Minority Presence and Protest at the University of Kentucky
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.
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.
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 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 NAACP successfully sued 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.
But, the reason Johnson and the NAACP won this court battle was based on the Supreme Court Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896 declaring 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. 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 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.