by Billie Gray
This article is dedicated to my son, Timothy Clarence Gray (1967-2016), who always strongly encouraged me to tell my story.
On September 25, 1957, nine African American students arrived to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, under the protection of the National Guard. There were volatile public protests, including adults blocking the schoolhouse door.
On November 14, 1960, at the age of six, Ruby Bridges became the first African American child to attend the all-white William Frantz Public Elementary School in New Orleans. She had to have the protection of the federal marshals to insure her safety because of the angry mobs.
Both the Little Rock Nine and Ruby Bridges played significant roles in the integration of schools after Brown v. Board of Education. Their courage, determination and sacrifices are to be commended. Their contributions to the integration of schools have earned them a place in history as heroes. They are deserving of the books and documentaries that have been written about them.
There were other heroes who came before the Little Rock Nine and Ruby Bridges whose experiences were just as impactful, but their stories did not appear newsworthy enough to be told. There were no National Guard dramatics, no dogs sicced on the students trying to attend and no hostile adults blocking the schoolhouse door. These heroes were exposed to a different kind of experience: indifference, isolation, unworthiness; exclusion, and a feeling of being invisible. I call these students “The Invisible Heroes.” I was one of them.
Integrating Paducah Tilghman High School
In September 1956, I, along with four other African American students who were high school juniors, integrated Paducah Tilghman High School. Another student enrolled the following year. Although this integration occurred before the two previously mentioned events, it did not make the news or find a place in history.
Paducah, Kentucky, was a small town in the segregated South. The African American residents knew their boundaries. There seemed to be a peaceful co-existence between the two groups as long as the African Americans honored those boundaries. Naturally, all schools were segregated.
I attended Lincoln High School and loved it, despite the lack of physical amenities that the all-white Paducah Tilghman had. Many of our books were used and were given to us when the Tilghman students got new ones. None of these inequities made us want to leave Lincoln. We had lots of extracurricular activities. Black history was part of our curriculum. Most importantly, we had teachers who loved us and were committed to giving us the best education possible in spite of the inequities.
I was very popular at Lincoln, with lots of friends. I was in a number of extracurricular activities. I was one of the youngest students ever to be elected Miss Homecoming by popular vote. None of my friends nor I ever thought of leaving Lincoln.
My dad was a member of a civil rights organization — the NAACP. He informed me that I would be attending Tilghman in September as part of a desegregation project. I was vehemently opposed to this decision. I couldn’t imagine not graduating from Lincoln.
But on September 4, 1956, I was one of five African American students who made history by enrolling in Paducah Tilghman High School.
My time at Tilghman
I immediately went from Miss Popularity to Miss Invisibility. For a student who was very involved in extracurricular activities at Lincoln, I was discouraged from participating in any extracurricular activities at Tilghman.
The message to the African American students from the adults at the school, with the exception of the Spanish teacher, was quite clear: Come to class and go home and remain as invisible as possible. We complied.
The school principal asked the African American students not to come to the junior prom. He said that the school was not ready for integrated socializing. We complied.
Interestingly, when we returned to Tilghman for our 25th class reunion, many of our classmates were shocked and angered that this had happened to us. They said that they were not aware of any of this, and they thought we didn’t want to participate with them in extracurricular activities or social events. What was left unsaid was that there was very little communication between the white students and us.
The school’s second dilemma was what to do with us around the graduation activities — senior prom and senior dinner. The prom was at the school, so we were invited to attend. The major concern was the senior dinner, which was held at the prestigious Irvin Cobb Hotel, where African Americans were only permitted as workers.
The hotel said the African American students couldn’t come. The NAACP said we were attending or they would hold a public protest. The hotel offered a compromise, allowing us to come but to eat in a separate room close to where the waiters ate.
The NAACP again said that was not acceptable. Not wanting a public protest or bad publicity for the city, the school and hotel reached an agreement. We attended the dinner and sat and ate with our white classmates. The most moving part of that experience for me was to hear from the African American waiters who said, as they served us seated with our white classmates, how proud they were of us.
From high school to college
May 29, 1958, I, along with the five other African American students, made history in Paducah by becoming the first integrated class to graduate from Paducah Tilghman High School. This time the news media was present.
I applied to several historically black colleges, with Fisk University in Nashville as my first choice. I got accepted to Fisk and was overjoyed.
My dad called me into the living room to talk to me. I thought that he was going to say how proud of me he was for having been accepted to Fisk. That was not at all what he wanted to tell me.
The Herald will publish part two of this story, “Integrating the residence hall at the University of Kentucky,” later this month.
PART TWO Upon graduating from Paducah Tilghman High School, I applied and was accepted to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Both my mother and I were overjoyed. I told everyone that summer that I would be attending Fisk in the fall. My mother made me promise her that I would pledge Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, which was her sorority.
I began to notice that while my mother and I were so excited about Fisk, my dad had remained relatively quiet. I needed to speak with him, because while my mother and I had the enthusiasm, he had the money for my college expenses.
