You are browsing the archive for Inequality.

Finding Audrey

March 26, 2013 in 1950s-1960s, Social history

When you mention the name “Audrey Grevious”, it will most certainly ring a bell among activists and Lexington civil rights advocates alike. While it is a taxing struggle to find many pictures of Grevious, there is much information on her efforts in local schools and protests during her younger years.

Grevious was quite active in Lexington, participating in various protests and sit-ins, while being involved with the local NAACP and CORE chapters. She eventually became the president of the Lexington NAACP and worked as a teacher before becoming the principal at the Kentucky Village Reformatory School (now called the Blackburn Correctional Complex) and Maxwell Elementary School. Grevious’s time at the Kentucky Village allowed her to bring about desegregation in the lunch rooms, a landmark moment that nearly echoes a sit-in at a local restaurant in which Grevious continued to persevere while the owner repeatedly swung a chain at her leg.

Indeed, Grevious was one of the pivotal leaders during the civil rights era in Lexington, KY, but it is difficult to find pictures from her active years. Grevious is still alive, but much weaker and ill, making it more challenging to get in touch with her. In attempting to find more information, granestrella and I are looking at the transcripts for a couple oral histories. I am also working on getting in contact with Eastern Kentucky University, Kentucky State University, and possibly Dunbar High School (though the existing one is not exactly the same as the one previously attended by Grevious). If we succeed in our quest, we may be able to bring more insight into the life of a dynamic woman underrepresented in the playing field of civil rights.

Sources

“KET | Living the Story | The Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky.” Glossary, Audrey Grevious. Web. 25 Mar. 2013.

“National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 02 Jan. 2013. Web. 25 Mar. 2013.

“Audrey Grevious.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 02 Jan. 2013. Web. 25 Mar. 2013.

Fosl, Catherine, and Tracy Elaine. K’Meyer. Freedom on the Border: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky, 2009. Print.

“Quiet” Determination

March 4, 2013 in 1940s-1950s, 1950s-1960s, 1960s-1970s, Political history, Social history

In the years after World War II, protests began to invade society with calls for change among the African-American community. Peaceful demonstrations were common after being inspired by Gandhi’s pacifism in India. Sit-ins by young people became widespread among members of the NAACP and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), in hopes of stirring change in the hearts of Kentucky legislators.

Most of the prominent activity of the 1940s and 50s were in the larger cities of Lexington and Louisville. Often times, demonstrations would be in front of or inside stores or restaurants refusing to cater to African-Americans. One such demonstration involved Audrey Grevious, a former president of the NAACP and member of the Lexington chapter of CORE. She and a group of NAACP and CORE members decided to have a sit-in at a restaurant. They had been sitting at the lunch counter for some days, when one day, the manager decided to chain off the area. While sitting on a stool, he swung the chain at Grevious’s leg. To keep herself from trying to “wring his neck”, Grevious began to sing, not realizing how much damage the man would be doing to her leg in years to come.

CORE members in protest

CORE members in protest

Youth and others working in menial jobs performed a lot of the protests. In fact, young people comprised most of the members in the NAACP and CORE. According to Mary Jones of Lexington, if “it had not been for the children, young people in this town, CORE would not have survived.” Often times, women workers would recruit their students to join them in protests. Helen Fisher Frye—who was president of the Danville NAACP and worked with youth at her church—would meet her students after school to have sit-ins at the local drugstores.

Interestingly, smaller towns outside of city life handled segregation a little differently. In an account by Anna Beason, she describes how she and her friends had engaged in a sit-in unknowingly. They had gone in to a drugstore for sodas and were waiting for a long time, until the waitress finally served them. It was as if these smaller towns did not know how to handle segregation. Another instance was when George Esters and a group of his friends went to the white teen center to dance in Bowling Green. The next year, a teen center was built for African-American teens.

Out of all the women in this chapter of Freedom on the Border, Helen Fisher Frye seemed to be the most striking. Living in Danville, race relations were not severe, but she had a few white friends through church. Because of her Christian philosophy, Frye felt it important to have a place in politics, specifically through organizations such as the NAACP. In fact, Frye re-organized the Danville chapter of the NAACP and even worked to integrate public housing. Like Mae Street Kidd, she was a fearless woman who was not afraid to voice her opinions. Kidd would demand what she wanted and stand firm in her beliefs, as seen in the time when she was working for the Red Cross and did not want to travel to a humid location. In the same way, Frye threatened to drive away when the gas attendant left her to attend to a white customer. Through the leadership of these two women, much was accomplished for the advancement of African-Americans by making known their societal inequalities.

