Unsung Hero: Audrey Rice Grevious

by Larry L. Johnson (Lexington, Kentucky)

How many times have you heard the name Audrey M. Grevious or Audrey Rice?  Would you recognize her, if seen in public?  Probably not, …not even on the Martin Luther Kings day celebrations, or at special forums held during Black History month.  History books may not mention her name, but silent history knows this heroism   She was at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement in Lexington, Kentucky.

Though reconstruction was considered long past by the mid 1950’s, segregation and the oppression of black in Kentucky was as bad as in many southern city and townships.  Kentucky sat on the borders of freedom, but Lexington by no means was characteristic of a city that respected the basic human rights of “colored people.”  Nor for that matter did much of the North.  Reconstruction is a term the government used to identify the efforts of government to establish and protect the rights of blacks following slavery.  Destruction may be a better suited term, as laws spread from the south through the north, restricting the right granted blacks after the Civil War.  As much as successful attempts have been made to cover up the horrific indiscretion of whites during the first half of the 20th century, old news paper articles and court records long stored in dusty library and store rooms harbor the secret.

With this brief paper, I would like to honor, a woman, who at the young age of 25 years of life, stood up and said “dammit… if I must go, I want go quietly.” 

Across the country the Baptist church and its ministers were championing the Civil Rights movement.  Despite the volatility of aggressive efforts to quash a movement to grant equal rights to the negro, the overwhelming national movement for Civil Rights was a non-violent protest.  With gentle resolve and the strong determination of a mother, in many cities women led the movement.  They knew that men would find physical even violent aggression irresistible.   At a time, when protestors face being jailed, the black community needed their men on the jobs, providing for the educational, health, and survival needs of the family and community.  In the face of grave danger, mothers and daughters stepped forward to champion Lexington’s cause.  For months, women virtually stood alone Saturday after Saturday, …strong in their resolve, striking deadly blows to that evil enemy “segregation.” 

Audrey and the protestors that joined her fought requested the support of a few local church leaders.  Most of them refused to read her request for support.  As she talked, Ms. Grievous expressed gratitude for then Pastor of Pleasant Green Baptist, who afforded them space to meet.  She states, “he refused to become leader of the local movements, but gave credit and support to the heroins of the day.”

Fresh out of College, around age 25, Audrey Rice had joined the NAACP, and was asked to attend the “National NAACP meeting” in New York…  At that conference she was inspired to do what she calls “testing” on the way home.  Testing consisted of traveling from city to city and evaluating the treatment of black in restaurant, gas stations, and stores across the nation.  Today we call this being a “secret shopper.”   So, she accepted money from the conference to do “testing”, and was reimbursed for her return train ticket.   She partnered with a young man from North Carolina, they used the money to purchased gas for his car.

The young man, whose name she can not now recall, drove a beautiful large car, and she dressed in her “Sunday go to meeting fur.”  Looking as though she was economically advantaged gained her some respect, but not much.  It was rare to find a place that served black.  And the senior today said; “by and large the way they treated us was horrible.  Young folk wouldn’t believe it.   We had to use certain restroom, water fountains, and couldn’t eat at counter in many stores.  Often we couldn’t buy food from inside restaurants, but were served out of the back door.”  Experiencing segregation in it multifaceted forms established the foundation of their agenda for reform.  As she expressed “oppression in any form was unacceptable.” 

Ms. Audrey became the President of the Lexington branch of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), and Mrs. Mary Lewis was president of CORE (Congress on Racial Equality.)  Together they led the Civil Rights movement in Lexington.  Still today [from an interview by the author in his home, May 6, 2002] she remembers the sit-ins at Schulte United store in Lexington, beside BB Smith , and Mitchell Baker’s.  She bares in her body the pains of white oppressor.  As she rubs those legs that don’t always want to support her body or carry her to the front room to answer the door: “They put a chain in front of the counter to keep blacks from going to the food counter, but we went as close as we could.  This man would swing that chain and hit my leg.  But we wouldn’t move.  I just stood there.”

Week after week, month after month, her Saturday’s were sacrificed to the cause.  She headed to “center city”, were she stood or sit for hours.  She was determined to see change.  “If it cost my life, so be it, but something had to be done.  This unrighteous treatment of blacks could not continue.”  In her attic she keeps a memento to those days of protest.  A dress, …forever stained serves as a reminder of the insensitive thoughtlessness of some whites.   As she sat in protest, a women from the store walked up and dump a pitcher of grape juice on her dress, knowing that the cotton fabric could not be cleaned of the grape juice stain.

In those days, early Sunday mornings she could be found cleaning her front lawn on Effie St.   “White men would ride past and litter my lawn with the most ungodly trash you can imagine.”  Things tossed onto her lawn included food, used feminine hygiene items, trash, body waste, etc.  But she was not deterred.  Eventually, a few black men would sat at watch until 1am across the street from her house in an effort to prevent the evil mischief.

After protesting for months on Saturday in downtown, the protest moved to area supermarkets in the black neighborhood (MRS on Georgetown Street, Cottrell on Third Street, 10 cent store, etc.)   These places only hired blacks to do janitorial services. 

Mrs. Grevious, as she is known today, worked for the Kentucky Village schools during the time of segregation.   She worked with delinquent black males in cottages separate from the white cottages on the campus.   Attempts were made to get Mrs. Grevious fired from her job at the school.  Eventually she was asked to come before the Superintendent, but they agreed that she had a right to use her personal time at her own discretion. 

She also recalls; “Black teachers did not get or use new books in school.  They always taught from used books sent from the white schools.  Many of the books were filled with disgusting, degrading comments and pictures aimed at blacks.  These pages had to be torn from the books before giving books to black children.  The only new books came from Maurice Strider who sent north for books on African American history.”

The Civil Rights movement era was a very dangerous time in America’s history.  While doing sit-ins… White would come close to the protestor and flick cigarette lighters, as if threatening to set fire to the protestor’s hair.  Audrey stated, “I said that if one set my hair on fire, it would have been over.  Peaceful movement would have been over… that would have been the end of it.” 

Threats to black protestors also came from places like Ohio.  Fortunately, Chief Hale discouraged many white civil rights opposers from getting involved in local protest.  Upon hearing of pending opposition, he met groups at the county line and told them “you won’t bring that mess into this city.”  Unfortunately not all policeman shared Chief Hale view. 

One place of protest was the Strand Theatre.  Blacks were not allowed in the theatre. The excuse owners used was that black men will slip in on their women.  In protest, members of the local civil rights movement would go to the theatre prior to the time of its opening and sit in front of the theatre.  During one protest a women were arrested.  [Mrs. Grievous couldn’t recall the charges, but think it might have been for trespassing.]  While in jail a policeman implied that the protesters were filthy and needed baths.  Ms. Grevious reported the comments to Chief Hale, who instantly scolded the offending officer.

Ms. Grevious lives today [May 6, 2002] in the same place on Effie Road, where weekly trash once littered her lawn on Saturday night.  She is one of the few surviving unsung hero of the Civil Rights movement in Lexington.  Though not physically strong, she is still concerned about the rights of black and other minorities.  She is still equally concern about preserving the rich history of African American’s in Lexington.  A former educator, she states that “my heart still bleeds for children in our educational system.”  She listens to the news, and is aware of academic disparity, and she prays.  She hasn’t lost her faith.  She believes that God will intervene.  “I’m still looking for the Day of our Salvation.” 

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“Unsung Hero: Audrey Rice Grevious”
by Larry L. Johnson, ljohnson@lexingtonky.gov
is licensed under a
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