Change of plans
In July 1958, my dad said that he wanted to talk with me. I thought that he wanted to congratulate me on my Fisk acceptance. Instead, he informed me that he wanted me to attend the University of Kentucky (UK) in Lexington, Kentucky. I was shocked. I asked if I had a choice and the answer was a resounding no. He said that he wanted me to continue to be a trailblazer.
I told my dad that I was very much against his decision. I also told him that I thought UK didn’t permit African Americans to live on campus. Where would I live? His answer shocked me even more. He said that I would be making history by being the first to integrate the campus undergrad dorm.
I know my dad believed that he was doing the best for me, but his decision left me heartbroken. I felt that this was a huge responsibility to place on the shoulders of an eighteen-year-old. Leaving home for the first time was difficult enough, but to be sent into a potentially hostile and unwelcoming environment at this young age was unfathomable. I was leaving my entire support system in Paducah.
The first year
My UK experience was, in many ways, quite similar to my Paducah Tilghman experience. Once again, I felt isolated, invisible, marginalized, intellectually inferior and unwanted. This time, I also felt frightened — I had lost all sense of a feeling of safety.
In September 1958, three African American female students, including myself, enrolled at UK as freshmen to stay on the campus. We were assigned to Jewel Hall, a freshman dorm. Another African American student from Paducah and I were roommates. We had a very large private room with a full bath. We were asked not to use the main shower with the white girls. The other African American student was from Louisville, and was given a smaller private room with a bath.
Shortly after arriving at UK, I had my first experience with unfairness and bias. Along with a white student from Paducah Tilghman who had been in my Spanish class, I went to register for the intermediate Spanish class. We both had taken two years of high school Spanish. The department head enrolled her without question into the intermediate Spanish class, but told me that I would be placed in the beginning class. I told the head that the other girl and I had been in the same high school Spanish class with the same teacher and were both A students. He said that I had the option of taking a placement test or enrolling in the beginning class.
I took the test, and according to the professor who administered it, I scored exceptionally high. I never saw my score, but I was placed in intermediate Spanish. Later that year, I was offered a job in the language lab assisting freshmen who were having difficulty with beginning Spanish.
My grades were good, especially in the Spanish Language and Culture class where I maintained an A average. Most professors graded fairly but there were an isolated few who would only give me a B regardless of my A average. This was also true for some teachers at Paducah Tilghman.
My social life as a freshman at UK was practically non-existent. At Paducah Tilghman, I had friends with whom I could socialize in the community. Going into the town of Lexington to meet other African Americans was difficult because I didn’t have a car. I was ready to leave UK after my first semester.
At the end of the school year, I told my dad that I would not be returning to UK for my sophomore year. I was going to reapply to Fisk. I did reapply to Fisk and again got accepted.
The second year
I couldn’t convince my dad that UK and I were not a good fit, however. So, I found myself once again at UK in the fall of 1959. This year I had a small single private room in a new dorm with a bathroom that had no shower. I was told that could shower with the white girls.
My second year at UK was somewhat different and slightly more pleasurable than the first year. The change was due to some things that I did differently. This year, because I was a Spanish major, I became a member of the Foreign Students Organization, I joined CORE, and I volunteered at an orphanage.
The foreign students allowed me to be a part of their organization because I was a Spanish major. I had the good fortune to meet students from all parts of the world, and they were so welcoming and accepting of me.
They had a difficult time understanding why I couldn’t go places withthem off-campus. Each foreign student had a ID card that allowed them to go places in the city that African Americans couldn’t go. They did not want the foreign students to be mistaken for “Negroes.”
The Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) started recruiting on UK’s campus during the 1959-60 school year. Its focus was to protest segregated establishments. I joined CORE, and my first assignment was to try to eat at the University Grill. My white friend and I went and were served the first time. The waitress assumed I was a foreign student. The CORE coordinator asked us to go back and tell the waitress that was African American. I did tell her and she asked me to leave.
Sophomores also had to do some type of community service volunteer work. I was sent to an African American orphanage across town. The university said that there was no place near campus to place me, which is normally the policy. I loved this experience. All the love, warmth, and respect that I missed on campus I received from these children. I was sad to leave when my time was over.
At the end of that school year, I decided that two years at UK were more than enough. I planned to tell my father when he came to get me that I was either going to go to another college or I would join the U.S. Navy WAVES. I said that I wasn’t going to have all four of my years of college experience be as the first two had been. This time my dad didn’t say no. I transferred to Roosevelt University in Chicago. The experiences there were wonderful.
This article is in memory of my son Timothy Clarence Gray (1967-2016), who always strongly encouraged me to tell my story. Tim interviewed me on May 10, 2014, for StoryCorp about my University of Kentucky experience.
Billie Jean Miller Gray retired in 1994 as an Assistant Superintendent with the Chicago Public School System. She has also worked as a national educational consultant. Ms. Gray is the President of Miller-Gray Associates, a consulting and coaching firm. Ms. Gray is currently focusing her coaching skills on grief recovery. She received her Masters in Education from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She has been a Hyde Park resident for 27 years.