Sources

“Audrey Grevious.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation.17 Feb. 2013. Web. 04. Mar. 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Audrey_Grevious

“Congress of Racial Equality.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. 27. Feb. 2013. Web. 04 Mar. 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Congress_of_Racial_Equality

Fosl, Catherine, and Tracy Elaine. K’Meyer. Freedom on the Border: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky, 2009. Print.

Jones, Reinette. “Helen Fisher Frye.” Notable Kentucky African Americans Database. University of Kentucky Libraries. 4 Mar. 2013. Web. https://www.uky.edu/Libraries/NKAA/record.php?note_id=764

Kidd, Mae Street, and Wade H. Hall. Passing for Black: The Life and Careers of Mae Street Kidd. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1997. Print.

“Mae Street Kidd.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. 03 Apr. 2013. Web. 04 Mar. 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mae_Street_Kidd

“Mohandas Ghandi.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. 2 Mar. 2013. Web. 04 Mar. 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mohandas_Karamchand_Gandhi

“NAACP in Kentucky” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. 2 Feb. 2013. Web. 04 Mar. 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NAACP_in_Kentucky

Defying the Norms of Racial Etiquette

February 25, 2013 in 1950s-1960s, Oral history, Social history

In the 1960s, there was an unspoken protocol as to how African-Americans should act around whites. As maids or “help”, African-Americans were segregated, to an extent, in the homes where they worked. They were often confined to the kitchen, entering and exiting only through the back door, and use of a separate toilet or none at all.

Despite the binding rules maids adhered to in the decades after slavery, these African-American women sometimes overstepped the boundaries. In an experience by Elise Talmage in The Maid Narratives, she told an account of one of the maids who ate lunch with her and her friends and would often come into the house through the front door. In another account, a man recounted when his father allowed their maid to sit in the family pew during his brother’s wedding. Though these two stories were of maids who were either unaware of the rules or were helped by their white family, in each case, the norms often created by whites were shattered. This is especially shown in the reactions of whites being “absolutely aghast” or “completely stricken” by the unusual events.

The Maid Narratives

The Maid Narratives

Although Audrey Grevious never worked as a maid, she also experienced segregation, but in the schools where she taught. Growing up, Grevious had not noticed the harsh effects of segregation, until she visited New York for a convention. The differences between New York—where there was more tolerance—and Lexington were made very clear in the treatment African-Americans received from whites.

As an educator, Grevious first decided to overstep the norms of segregation in the integration of the Kentucky Village in Lexington. At the time, the lunchroom was separated into two different dining rooms: one for whites and one for African-Americans. After about 6 months after joining the teaching staff in the late 1950s, Grevious decided to sit in the lunchroom designated for whites.  The reactions of the white workers were comparable to that of the whites who witnessed African-American maids defying the rules: they “threw their food in the trash can and on the floor […] and marched on out.”

Interestingly, looking at these two different stories of Grevious and the “help”, things did not change much in the treatment of African-Americans. Though they were no longer in subservient roles, African-Americans were still segregated in the workplace. The steps they took to defy the norms of racial etiquette were not in vain, however. Each bit of progress was but a stair in the walkway to equality.

Sources

Fosl, Catherine, and Tracy Elaine. K’Meyer. Freedom on the Border: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky, 2009. Print.

“KET | Living the Story | The Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky.” Glossary, Audrey Grevious. Web. 25 February 2013.

Van, Wormer Katherine S., David W. Jackson, and Charletta Sudduth. The Maid Narratives: Black Domestics and White Families in the Jim Crow South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2012. Print.

Passion for Justice

February 18, 2013 in 1940s-1950s

Audrey Grevious

Audrey Grevious

Two of the most prominent women during the era of desegregation in Kentucky were Audrey Grevious and Mae Street Kidd. Grevious pushed for integration in the educational system, while Kidd seemed to defy the boundaries of color everywhere she went.

Grevious was inspired to be a teacher while attending segregated schools as a child. Initially, she wasn’t aware of the segregation, saying, “things were different, but not so unpleasant.” It wasn’t until she reached adulthood and attended a convention in New York that Grevious realized how different things were in Lexington, KY.

