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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.

Nurses In Eastern Kentucky

April 19, 2011 in 1960s-1970s

Everyone knows that since its founding in 1881, the American Red Cross has done more in the emergency field of aid than any other organization of its kind. It helps as relief aid, war victim’s support, and other disaster relief across America and even the world. But in some parts of rural Kentucky in the late 1910s and 20s, it was hard to find these public service operations because of the hazardous mountain ranges that are in the eastern part of the state. It goes to a place where you leave the comfort of the city and the railroad, and go into the rural mountain style of life. To a place where the knowledge and cures of Red Cross nurses would help save many lives.

While this type of rural living has a certain charm, it comes without proper (health) care for the most part. There are isolated cabins with neighbors living up to several miles away, slopes of the mountains that leave many questioning the safety, and many valley ways. There are few schools that are several miles apart as well with teachers who devote themselves to teach children who are less than privileged than other parts of the state. That includes raising health awareness and learning how to take care of themselves when they are sick. Money is always often very tight in those parts of the country (a tiny bit of cash and items like milk or eggs are bartered as payment sometimes), so being able to go see a doctor in a larger city when sick would not be very likely happen.

So instead, a small hospital was set up in connection with these schools as part of a way to help take care of people. Several nurses would go make household calls instead of having people come to them, handling all sorts of problems and illnesses. It was not just nursing companies that were having a hand in this either. Sanitary cooperation’s were working with water rights and privileges, disease facilities like those for tuberculosis were trying to help and even the United States Public Health Services were trying to get an official hospital train to these certain parts of eastern Kentucky in order to help those who did not have easy access to hospitals. Nurses also help abandoned orphans find other suitable homes once their parents die or are no longer able to take care of them.

These “mountain nurses” as they were often called would ride horse back from town to town to help any and everybody that she could while she was there. Things like childbirth midwives were very needed, as there were doctors around but not a single nurse most of the time. Having nurses in the mountains of eastern Kentucky would be a blessing to the people at this time. The idea of having someone personal there for them was new and the welfare of all in the rural mountain areas of Kentucky would be greatly improved because of these nurses.Rivers in parts of eastern Ky.

Even though not necessarily in eastern Kentucky and not directly affiliated with the Red Cross, the Red Cross Hospital and Training Department opened in Louisville. It was founded in 1899 by Dr. Ellis D. Whedbee (whose wife is considered to be the first African-American woman on the Louisville police force), Dr. W. T. Merchant, Dr. Solomon Stone, Dr. E. S. Porter and Dr. William H. Perry. Later in 1905, a second building facility was opened as the only nurse training program for African-Americans in Kentucky. The program was discontinued in 1937 and later re-established in 1948, where it served as a cancer treatment clinic for the people of Louisville and others, and then in 1975 it was closed down for good.


-American Red Cross,
-Notable Kentucky African Americans Database, –
Prospective Red Cross Nursing in the Kentucky Mountains (photos also from here),


The Hard Road: A Woman of Integrity

April 13, 2011 in 1940s-1950s, 1950s-1960s, 1960s-1970s, Political history, Social history

The Hard Road

A Woman of Integity


            Alice Allison Dunnigan was born in 1906 to a sharecropper and a laundress.  She came up under meager means but was taught a strict work ethic by her parents.  She had a love of writing and aspired to see the world through the eyes of a newspaper reporter.  She began her writing career at the age of thirteen when she began writing for the Owensboro Enterprise.

            Dunnigan completed the ten years of school allowed in the segregated Russellville school system and continued on to Kentucky State University.  She completed the teaching course at the university and began her teaching career in 1924.[1]  She became a history teacher at the segregated Todd County school system.  During her tenure as a school teacher she learned that African American children did not get the required learning in respect to their cultural heritage.  She devised a system of teaching them by inventing a brilliant learning tool called “Kentucky Fact Sheets”.  In 1939 they were collected for publication but no publisher would publish them.  They were finally published in 1982 as The Fascinating Story of Black Kentuckians: Their Heritage and Tradition.[2]

            Dunnigan finished teaching school in 1942.  She moved on to her original love of writing and landed a job as a writer for the Associated Negro Press news service.  She wanted to work as a political reporter covering the national scene but her request for credentials to cover the Congress and Senate were denied.  Six months later she was granted press clearance and became the first African-American woman to gain accreditation.  She experienced racism from the beginning.  She often sat in hearings where African-Americans were referred to as “niggers” and had to sit with servants in order to cover President Taft’s funeral.[3]

            President Eisenhower requested that she give him a list of questions prior to meetings because her questions were so hard hitting.  Most of her questions centered around race issues and the abolition of the Jim Crow laws.  She refused to give her questions beforehand because no other reporter was required to do so. 

            Dunnigan has become a rich part of Kentucky history and a great example of female African-American heroism.  Against all odds she prevailed in one of the worst chapters of American history.  Her drive to teach African-American children to be proud of their heritage and her passion to change the way our country was heading is a tribute to her and those that have followed in her footsteps.  For further study you may want to read her autobiography, A Black Woman’s Experience:  From Schoolhouse to White House.  Alice Allison Dunnigan passed away on May 6th, 1983, in Washington, D.C.

Women Using Business to Reach Equality

December 6, 2010 in 1920s-30s, 1940s-1950s, Economic history, Political history

An argument about how women would receive equality during the early 1900’s and before the beginning of the civil rights movement and the womens rights movment, some women believed it could be reached by acquiring equality in the finiancial world first. This meant women owning businesses, running bussiness and operating equally on an economic scale with the men in local society. This would be no easy task to accomplish, but many women continued to follow their dream until they either were respected wealthy women who were seen as equal to the men around them or until they failed and were forced to leave the business world for the common lifestyle led by most women in Kenucky during the first 70 years of the twentith century.

