Picture the landscape and its undoubtedly accompanying collective prejudicial attitude during the early years of the civil rights movement. That was the case with the University of Kentucky in 1961—the time when I naively fearlessly embarked upon my college journey.
It had been only six years since the horrendous death of young Emmett Till who had the audacity to whistle at a southern white woman (August 28, 1955). His awful demise at the hands of southern Klansmen and others rocked the nation. Also, President John F. Kennedy, a beacon of hope to “Negroes” –as we were called then, the country over– would be assassinated in 1963 during my tenure at UK, just two years before my graduation in 1965. Kennedy’s death affected me in many ways; however, one was most salient in that environment. Because many Caucasians on campus had viewed him and his brother Robert, the attorney general, as being in alliance with or overly sympathetic towards Negroes, some uttered negative statements under their breath about the tragedy while others more blatantly negative, made overtly disparaging statements. within my earshot.
“Negroes” were not valued, obviously, during those times; their lives did not matter—then as now–in some circles, and most were considered intellectually inferior. If one did perform well mentally, s/he was hailed as an aberration. That was the mindset. Thus, anyone who demonstrated academic or intellectual prowess which debunked such notions was lionized by the “Negro” society in the same manner as were outstanding athletes such as Joe Louis or Jackie Robinson.
“Antidistablishmentarianism.” * “The belligerent astigmatic anthropologist, annihilated, innumerable chrysanthemum.” We were so proud of 12 year-old Gloria Lockerman of Baltimore when she correctly spelled that word and that sentence on the “$64,000 Question,” an extremely popular quiz show that aired in prime time from 1955 to 1958. The African American communities were inundated with pride. As a young female student myself, I was tremendously impressed as well as influenced, and to this day, I have never forgotten Gloria, the word, the sentence or the spelling.
Again, those were the times, the overarching collective perspective, and a few of the events that defined the era. Each always call upon my related memory of an old lady in our neighborhood who would shuffle slowly out to her porch each day and plop down in her glider and blow disappointingly heartedly. When asked, “How are you today, Granny?” She invariably replied: “I ain’t jumpin’ no rope, honey.” Similarly, my attitude about going to the University of Kentucky to thrive in an environment with such a conglomerate of whites who had been to the best schools (many befriended at those schools with each other}, had participated in so many advanced courses, had been beneficiaries of many more monetary resources and experiences, and whose teachers valued and sometimes catered to those who were their mirror images, was simply overwhelming. I didn’t feel as though I could jump some of the ramifications of that rope either, despite the fact that I had been class vice-president, president of the student council, runner-up to Miss Homecoming and valedictorian. I had real doubts about making that transition from a small, all Negro high school in a small town to the largest, well known white university in the state. I had been taught to never let my reach overwhelmingly and unrealistically exceed my grasp, thus I learned to be realistic about both. My expectations at that point were to just survive.
Gloria Lockerman became one of the most famous people in the U.S. after spelling ‘antidisestablishmentarianism.’ “There was a slightly racist aspect to people’s fascination with her: This was before the civil rights movement gained momentum, and Gloria Lockerman was black. Her brilliance was in direct contrast to many Americans’ stereotypes of black people, and there is no question that in countless living rooms, amazement was expressed not only that a girl of her age could spell the word, but that a girl of her color could do it.” Note: some have her hailing from Chicago not Baltimore. Bob Green, “Fame is Certainly not Gloria’s Game.” (December 09, 1987) Chicago Tribune; also see, “Has Anyone Seen Gloria Lockerman? (November 24, 1987) Chicago Tribune.
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