As a teacher, Grevious worked to integrate the Kentucky Village, a school for delinquent boys and girls across the state. Around this time, Grevious was also involved with the NAACP, who asked her to try an experiment. She and another NAACP member were to make stops along the way to Lexington from New York in order to see if they could be served. Not surprisingly, they were denied service at every stop except for one. On the way back up to New York, Grevious and her companion dressed nicely, wearing furs, diamonds, and a suit, respectively.  Though they were served at every place this time, the incident made her angry: “Here I am, an American, and they would not serve me.”

Mae Street Kidd

Mae Street Kidd

Similarly, Kidd also identified herself as an American first before anything else. In Passing for Black, Kidd never distinguished between whites and blacks when it came to their character. Though she had fair skin and blonde hair, she did not try to pass for white even though she easily could. She “never made an issue of [her] race.”

Passing for BlackKidd was successful in every career and job pursuit she immersed herself in. She began in sales at Mammoth Life and Accident Insurance Company based in Louisville. Kidd didn’t finish college, but she was a skilled salesman and was even able to open her own bank account at the young age of seventeen. She worked her way up in Mammoth, eventually becoming the director of a program she created, which concentrated on public relations. In addition, Kidd organized the Business and Professional club for black women and was a successful saleswoman for Fuller products, a cosmetics company with branches in Chicago and Detroit. Because Kidd seemed to “present a certain image of success” with the way she dressed and carried herself, it was really no surprise that she was able to excel in every endeavor she pursued; however, her quest for success was not an easy one. Many people were jealous of her and she was often mistreated and did not always receive credit for her achievements.

Though these women probably faced many trials in their pursuit for a better quality of life for themselves and others, both were still able to make an impact on society through their hard-earned accomplishments. I don’t believe that these women are the only ones with such extraordinary passion for justice. There are women who are working hard daily in their jobs to defy the boundaries of race and gender, but don’t receive recognition for their efforts. To an extent, this passion is burning within each of us, pushing us to reach our dreams and ambitions of making the world a better place—no matter the color of our skin.

Sources

“Audrey Grevious.” The HistoryMakers. 11 Dec. 2002. <http://www.thehistorymakers.com/biography/audrey-grevious-39>. 18 Feb. 2013.

“Audrey Grevious.” Wikipedia. 17 Feb. 2013. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Audrey_Grevious>. 18 Feb. 2013.

Hall, Wade H. Passing for Black: The Life and Careers of Mae Street Kidd. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997.

“Mae Street Kidd.” Wikipedia. 16 Feb. 2013. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mae_Street_Kidd>. 18 Feb. 2013.

Desegregation in Education

February 11, 2013 in 1920s-30s, 1940s-1950s, Social history

picture of Charles Hamilton Houston

Charles Hamilton Houston

 The Day Law of 1904 mandated segregation between blacks and whites in public schools in Kentucky. Of course, with this segregation came inequality in the quality of schools (and therefore education) between blacks and whites. This was not tolerated by the more prominent members of the black community and by the 1930’s attorney Charles Hamilton Houston and the NAACP began to battle this segregation. This began by his persuasion of the Supreme Court that the Missouri Law school was denying black students equal protection under the law. With this at the forefront, the NAACP continued to fight segregation at a legal level through the 1950’s. The most prominent example in the ’50’s would certainly be the Brown vs. Board of Education case in which Plessy v. Ferguson was overturned.

As far as men’s experiences being different than women, I would argue that any difference was minor. In most cases, being black was enough to isolate these students in an integrated situation. The only differences would be in examples of extracurricular activities, in which boys would be more likely to be bussed to white schools to enhance the athletic departments. Women, such as Alice Wilson, were discouraged from attempting to try to cheerlead or sing because of the already strained relations between her and the other white students.

Pro-segregationists, needless to say, were outrage in general about integration, inciting riots against incoming black students and expressing outrage at the busing options that were offered up. Black students were subjected to ridicule and death threats across the board. However, although the pro-segregationists were upset with integration, not all cases were as dramatic as others, especially since Kentucky was a border state. White supremacy was much more subtle and nuanced in this time, even though KKK was growing. This means that much of the racism that was happening was happening in the quality of materials that black students would get or where they were allowed to sit in public places.

Overall white women and men probably remember these times similarly because they are both viewing this period through the same lens. Stated another way, this being more of a race-focused issue verses a gender focused issue so whether one was a man or woman remembering, the story was probably still the same. If the interest in is difference of perspective, the true comparison would be between blacks and whites, as they were on completely different playing fields.

****

Fosl, Catherine, and Tracy Elaine. K’Meyer. Freedom on the Border: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky, 2009. Print.

