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A Tale of Two Universities

October 22, 2016 in 1950s-1960s, Primary source, Social history

A tale of two universities during the civil rights era — one black, one white as told by a Kentucky woman who attended both during the same time period.

Kith of the Famous, Student-Identified Notables

Before the regular routine of classes began and immediately after we transfer students had met our roommates and settled in, small gatherings of returning student hall mates toured us through the Oval, the Fisk yearbook.  They gave us a brief run-down of just who was who on campus.  On my floor, just two doors down were Jackie Barrow, daughter of Joe Louis (Barrow) “the brown bomber,” legendary boxer who was world heavyweight champion from 1937 to 1949. She was a quiet freckled-face student who pretty much stayed to herself.  Next door was Valerie Grant, niece of the triple threat entertainer, Earl Grant, talented as a vocalist, organist, and pianist. Valerie was a petite really small, student who spent most of her time with her boyfriend, my “homeboy.” (People from the same town were referred to and greeted as “homes,” “homey,” or “homeboy,” or “home girl,” as a way of feeling less isolated.) He was really responsible for my getting interested in the social life at Fisk that I was missing at UK, having shown me his yearbook the year before I decided to transfer. Then they pointed out others on other floors such as Judith Jamison a celebrated American dancer and now Artistic Director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.  Across the driveway in the WEB Dubois male dormitory was Bobby McCans, great-grandson of WEB Dubois (who needs no description).They pointed out all of the leaders in the fraternities and sororities and whom they dated. They discussed the teachers one should avoid; especially prejudiced white ones who concurrently dualized the teaching between Fisk and Vanderbilt just down the boulevard.  They seemed to know which students were from families of means and which ones weren’t.

Miss Fisk, Majorie Patricia McCoyMiss Fisk Material

One picture of particular interest was that of Miss Fisk and her court.  In that yearbook, Miss was a statuesque, chocolate-and crème, wavy haired, very attractive young lady, but my particular tour guides mentioned that she was not Miss Fisk material.

Huh?  Well they explained that she was not light-skinned enough, and her hair was not long or straight enough. Since I had been at UK where all of the females on the various courts reflecting a degree of beauty looked like that because they were white, I thought that almost every one there would make it on a Fisk Court.  Remember the “Black is Beautiful,” “I’m proud” mentality was a year or two to come when I was at Fisk. (Note: Before that, even most black schools of all types tended to exhibit the same mentality of trying to mimic and/or appease their former oppressors in many ways. And curiously enough in many instances, if even a brown-skinned “Negro” called a darker one “black,” he or she had a fight on hand.)  Kudos to the Black Pride movement, but  still more curious was that after the realization of  that movement set in, some lighter-skinned female “Negroes” sometimes had difficulty winning black beauty contests and riding on floats because they were not black enough!  Those were the times preceding the rare finding of black dolls for little girls at Christmas, lack of any black pictures in mainstream magazines other for sports, or entertainment, etc  Definitely an era when being black was associated with all kinds of negativities, heaven forbid.

Back to the yearbook. As I looked further through the Oval of that year, what my tour guides were trying to tell me was corroborated on quite a few other pages where most of the queens and their courts were light-skinned and had straight hair.  Only a very few have escaped those stringent requirements. (Sm.) I surmised that the ones who did survive either were very, very smart, had familial status, or were very wealthy.  Some one had hinted earlier that to make it at Fisk, a female had to be rich, high-yellow or very smart.  Not meeting any of those criteria, I am not sure to this day how I fit in as well as I did, but then, again, and somehow or other, I always seemed to make long-lasting  friends in any environment. Maybe it was that I didn’t try as hard.

Kramer, Sara Jane

Sara Jane Kramer, UK – “Look Girl”

University of Kentucky’s Sara Jane Kramer

Back at my UK college home, I did not see a yearbook until my senior year as I had no home boy or girl on campus, and yearbooks, therefore, did not seem to be an issue in the all freshman dormitory in which I dwelled. And since I was not Greek with an access to one of their “houses,” I was not privy to any yearbook touring.  There, in my freshman year, the notables were discussed by name.  They were cheerleaders, basketball players, teachers, and Sara Jane Kramer.  Sara, or Miss Kramer, as some of her teachers referred to her was a wisp of a young girl whose picture had been chosen by Look Magazine from the files of entering freshmen across the country as “most photogenic.” This gave her quite a status across the UK campus.  Females and males alike stared at her, male teachers deferred to her and the limited media that we had back then such as radio and newspapers did endless interviews with her. She, too, was a thin, wispy rather reticent but friendly young model type young lady who never smiled much.  She did blink her eye lids almost incessantly as what I considered was a sort of nervousness.  One can Google her in UK Portrait Archives as Kramer, Sara Jane “Look Girl.”

Female Struggles through the Civil Rights Era

February 19, 2013 in 1960s-1970s

Women across the nation aided in the civil right movement, each in their own way.  Some women, such as Mae Street Kidd and Audrey Grevious led movements while having to cope with their own personal, internal struggles.  The sacrifices did not end with black women, all types of women aided in the movement.

Mae Street Kidd

Mae Street Kidd

Readers learn about Mae Street Kidd’s life through Passing for Black, a book written by Wade Hall about Mae Street Kidd, with her help. Kidd’s mother has some “black blood” making Kidd ten percent black.  Because of the connection she has with her mother she spends her entire life trying to “pass for black”.  Most people regard her as white because she is so light skinned but Kidd prefers to be considered black.  Throughout her life she is faced with the difficulty of not being able to fully identify with any race.  When she was young, other black students would taunt her and throw rocks at her.  Kidd describes feeling as though neither race wanted to claim her and that she did not actually belong in any of them.

These hardships did not end when she was out of school.  While Kidd was working in the Kentucky General Assembly, after an incredible amount of hard work, she got a bill passed for low-cost housing.  This bill helped thousands of low income families get decent housing.  Because of this achievement, her picture is hung in the Kentucky Housing Corporation Office in Frankfort.  Many people openly told Kidd that the reason her picture is there is because she is light skinned.  They look over the hard work and dedication she put toward the goal and merely attribute her race.  The internal and external struggles Mae Street Kidd had to deal with were common for other civil rights activists and people of all races during the 1930s through the 1970s.

Audrey Grevious

Audrey Grevious

Audrey Grevious was a key player in the civil rights movement in Kentucky.  Born in 1930, Grevious was raised in a time desperate for change.  Grevious’ mother was a domestic servant, otherwise known as a maid, and Grevious spent some of her childhood helping her mother in the homes she worked in.  Racism was a common thing to Grevious and her childhood friends, as she describes in her oral history, “…we had not paid that much attention to it (racism) because we had all grown up with it.”  It wasn’t till Grevious got a job as a secretary at the Town Crier in Lexington, Kentucky that she realized the depth of racism.  This prompted her to become active in the NAACP and first become secretary, then to become president.

Grevious encouraged people to notice the injustices they were living with and in and called them to action.  Grevious is still an active member in the NAACP and calls blacks around the nation to stand up for their rights. See the transcripts and videos of the 1999 oral history interviews of Audrey Grevious archived in the Kentucky Historical Society’s Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky website.

Katherine van Wormer

Dr. Katherine van Wormer

Katherine Van Wormer, author of The Maid Narratives, spoke with my class last week and introduced us to an array of new ideas including that white women aided the movement even when facing opposition from their husbands, causing conflict within the household.  All women that participated were important to the movement, even if it was only driving their maids home so they could more easily boycott the bus system.  The struggle within their household introduced their children to the civil rights movement and what was happening outside of their homes.

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