Kentucky School Integration

April 20, 2011 in 1950s-1960s, Oral history

 I’ve been interested in Kentucky history for a while now and with the subject of Civil Rights, it got me thinking about the perfect topic the write about.  The topic is easy: education and one subject seems to be forgotten, when Kentucky schools integrated.  With the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, I thought it meant an immediate decision to integrate all schools in the country.  That wasn’t the case in Kentucky.  Something didn’t happen, at least in Lexington, until the summer of 1955 when Helen Caise Wade became the first African-American to enroll in an all white school.  Wade was a student at Douglass High School and was interested in American history.  She wanted to take a course on it, but only one was offered at Lafayette High School.  She was able to register for the class and when it started she says she had no big problems.  “It was not a bad experience because nobody really mistreated me,” she said. “They weren’t mean to me. They just ignored me.”  Wade had to have escorts with her for a while, but soon after they weren’t necessary.

Integration in schools was happening in 1955 when a school for the blind in Louisville approved for integration.  According to The Lexington Herald, the small article talks about the Kentucky School for the Blind allowing 16 Negro students and three Negro teachers integrating to the school when the year started in 1955.  This school became the first school in Jefferson County to have mixed classes.

One story from the Lexington Herald that was very different was something of the mere opposite of integration, sort of.  In early 1955, in Louisville, Ky. a young white boy was allowed to enroll in an all black school and his mother wanted him to.  The article goes on to say that David Rogers Russell’s family lived in Tokyo and he didn’t understand about segregation.  David knew he would be attending a Negro church, a Negro Scout troop and a Negro YMCA, but everyone seemed to be happy with this decision.

That wasn’t the case in Clay, Ky. on September 13th, 1956 when a boycott happened at the Clay School when two Negro students were admitted.  News of this event spread around the school and ten teachers refused to show up and two of those teachers even resigned.  I couldn’t believe that.  White students came to the school, but all they did was gather their personal things and quickly left the school.  One little girl became scare of the empty halls.  “I’m afraid.  There’s nobody inside.  I ain’t staying.  I want my momma.”  The little left the school in tears.  Principal Irene Powell wanted these two Negro students, Theresa and James Henry Gordon, to be treated like any other student.  She says “they’re being taught regular classes and will be served in the cafeteria.”  The Gordon children said they were unafraid and felt good about going to the Clay School.  Their teachers even “treated them fine.” 

I even asked my father if there were any problems with integration.  My father grew up in Hazard, Ky. in the 1950s, but he told me that there weren’t any Negro schools.  The businesses and restaurants were segregated but not the schools.  He told me there wasn’t a real problem with integration and there was a fair enough population of black people at that time.

Lexington is a different story.  I am becoming more and more interested in integration in Fayette County schools, but I haven’t found anything on that subject, at least in newspapers.  All I know was that my mother was class of 1962 from Lafayette High School and she told me the there were two black students who enrolled the beginning of the 1961 school year and they were scared.  My mother seemed fine about it.  But it would be nice to know about all the Lexington schools from the 50s and 60s to find out when school integration affected all the schools and which grade schools were for Negros and which ones were for whites.     

Work Cited:

Lexington Herald.  September 14th, 1956

Lexington Herald.  September 1, 1955

Lexington Herald.  September 2, 1955

2 responses to Kentucky School Integration

  1. I remember a black girl, Joan Washington, who graduated in 1963 and I am quite sure she was well treated, “scared” is not a word I would use to describe her. There were a few other blacks enrolled and I never , ever remember any racial incidents at least through the 1965 school year

  2. In 1964 Douglas High School was closed and approximately one third were sent to Bryan Station, one third to Henry Clay and one third to Lafayette. We integrated our basketball team that year with Freddie Gill being the first black athlete at Lafayette and Reuben Givens followed the next semester. No racial problems for the first two years. 1966 proved somewhat less than civil in a few respects

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