“Ku Klux Klan.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 02 Nov. 2013. Web. 11 Feb. 2013.

“Plessy v. Ferguson.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 02 Nov. 2013. Web. 11 Feb. 2013.

“Brown v. Board of Education.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 02 Aug. 2013. Web. 11 Feb. 2013.

“NAACP | National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.” NAACP | National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2013.

“Charles Hamilton Houston.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 02 Sept. 2013. Web. 11 Feb. 2013.

“Separate but Equal: Segregation in the Public Schools.” Separate but Equal: Segregation in the Public Schools. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2013.

Profile photo of mookygc

by mookygc

Segregation in Kentucky

February 5, 2013 in 1920s-30s, 1940s-1950s, Social history

There is a “myth” of sorts in Kentucky that suggests segregation in Kentucky was not as bad as it was in parts of our country further South. Mainly, the example used to support this fact is that buses in most local communities were not segregated, and African Americans never lost the right to vote. Historian George C. Wright called the segregation in Louisville “Polite Racism”. Regardless of these examples, most things about day to day life for African Americans in Kentucky were segregated. For example, most public facilities, such as libraries, bathrooms, water fountains, swimming pools, amusement parks, stores and restaurants were segregated. It was even specified which door of a house you were to use depending on the color of your skin. Anne Butler of Stanford spoke in Freedom on the Border: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky about a time when she went to get something from her father at a house he was wallpapering, and was told “The next time you come here, you go to the back door.”

Many of the voices in both The Maid Narratives: Black Domestics and White Families in the Jim Crow South and Freedom on the Border suggest similar notions that often people on both sides of segregation didn’t know what was going on, or how big of an issue it was. In the Introduction of The Maid Narratives, a white narrator is quoted in saying “That’s just the way things were done; we didn’t really stop to think about it.” Similarly, in Freedom on the Border, Joyce Hamilton Berry explains that she “never knew that they had black and white bathrooms in Kentucky, because I had never been to one.” Parents often shielded their children from the harsh realities of the world, and many African American and White children alike can remember specific moments when they realized something was going on.

Like many things, when you are in the middle of an issue such as the implementation of segregation or the concept of “Separate But Equal” Policy, it is nearly impossible to see the forest for the trees. One might see specific instances of injustice, but not question it or even be able to because that was “Just the way  things were done.”

_______________________________

Van, Wormer Katherine S., David W. Jackson, and Charletta Sudduth. The Maid Narratives: Black Domestics and White Families in the Jim Crow South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2012. Print.

Fosl, Catherine, and Tracy Elaine. K’Meyer. Freedom on the Border: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky, 2009. Print.

Self Respect and Fear Stem From Segregation

February 4, 2013 in 1920s-30s, 1940s-1950s, Oral history

Although slavery’s end created new freedoms, it also gave way to new injustices.  A society developed, especially in the south, in which racial segregation dominated all parts of life.  Two key themes that stand out from this time are the struggle to maintain self-respect among African Americans and the usage of fear as a powerful tool of oppression.

In the post-slavery era, many blacks remained in a position to be easily exploited by their white employers.  Black women often fell into positions as servants.  This position, as described in The Maid Narratives, placed workers in a position of “daily humiliation.”  Beyond their demeaning employment opportunities, under segregation a life of inferiority was imposed.  Parents often attempted to shield their children from the harsh reality, but even through the eyes of children the inequality was blatant.

Despite of the nature of the times, individuals developed tactics for asserting and maintaining their self-respect. In Freedom on the Border, John Wesley Hatch retells the powerful words his father had shared with him about maintaining dignity. He stated that “for things you absolutely don’t have to do, you don’t go to back doors, you don’t segregate yourself.” This sentiment is so powerful because it exemplifies the smalls actions people took to deny the power to the system even before mass movements erupted.  Other individuals asserted self-respect through self-employment.  Washerwomen were a major group of these individuals.  By bringing laundry into their own homes, washerwomen avoided the oppression of working directly as servants.  These women were also significant because they held a strike expressing their desire for uniform payment.  This strike laid a foundation for future activism.

Although some individuals severed ties from white oppressors, few escaped the fear.  Particularly in the south, fear became a powerful weapon for controlling African Americans. The Maid Narratives details a strong tie between the seeming permanence of segregated culture and a “sense of powerlessness” that was “absolute” which developed in a system of blatant and understood injustice.  What hope was held for change when much of this fear was kept in place by law enforcement that was responsible for violating, not protecting, people’s rights?