One such women that attempted and succeded at acquiring respect and equality among the men in her town of Kentucky was Nelda Barton-Collings from Corbin, Kentucky. With some help from her husband, the couple became wealthy and became owners of numerous businesses in Corbin. Once her husband died, she continued to control all of their businesses herself, but continued collaboration with a business partner that she and her husband had already been associated with prior to her husbands death. She was a natural leader and was the Republican National Committee Woman from Kentucky for 28 years and was the first woman to chair the Kentucky Chambers of Commerce. She recived no college schooling until after her husband passed, but learned mostly through the extended period of time in which she owned businesses. Today she owns with her business partner, nuring homes, newspapers, banks, and a pharmacy in the Corbin, Kentucky area.

Through business and economics, Nelda Barton-Collings was able to achieve equality in her daily life.  She is looked up to by many local women in the area and was able to live life as a equally respectable member in the community, not just as a women from Corbin, Kentucky whose husband owned a lot of businesses. She was able to distinguosh herself from the rest of the women in her town and raised herself above the norm for women from this time period.

by kcjohn2

The Undercover Roles of Women in the Movement

October 26, 2010 in 1960s-1970s, Political history, Social history

As I continue my research on women in the civil rights movement, it is the bridge, community leaders, which I find myself interested in finding more out about. These women were not the face of the movement, but the wheels behind it, which kept it moving. These women have the most interesting stories to tell, but are very hard to find without much searching. I look forward to getting to hear the stories of the women in the community of Lexington and more specifically the Martin Luther King Jr. Neighborhood in my further research. For now, I reflect on the lecture Professor Sonia Gipson Rankin gave last Tuesday. She began to tell us some of the roles these community leaders played in the civil rights movement. They could also be called undercover leaders because they began to incorporate furthering the message of the movement in their every day jobs. Beauticians would begin to tell their customers the necessary information needed to pass the voter registration test, all while styling their hair. Women in the community also began having bake sales and fish fries to raise money for the students who were arrested while protesting for equal rights and to provide alternative transportation until the bus system became completely equal.

African American women were faced with not only their race as an issue in being a leader in the movement, but their sex as well. It is no surprise that this would prompt the black women of the civil rights movement to take a back seat to their male counterparts.

The image is small, but is of a Mississippi beautician, Vera Piggy, styling a woman’s hair while educating her on how to register to vote in 1964. (from “Powerful Days in Black in White” by Charles Moore,

Vera Piggy portrait by Charles Moore

"Even while working at her BEAUTY parlor in Clarksdale, Vera Piggy instructs customers on voter registration procedures."

Marilyn Yarbrough; Setting the “BAR” High

October 15, 2010 in 1960s-1970s, Social history

Born in Bowling Green, KY in 1945, Marilyn Yarbrough Ainsworth had her mind set on being successful from day one. Daughter to Merca L. Toole and William O. Yarbrough, Marilyn would continue her education past high school and she would soon thereafter graduate from Virginia State University, and in 1973 from the UCLA Law School. After some time as an aerospace engineer with IBM and Westinghouse, Yarbrough would go on to become a law professor at several schools before finally landing a job as dean of the University of Tennessee College of Law.

Before Marilyn Yarbrough achieved this monumental feat of the struggle for race and gender equality, no African American women had ever been dean of a major southern law school. Had it not been for the hard work and dedication of Ms. Yarbrough to gain her prestigious position, who knows how long it would have before the next revolutionist swept in to get the ball rolling for not only African American women, but all women in their struggle for equality. During a time of desegregation of schools, which was a cause for high tension for African Americans as well as women, Marilyn Yarbrough was able to break down the barriers that kept people like her from obtaining these positions of power in schools of the South, and for that I commend her.

Following her death in 2004, Marilyn Yarbrough has been recogonized as a great leader in the struggle for women as well as African Americans in their struggle for equality in our society.

by Syle

Overcoming Politics

September 17, 2010 in 1920s-30s, Political history

After reading Rebecca Hanly’s article on Cromwell and Flannery (“Emma Guy Cromwell and Mary Elliott Flannery: Pioneers for Women in Kentucky Politics,” Register of the Kentucky Historical Society 99, Summer 2001, pp. 287-301) it made me stop to think about, not only how much the accomplished, but how much they had to continue to overcome throughout their successful careers and lives. To me it seems like after becoming the first two women to be elected into high political office, they would have been able to gain some respect. While to some people they might have, they never stopped having to overcome objectors, and those that as Hanly put it “not ready for women in public office”. Yet this never stopped them from achieving their goals, which shows how courageous and strong of women they really were. No matter how great of a feat they overcame, it seemed there was just another obstacle waiting for them. Flanery for example became the first woman elected to the southern state legislature, an amazing accomplishment, and was received with comments like “Flanery’s victory was mostly a feat of heredity”. This seemed to only push her harder though and make her even stronger. Not everybody was against it however, and she was named “as a possible candidate for the speakership of the lower house”. To me this shows that although Flanery (as well as Cromwell) were up against what seemed to be impossible odds at times, women were gaining political power due to the courage and leadership shown by women like Flanery and Cromwell. I do not believe they did it for themselves either, but more for all women to gain the respect that they deserved. Flanery shows this when she said “All I want to do is serve my constituents in the manner in which they wished to be served”.  While overcoming so much throughout their careers, these two women were very influential to women all over and for their rights.

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