Minority Presence and Protest
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 1865, a series of state and local politicians 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.
Although the United States Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that race-based segregation in education was unconstitutional, African Americans in Kentucky had been protesting segregation for many years before this ruling, and would continue to experience discrimination because of their skin-color for many years after.
For the first half of the 20th century, African Americans were not allowed to attend the better-funded all-white schools and universities. But schools for Black children and professionals still existed, such Kentucky State University in Frankfort and the above Brooks Bridge School. These schools were mainly staffed by educated African Americans who often also served as leaders in their communities.
The men pictured to the left, Rufus Atwood, President of Kentucky State University, and Lyman Johnson, together with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), successfully sued in Federal District court for Johnson to be accepted into the history graduate program at the University of Kentucky in 1949. This decision came nearly fifty years after the passing of the Day Law.
Johnson and the NAACP won this court case based on the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in 1896 in Plessy vs. Ferguson that the races may be segregated so long as they are treated equally. Since there were no graduate history programs for African Americans, the court ruled that Johnson must be allowed to attend the University of Kentucky. At the time of the lawsuit, Kentucky schools were not forced to desegregate completely, since there were other allegedly equal programs available to African Americans in other areas.
Not all were pleased with the slow collapse of state-sponsored segregation. In 1949, after the ruling on Johnson's case, 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, Arnetta O'Neal heard of Johnson's achievement 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.