 

Fosl, Catherine, and Tracy Elaine Meyer.Freedom on the border an oral history of the civil rights movement in Kentucky. Lexington, Ky.: Univ. Press of Kentucky, 2009. Print.

Wormer, Katherine Van; Jackson, David W., III (2012-09-17). The Maid Narratives: Black Domestics and White Families in the Jim Crow South (p. 32). Louisiana State University Press. Kindle Edition.

Not separate nor equal

February 4, 2013 in 1920s-30s, Primary source, Social history

Picture of the cover of

“The Maid Narratives”

In 1896 the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the “separate but equal” doctrine in the Plessy vs. Ferguson trial. Up until the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling in 1954, things in Kentucky and around the United States were anything but separate and definitely not equal. There were the obvious examples of the inequality that occurred in Kentucky. As Suzy Post describes it in her interview, there were white and black water fountains and white and black waiting rooms that no one really took notice to. To those living in Kentucky, this was the norm, an everyday thing. However, where the inequality mixes with there being no separation comes in the terms of the help; the maids that worked to help the white women around the house. It is in these jobs that it is seen that nothing about Kentucky in the early 20th century was separate or equal.

The Maid Narratives is a book written specifically about the black women that helped around the white houses. It tells the story of these women and the things that they had experienced throughout the years; the story of a society that was completely unequal and rarely separated. In fact, in the introduction of the book the authors talk about the paradoxes seen in this time period.

                “Small white children sometimes felt closer to their black caretakers than they did to their mothers, a love that often was not acknowledged by others… Black women servants were sometimes treated like children by the ‘lady of the house,’ but during tough times the white women looked to them for strength and comfort” (Maid).

While these words seem to be very interesting, the stories behind them are even more so. In the book, “Freedom on the Border: An Oral History

Picture of the cover of

“Freedom on the Border”

of the Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky”, white men and women reveal that these statements are true. Governor Edward Breathitt and Judge James F. Gordon talk about having “black help” in their homes. However, rather than this being a distant relationship, they describe it as one that was quite intimate. They always saw the women who helped their mothers out and became quite fond of them. They both recount memories of playing with these women’s children and saying that during their youth these little black boys were their closest friends. In their youth, there was no separation; color didn’t matter to the children.

However, as they grew from children to young adults, the separation began to occur. They stopped talking to each other outside of the games that they played, the black women stopped bringing over their children to play, and eventually the white teenagers were referred to as Mr. and Ms. Before this age, the “help” had no problem with bringing their children over to play, but as their children grew so did the inequality.

Although Plessy vs. Ferguson ruled that society should be separate but equal, this was far from the reality of life in Kentucky. The black women that helped out in the white homes were often times more of a mother to the white children than the white women were. however, they were treated with little to no respect from these women expect in times of great need. It is in this part of civilization that the greatest divergence from this ruling is seen because not only is it unequal but it is far from being separated.

******

“Freedom on the Border:.” Google Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Feb. 2013

“The Maid Narratives:.” Google Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Feb. 2013.

“Plessy v. Ferguson.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 31 Jan. 2013. Web. 04 Feb. 2013.

“Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky.” Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Feb. 2013.

“Greater New Orleans.” The Times-Picayune. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Feb. 2013.

“Freedom on the Border – An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky.” Kobo. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Feb. 2013.

 

Persistence of Inequalities

January 28, 2013 in 1960s-1970s

As a student, I’ve heard and read many different accounts of the civil rights movement, but listening to an oral history interview seemed more personal and intimate. I could see how emotional Jennie and Alice Wilson became when they told their stories and somehow, the struggles that African-Americans endured during the days of extreme racism and segregation became more of a reality to me. I doubt the effect would be quite the same if I were reading a book or watching a fictional account in a movie.

The fact that these women came from Kentucky also made the interviews more poignant. As an African-American with very protective parents, I was very much shielded from racism and thankfully never had any overt racist encounters growing up, but it is interesting to learn Kentucky’s history of racial relations and see how things have changed since then.

I felt like I could relate the most to Alice because of her personal struggles when she went to high school. She and her small group of friends were the only African-Americans at her school, making it difficult for them not to feel out of place. I didn’t always think about this, but there were moments when I would count the number of African-Americans in my classes. Often times, I would either be the only one or there would be a small handful of us.

