Integration, Athletics, Clubs, 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 announced, "The U.S. Prepares to Prod SEC colleges, Including UK, on Desegregation Plans." Desegregation of athletics was coming to UK whether the university wanted it or not.
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's was Nate Northington, also a UK football player of African American descent. 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 with UK at the time.
In a letter from Northington's mother, Mrs. Northington explained how the trauma of Page's tragic death combined with an overwhelming sense of loneliness 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."
Although efforts were made to help desegregate the university by the insitution itself, much of the protest, awareness, and activism 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!"
Legally desegregating the university's student body and creating a truly integrated UK were 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.”
UK basketball star Valerie Still joined the Lady Kat basketball program when it was still relatively new for women to play. Still proved that not only can girls play basketball, they can break records set by men. During her four years with UK, Still scored more points than any other basketball player (male or female!) and broke Dan Issel's record of time taken to reach 1,000 points in a season.
A star player and incredible athlete, Still helped to break new ground for female athletes and African Americans at the University of Kentucky.
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 - even if muted and obscured - remain today.
Even after most official organizations on UK's campus had been desegregated, African American students still felt unwelcome at the University. As the cartoon on the left from 1986 shows, it would take many years of protest from African American students at the University of Kentucky to feel accepted at the state's flagship university.