Integration, Athletics, and UK Housing
Brown vs. The Board of Education may have declared that schools in the United States could not discriminate based on race, but that did not mean that schools immidiately began following the ruling.
In December, 1966 The Louisiville Defender, a predominantly African American newspaper criticized the University of Kentucky's reluctant beginnings in desegregating the school - particularly its athletic teams. The journalist explained:
“UK’s very slowness in desegregating its athletic team and its blindness to what the addition of Negro athletes would mean to them is mostly responsible of their mediocre football record and their slipping basketball rating. Worst, however, is the fact that it is going to become increasingly difficult to get any Negro athlete of exceptional ability and self-respect to matriculate at the University in the near future.
The author was referring to the fact that UK was gaining a national reputation as another SEC school that was hostile toward desegregation.
In April of 1967 the Courier Journal wrote an article titled, "The U.S. Prepares to Prod SEC colleges, Including UK, on Desegregation Plans."
The first African American athlete to wear a University of Kentucky football uniform was Greg Page.
Together, University of Kentucky President John W. Oswald and Kentucky Governor Edward T. Breathitt agreed that it was time for the SEC and UK athletics to integrate African American players onto their teams. The year was 1966. Despite their joint agreement, UK would find that it would be difficult to sign a talented African American athlete because of the perceived hostility from UK fans and students, according to UK PhD Sharon Barrow Childs.
Eventually, UK football did sign their first African American players - Greg Page and Nate Northington, both Kentucky natives.
Tragically, Page was fatally injured during football practice during a drill. Page was paralyzed from the neck down and hospitalized for 38 days. On September 29, 1967, Greg Page died at the age of 19 leaving the university and state stunned.
While living at UK, Greg Page had a roommate, also of African American descent, named Nate Northington. Although UK dorms were not racially segregated by building, the university did keep roommates segregated by room.
After Page's death, Northington continued to live alone in the room he and Page shared. He was not assigned a new roommate because there were no other African American football players registered in UK at the time.
In a letter from Northington's mother, Mrs. Northington explains how the trauma of Page's tragic death combined with an overwhelming sense of lonliness as Northington continued to live alone, forced him to withdraw from UK and the football team the following season in 1967.
In an interview given to the Lexington Herald Leader in 2013, Northington explained:
"All of a sudden, to be by yourself, alone, isolated. That's what it seemed like, isolation," Northington said. "I was going to practices, practicing, going through the motions, then going back to the room. I guess I didn't go to a lot of the classes during that time." The article continues: On a UK campus where almost no one looked like him, without the roommate he had come to rely on, Northington felt lost. After the accident, Northington went back every night to the dorm room he and Page had shared. All of Greg's stuff was still in the room."
In August of 1967 an ombudsman program was implemented to seek to establish a liason between students, faculty, and the administration to handle "any student inquiry or complain concerning any phase of student life at the University. He noted that “since the best interests of the majority of students sometimes runs contrary to that of the minority, or even the single student, someone needs to represent minority voices, and that is the ombudsman."
This ombudsman was meant to assist the University of Kentucky both in attracting minority students to the school and to help the retention rate of minority students who did enroll. As we will see in the future, these efforts were not enough.
Although efforts were made to help desegregate the university by the insitution itself, much of the protest, awareness, and activists came from the African American student body of the university. For example, in 1967 a group of African Americans protested outside Memorial Coliseum - then the home of the Kentucky Wildcats Men's Basketball team, in order to protest segregation in basketball recruiting. Several of the protesters held signs aloft asking, "Dear Mr. Rupp please give us something to cheer for!"
The University of Kentucky may have made attempts to desegregate their studet body, but corresponding changes in diversity within staff and faculty positions would take much longer. It would take until 1968 for Anna Nichols, a graduate of Kentucky State University, became the first African American woman to be appointed to a UK Administration position.
Legally desegregating the university's student body and creating a truly integrated UK were of course two seperate fights. In 1975 UK student and gospel singer Sharon Strong explained that music clubs in the university were a good way to help African Americans find a place to belong within a white-washed UK. Strong explained, “After my first year at UK, I didn’t care too much for this university. But you know, when you do something yourself and see that it’s good – like the choir – you can forget all the outside hassles.”
Even with all of the efforts and student protests mentioned above, the University of Kentucky remained stubbornly a virtually segregated univeristy.
The University of Kentucky made modest attempts to desegregate. But, their attempts were not nearly enough and in 1982 the federal Office for Civil Rights found the state of Kentucky's higher education programs still segregated.
In order to properly desegregate the Unveristy worked with the state government in Frankfort to develop the Commonwealth of Kentucky Higher Education Desegregation Plan, which included developing a more active recruiting system to entice minorities to the school and establishing five year golas to track the status of minorities attending UK.
An Office for Minority Affairs was also created under this plan. According to President Singletary,
“Under the direction of the VP for Minority Affairs, the Minority/Disadvantaged learning center concentrates on counseling and direct assistance to students, primarily undergraduate students. The activities of the Center include basic study and problem-solving skills, effective reading skills, memory training, examination-taking techniques and time management.”
This office was created to help the university's retention rate of minority students.
Had the state and universities not found an acceptable plan to desegregate, the Department of Education risked losing $60 million in federal funds for state colleges and universities.
Clearly, full equality and desegregation was not an easy road for the University of Kentucky, nor, indeed, for the nation - and the struggle to erase the vestiges of inequality and discrimination remain - even if muted and obscured - today.
Even after most official organizations on UK's campus had been desegregated, African American students still felt unwelcome at the University. As the above cartoon from 1986 shows, it would take many years of protest of African American students at the University of Kentucky to feel accepted at the state's flagship university.