Young girl protesting segregation

The 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case upheld the “separate but equal” doctrine, which was the main focus of the civil rights era. Schools and other public places were segregated, allowing overt racist encounters to become a common occurrence. Jim Crow laws also legitimized segregation as a normality in American society. There were separate schools for whites and African-Americans, but by no means were these different groups getting the same education.

My high school wasn’t exactly predominately white, but there was an overwhelming number of African-Americans in the lower Comprehensive classes compared to higher Advanced classes, which I took. Interestingly, the Honors classes—which were one level below Advanced and one level above Comprehensive—were much more diverse, but for some reason, the number of minorities dwindled when it came to Advanced classes. I had a diverse group of friends anyway and no one was racist at my school as far as I could tell, but I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a way to fix this sort of separation.

I think this stigma further perpetuates the idea that African-Americans are sometimes seen as inferior to other races. This hits home for me because I feel like I am constantly trying to surpass the expectations society has for us. Even though racism is not quite as huge an issue as it used to be, the stereotypes still exist in hidden forms. I can’t help but ask: Is there a way to expose the inequalities that underlie our institutions? And if so, how do we get rid of them?

Resources

“KET | Living the Story | Jennie Hopkins Wilson.” Living the Story: The Rest of the Story. Web. 28 January 2013.

Dr. Grace Marilynn James: Serving the Underserved

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

Just this year, on March 16, Dr. Grace Marilynn James was inducted into the Kentucky Women Remembered Exhibit in Frankfort, an honor given to outstanding women in Kentucky history by the Kentucky Commission on Women.  While relatively unknown to many, Dr. James was an important figure in the struggle against both racial and economic injustice.

Grace James was born in Charleston, West Virginia, in 1923. She was a very educated woman, beginning her post-secondary education at West Virginia State College.  After completing her post-graduate work there and at the University of Chicago, she entered Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, and graduated with an M.D. in 1950.  Upon earning her M.D., James moved to New York City and completed an internship and pediatric residency at Harlem Hospital; while there, she also became a clinical fellow at both Babies’ Hospital and the Vanderbilt Clinic.  James further expanded her formal training by studying child psychiatry at Creedmoor State Hospital in Queens Village and by becoming a fellow at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University’s Jacobi Hospital, where she practiced caring for children with disabilities.(1)

In a fellowship application addressed to the National Urban League, James explained that she had wanted to go to medical school because she had an “interest in human suffering,” that of African Americans in particular.  She further noted that she had been inspired by a visit to Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx to help “the ones who needed to be taught, educated and given a chance to learn sound principles of health.”(2)

James moved to Louisville in 1953, where she began teaching at the University of Louisville in a non-paying, part-time post; she was the first African American woman on the faculty at Louisville’s School of Medicine, and she continued teaching at the university for twenty-five years.(2)  When James moved to Louisville, the city hospitals were segregated by law.  Although James became the first African American woman to be granted membership in the Jefferson County Medical Society, she still had to defend her status to the medical community.(3)  Not only did she face discrimination from white practitioners because she was black, she was criticized by both white and black men for being a woman in this field and for choosing to serve the poorest clients.  James realized that there were many people other doctors were hesitant to serve because they were too poor to afford services.  James also saw that many doctors would not serve single mothers and their children.

Soon after moving to Louisville, James opened a private pediatrics practice and a walk-in clinic that would serve the impoverished residents of Louisville’s West End neighborhoods.(4)  She accepted all patients that came through her clinic, regardless of whether they could pay.  James became an advocate for both preventative care and universal health care, and spoke about the growing infant mortality rate among black babies and about the medically underserved black community.  At her own expense, James kept items such as diapers, blankets, clothes, and books on hand for the poor mothers that needed them, all at her own expense.(3)

Dr. James’ career was long and distinguished.  She headed the Council on Urban Education and established the West Louisville Health Education Program.  She founded the Teen Awareness Project, its purpose to reduce the teenage birth rate among blacks.  James also became president of the Louisville chapter for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.(1)  Eventually, she became affiliated with eight Louisville-area hospitals and became the first African American woman on the staff of Louisville Children’s Hospital.(4)

 

 

(1)  Kleber, John.  The Encyclopedia of Louisville.  (Lexington:  University Press of Kentucky, 2001).  Pp. 430-431

(2)  http://louisville.edu/uofltoday/campus-news/kentucky-commission-on-women-honors-former-faculty-member

(3)  http://women.ky.gov/about/kwr.htm

(4)  http://www.nlm.nih.gov/changingthefaceofmedicine/physicians/biography_165.html

Skip to toolbar