussion of her relationships with students, parents, principals, and her fellow teachers.
Patricia R. Laine talks with Emily Parker about her family history, including her ancestors who were once slaves in Kentucky. Her interview (August 6, 1986) also provides an interesting look at the role of the church in the Black community and how it has changed since her childhood in the 1940s. One of the most compelling parts of Laine’s interview were her stories of the discrimination she faced both in her job as a domestic worker for a white family near Midway, but also throughout her employment at the National Institute of Mental Health Clinical Research Center (then known as “The Narcotics Farm” or “Narco,” now called The Federal Medical Center, Lexington). Narco housed both prisoners and self-committed patients attempting to overcome drug addictions. Her discussion of the treatment of Black employees is eye-opening, and Laine says that because there was also gender discrimination, Black women received the fewest promotions. Her description of the treatment of the patients is also fascinating, especially when she discusses the facility becoming a federal prison. Laine also discusses the impact of the civil rights movement in Lexington, stating that racism has not been reduced, it has only become more covert, and that many Black businesses closed because of desegregation.
Mrs. Charles Chenault Jones was the first African American teacher at Arlington Elementary School in Lexington after integration. During her interview she describes what it was like being the only Black person at PTA meetings, and discusses her interactions with school staff, students, and parents. She talks about witnessing discrimination against the Black students. Jones also discusses the effects of integration on Lexington businesses, neighborhoods, and, most interestingly, attitudes in the Black community. She gives her opinion on the decline of ministers’ and churches’ involvement in the community since her childhood days in Madison County of “basket meetings.”
These are not the only interesting interviews in this collection, just a few I personally enjoyed or considered particularly important. There are many more in the collection worth checking out that provide different perspectives and experiences.