The Continued Fight

Doris Wilkinson

Dr. Doris Wilkinson, first female African American faculty member.

The U.S. Supreme Court may have declared racial desegregation in education unconstitutional in 1954, but many state institutions - including the University of Kentucky - were not quick to move on this monumental decision.  For decades after Brown vs. Board, African Americans would have to fight for equality.

In 1965, UK hired its first male African American professor, Dr. Joseph Walter Scott, in the Department of Sociology.  The newspaper headlines tended to focus on where exactly this professor would live since decades of segregation meant that there was limited housing available to middle class African Americans at the time in Lexington.

In 1967, UK hired Doris Wilkinson as a professor in the Sociology Department, the University's first first full-time female, African American faculty member.  Dr. Wilkinson was also one of the first African American students to attend UK as an undergraduate and graduated from UK in 1958 with a Bachlor's Degree in Social Work and a minor in English.  She earned a Master's Degree in Public Heath from Johns Hopkins Universityand a Doctorate in Medical Sociology from Case Western Reserve University.  Wilkinson has also won multiple teaching awards while working at the University of Kentucky.

But still, these two professors constituted a small minority of African Americans among the white faculty at the University of Kentucky.

The University of Kentucky was not the only institution struggling with the new American order of Federally sanctioned racial equality.  Thus, President Lyndon B. Johnson, in an attempt to add teeth to the push for progress and equality, signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 - an act meant to forever banish discrimination from the United States of America.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act expressly requires the Executive Branch to ensure that funds for federally assisted programs, including education, must not be used to support discrimination or segregation.

But this still did not mean that desegregation began immidiately nor was it done quickly - both across the nation and at the University of Kentucky.

Doris Weathers and Nancy Ray

Nancy Ray (left), Coordinator, and Doris Weathers (right), Assistant Coordinator, University of Kentucky Affirmative Action Office at the University of Kentucky

In 1972, eighteen years after the passing of Brown vs. the Board of Education, the UK Board of Trustees approved major steps to assure its policy for equal employment opportunity.  Working with Vice President for Administration, Alvin L. Morris, Nancy Ray was appointed as Coordinator of the University’s Affirmative Action Plan.  Ray was responsible for counseling minority students, advising the student chapter of the Civil Liberties Union, and was involved with the organization Associated Women Students and the Council on Women’s Concerns. Her responsibilities also included monitoring employment procedures, maintaining records on the employment of minority group members and women, reviewing pay equality, and assisting in the process for grievance resolution. Doris Weathers, a 1967 graduate of UK and a former public school teacher, educational counselor, and administrator at Kentucky State University, was hired as Assistant Coordinator.  In 1985, the University established a Learning Services Center to provide additional support for minority students to enable them to persist in school, and Weathers became the Center Director.

President Singletary and Black Female Students

President Singletary (right), John T. Smith, UK's first Vice President of Minority Affairs (left), and Black House women UK students, 1983

 Of the University of Kentucky's Affirmative Action Plan, in 1972, Nancy Ray said: 

“I am impressed that the University is taking this approach not just because it is right to do so, but because it is educationally sound policy. Increased cultural diversity in the University’s second century is a very real goal as we attempt to provide quality education for Kentucky’s young people.”

Nancy T. Ray

Nancy Ray, head of Kentucky's Affirmative Action Plan

While Ray was head of the Affirmative Action Plan, her office received about 30-40 complaints a year from UK employees who felt they were being discriminated against on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin, age or handicap.  

While giving a press statement to the University of Kentucky on why she felt she was the right woman for this important role - in addition to her impressive résumé, of course - Ray said that:

Perhaps the best preparation... was her loss of a teaching assistantship for which she had applied at a university in another state. “I was told it was because I’m a woman,” she says. “At that time there was no remedy.”  Now, she smiles, “we’ve come a long way.”

But Federal law and an Affirmative Action Commission were still not enough to move UK to full equality.

In 1981 the University of Kentucky released a staff report authored by the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights stationed in Frankfort. The report found in a study from 1975-1979 that “Tokenism in Black Faculty Employment Continues at State Universities: Women made slight gains at Non-tenured and Tenured levels during two-year period.”  The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission survey concluded that “this illustrates that segregation and tokenism continued to characterize the employment picture for black faculty even though blacks made slight gains between 1977 and 1979.”

University of Kentucky Board of Trustees meeting in Patterson Office Tower

UK Board of Trustees Meeting, 1987

In January 1981, the US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) cited the Commonwealth of Kentucky for noncompliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in three general areas: failure to enhance the traditionally Black institution, failure to adequately desegregate student enrollments, and failure to increase minority faculty/staff employment at traditionally white institutions of higher education. 

The Office for Civil Right's investigation into Kentucky's system of higher education began a new era for integration and racial equality at UK. Simply not banning minorities from UK was not enough. The univeristy would now have to work to ensure its campus was a diverse and welcoming haven for students of all colors and backgrounds.

President Singletary and the Board of Trustees

University of Kentucky Board meeting with President Singletary in 1987 - the year Kentucky was supposed to complete their initiatives for full integration.

In order to reach compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, Kentucky's Council on Higher Education established long- and short-term goals for the University of Kentucky's faculty and student diversity numbers.  

For example, in 1982 the faculty for the Lexington campus included 183 women and 17 African Americans.  In order to actively increase these numbers - something the Office for Civil Rights determined was necessary - the Council set goals to hire an additional 48 female faculty and an additional 25 African American faculty.

The Council also determined that the Lexington Campus's employment of minority staff should increase as well, from 398 women and 31 African Americans in 1982, to 429 women and 50  African Americans by 1988.  

Despite the fact that the university was given six years to complete this goal, the overarching message of the council was to "Begin Now! and Be Aggressive!"