Minority Presence and Protest at the University of Kentucky
Prior to the mid-20th century, the state of Kentucky and UK as a university were racially segregated. Housing and schools were strictly segregated based on race and African Americans experienced intense discrimination in Lexington and across the United States.
Integrating black and white students into the University of Kentucky was not a simple nor easy process and the issue was not solved by a court's resolution - although this was an important first step. The act of desegregating the University of Kentucky and the nation required multiple lawsuits, public protest, and student action groups to create an atmosphere of true equality.
Before the Civil War, Kentucky was a slave state.
Although legal emancipation -long fought for by Kentucky's African American population - came with the ratification of the 13th Amendment in December 1965, a series of state and local congressmen and justices worked together to ensure Kentucky would become a segregated state and conspired to keep its African American population from experiencing equality with emancipation.
In 1903, the Kentucky legislature passed the Day Law, a law forbidding black and white students from being educated in the same building. This law was targeted at Berea College in an effort to keep African Americans from accessing both education and also a sense of equality with other white students.
The United States Supreme Court would rule in 1954 that race-based segregation in education was unconstitutional. But African Americans in Kentucky would be protesting segregation for many years before this ruling, and would continue to experience discrimination because of their skin-color for many years after the ruling.
African Americans would not be allowed to attend the better funded all-white schools and universities for the first half of the 20th century. But schools for black children and professionals still existed, such as the above Brooks Bridge School and Kentucky State University in Frankfort. These schools were mainly taught by educated African Americans who often also served as leaders in their communities.
The men pictured here, Rufus Atwood, President of Kentucky State University and Lyman Johnson and the NAACP successfully sued for Johnson to be allowed access to the graduate programs at the University of Kentucky in 1949, nearly fifty years after the passing of the Day Law - a law passed by the Kentucky legislature prohibiting children of different races from attending school together.
Not all were pleased with the slow collapse of state-sponsored segregation. In 1949, local Lexingtonians burned crosses on UK’s campus to protest integration at the University.
Despite some negative public reactions, others acted with courage - for example Mrs. Arnetta O'Neal heard of Johnson's acheivement and decided to register for a master's degree in education with the University of Kentucky. Already the principal of Douglass elementary school in Lexington, O'Neal saw the crumbling of segregation as an opportunity to advance her own set of skills and education to better prepare herself for the years ahead.