Before the Civil War, Kentucky was a slave state.
Although 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 worked to keep its African American population from experiencing social and financial 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 taught by educated African Americans who often also served as leaders in their communities.
The men pictured above, 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. The men successfully argued that the state of Kentucky was abiding by the case of Plessy vs. Ferguson, which had declared that race based 'separate but equal' education was Constitutional.
Johnson's case was successful because he and the NAACP focused on graduate programs, the vast majority of which were not offered at segregated schools for African Americans.
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.
Johnson and the NAACP may have won the right to enter the graduate school programs, but it would take the Supreme Court case of Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954 for UK to desegregate their undergraduate classes.
When the U.S. Supreme Court made their monumental 1954 decision that segregation in education was unconstitutional, the Univeristy of Kentucky complied with the ruling and allowed African Americans to attend UK as undergraduates as well as graduate students.
But the desegregation of the University was done only begrudgingly, and the university was not quick to implement desegregation. In fact there were even separate rules for African Americans who attended UK.
During the first yeras of desegregation, each black student at the University of Kentucky was required to undergo extensive counseling with the dean of men/women and the dean of each college. Explained the Dean of Women Sarah B. Holmes: “We pointed out that we wanted integration to succeed, and that if it were to succeed without unpleasant incidents, we must move into it slowly and unostentatiously, the less publicity the better. We requested cooperation of Negro students in a few simple things: That they sit together in the classroom rather than scatter over the room, that when they entered the cafeteria, they sit at a table with their fellow Negro students instead of each occupying a separate table. We advised them never to go to a table where white students were already seated, but that if white students on their own initiative came and sat with them, they should feel at ease...We asked the Negroes not to go to the Student Union for the first year of this experiment and to keep away from social programs. We told them to find their own living quarters and to work out their own social life with their own people. Several years passed before a Negro was assigned to a room in one of the dormitories. After the first year, we leaked out the work to them that it made no difference where they sat in classrooms or cafeteria, and that it was all right for them to go to the Student Union building.”
Both the graduate and undergraduate programs may have been forced to desegregate by law. But the legal process of integration still left questions open such as should African American students be allowed to play on UK sports teams? UK may have been desegregated in 1954, but African American students still faced decades of discrimination and unfair treatment.
UK's famous basketball team would not be desegregated until Tom Payne joined the team in 1969 - fifteen years after Brown vs. Board of Education.
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.