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Oral history interviews with Black women in Kentucky–Part 2

April 16, 2015 in 1940s-1950s, 1950s-1960s, 1960s-1970s, Oral history, Primary source, Social history

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.

Picture of Julia Etta Lewis (1932-1998), from 2001 Kentucky Civil Rights Hall of Fame

Julia Etta Lewis (1932-1998), leader in Lexington chapter Congress of Racial Equality

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.

RosettaBeatty

Rosetta Beatty during her interview with Joan Brannon on February 2, 2009

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.

Lillian Buntin

Lillian Buntin during her interview with Joan Brannon on April 9, 2009

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.

Oral history interviews with Black women in Kentucky

March 10, 2015 in 1920s-30s, 1940s-1950s, 1950s-1960s, 1960s-1970s, Oral history, Primary source, Social history

While indexing interviews for the project on oral histories featuring Black women in Kentucky it’s hard not to become fascinated with a particular person or story. While every interview is, of course, valuable in its own right, some interviews are more detailed than others, and some interviewees have interesting perspectives or personal stories to add. These are the interviews I found particularly interesting while indexing the first batch of oral histories:

Dorothy Perkins

Dorothy Perkins during her interview with Joan Brannon in 2009

Dorothy Perkins grew up in Lexington during the 1930s and ’40s. One of my favorite things about this interview is that she describes the neighborhoods of Lexington at this time in great detail, including businesses, schools, and churches once located in the East End of Lexington. She not only paints a vivid picture of Deweese Street in its heyday, but also describes the fashion and clothing styles that were popular at the time. Perkins gives great detail in her description of Lexington theaters and what it felt like as a child only being allowed to watch shows from the balcony. Perkins’ life was full of interesting stories, including the one about being expelled from school for fighting another girl by attacking her with her fingernails.

Valinda Livingston

Valinda Livingston in an interview with Brannon 2009

Valinda Livingston grew up in the East End of Lexington and discusses attending both Constitution Elementary School and Shiloh Baptist Church in the neighborhood. Livingston describes Lexington during her childhood in great detail, including parks, restaurants, drugstores, and funeral homes. She also talks about being warned to stay away from Deweese Street, which makes for an interesting comparison with Dorothy Perkins’ description of the area. Livingston attended college at Kentucky State before becoming one of the first African American students at the University of Kentucky when integration began. She became a teacher and later, principal at Russell Elementary School. Livingston provides a great deal of information on the founding of Russell School, her time as principal, and the closing of the school.

Mattie Jackson was a teacher at George Washington Carver School from 1914-1960. In her interview with Edward Owens, Jackson gives a first-hand account of the experiences of an African American teacher working in schools prior to integration. She discusses the conditions in all-Black schools, from the lack of equipment to the lower salaries for Black teachers. She talks about the students’ reactions to White teachers at the school, including a story about a music teacher who made racist comments to the students.

Wilhelmina Hunter was the wife of Dr. Bush Hunter, an African American doctor in Lexington. Mrs. Hunter grew up in Boston, Massachusetts where she studied business in college before moving to Washington, D.C. to work for the IRS. Hunter talks about the discrimination she and her family faced when they moved to Lexington, and discusses her involvement in organizations dedicated to improving conditions for Blacks in Lexington. Throughout the interview Hunter paints a picture of race relations in Lexington from the perspective of someone who not only lived it, but of someone who had also experienced different ways of life in Boston and Washington, D.C. An interesting side note from the interview: Mrs. Hunter mentions her relationships with famous entertainers Duke Ellington and Marion Anderson, both of whom gave performances in her home in Lexington.

Elizabeth Harris describes her childhood community and discusses the close-knit relationships between neighbors, who she says often disciplined each others’ children. I feel like this interview is unique among most of the others in this collection because Harris expresses an opinion that may often be felt but is not often mentioned in discussions on race relations: opposition to integration. She also discusses what happened to Black businesses in Lexington after the civil rights movement of the 1960s. One of the most interesting parts of the interview for me was not only hearing about Harris’ experiences with segregation in movie theaters, hotels, and other Lexington businesses, but also her story about refusing to sit at the back of a bus.

As I said, these are not the only interesting interviews in this collection (nor even the only interesting parts of these particular interviews). Each woman interviewed offers a unique perspective on childhood, schools (both all-Black and integrated), race relations in Lexington, discrimination, and their own role in the civil rights movement, from the perspective of a Black woman in Kentucky.

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