Living the Story: The Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky
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A Kentucky Civil Rights Timeline

poster offering reward for runaway slaves 1792
Kentucky admitted to union; first state constitution establishes legality of slavery.

Kentucky statute gives free or freed Negroes legal equality to whites.

Law concerning “Slaves, Free Negroes, Mulattos, and Indians” and second Kentucky Constitution change status of free people of color by placing limitations on their rights, including voting and self-defense. Some cities and counties impose additional limitations.

Berea College founded by abolitionist Rev. John G. Fee to provide interracial education.

Fee is forced to close the school and leave Kentucky following John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.

President Abraham Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation, but his native state of Kentucky is unaffected because the proclamation frees slaves only in those states that have seceded from the Union.

Camp Nelson, south of Nicholasville, becomes the most important Union recruiting station and training camp for African Americans. Dependents of the soldiers also come to the camp seeking freedom. Fee returns as a voluntary missionary and founds a school.

Slavery ends nationwide, including in Kentucky, after the critical number of states ratify the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. (Kentucky would not itself ratify the amendment, though, until 1976.)

The first great African-American migration begins.

John Fee 1866
Berea College is reestablished by Fee and others, including African Americans from the Camp Nelson refugee camp. [photo of John Fee courtesy of Berea College]

Members of Quinn Chapel A.M.E. Church in Louisville organize Kentucky’s first known protest of racial discrimination, challenging segregation on local streetcars. This action and other early black protests would spark other actions demanding the rights to testify in court against whites, to serve on juries, and to vote. It also established a precedent for the involvement of black churches in civil rights issues.

In Plessy v. Ferguson, U.S. Supreme Court rules that “separate but equal” treatment for blacks and whites under the law is constitutional, thus institutionalizing Jim Crow laws keeping the races apart in public facilities. Justice John Marshall Harlan, a native of Boyle County, dissents.

The Day Law takes effect, segregating both public and private schools across Kentucky. The law was a direct response to the integrated education provided by Berea College.

U.S. Supreme Court upholds Kentucky’s Day Law. Justice John Marshall Harlan again dissents, protesting that the ruling puts racial prejudice ahead of civil liberties.

The NAACP opens a branch in Louisville to protest lynching and mob violence against blacks and to fight a new housing ordinance reinforcing racial segregation. Under the ordinance, only members of the same race previously living in a house or apartment could move into it.

U.S. Supreme Court declares the 1914 Louisville residential segregation ordinance unconstitutional in Buchanan v. Warley. But the ruling does allow cities wide latitude in protecting “racial purity,” preserving racial peace, and maintaining property values.

Charles W. Anderson, an attorney from Louisville, is the first African American elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives since Reconstruction. He would go on to sponsor bills to fund out-of-state tuition for black students denied higher education in Kentucky and to repeal the public hanging law.

Louisville sit-in protests segregated library.

Charles Eubanks files suit to attend the University of Kentucky College of Engineering, which leads to the creation of a “separate but equal” engineering school at Kentucky State College to prevent the integration of UK.

Branch Rickey, co-owner and president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, visits the home of Baseball Commissioner (and former Kentucky governor and U.S. senator) A.B. “Happy” Chandler to ask him to overrule the baseball owners and allow the Dodgers to sign Jackie Robinson as the first African American to play in the modern major leagues. Chandler agrees.

Eugene S. Clayton is the first African American elected to the Louisville Board of Aldermen.

Lyman T. Johnson files suit against the University of Kentucky for admission.

Training opportunities for physicians and nurses are desegregated, and Louisville hospitals begin desegregating. The main branch of the Louisville Public Library is integrated.

UK admits the first black students to its graduate and professional schools.

The Day Law is amended to allow individual colleges to decide whether to admit African Americans if no comparable course is taught at Kentucky State College. Berea, the University of Louisville, Bellarmine, Ursuline, and Nazareth admit blacks.

Three young African Americans are refused treatment at a Hardinsburg hospital, and one dies on the waiting-room floor. The death leads to a new state law prohibiting the licensing of hospitals that deny anyone emergency care.

U.S. Supreme Court, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, abolishes segregated public schools. UK opens undergraduate admission to black students.

Anne and Carl Braden, a white couple, purchase a house in the Louisville suburb of Shively in order to sell it to a black man, Andrew Wade. The Wade family is harassed, the Bradens are put on trial for sedition amid charges of a Communist conspiracy, and the house is bombed.

Remaining state colleges opened to all applicants. Russellville, Prestonsburg, Owensboro, Wayne County, and Lexington public schools end legal segregation.

Suit by NAACP results in federal court ban against segregation in Louisville municipal housing.

Legal integration of Louisville public schools begins peacefully. But in Union County, eight black students enroll in Sturgis High School and a mob of whites prevents them from entering. Chandler, serving a second term as governor, sends the state police and the National Guard to prevent violence.

Kentucky High School Athletics Association allows accredited African-American high schools to become members and to participate in state tournaments.

NAACP Youth Council pickets Louisville’s Brown Theater when its management refuses to admit African Americans to see Porgy and Bess.

African Americans in Louisville organize a voter registration campaign to replace city officials, capped by a rally where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference speaks to thousands.

Young people in Louisville form a chapter of the Congress on Racial Equality and begin demonstrations at downtown businesses.

General Assembly establishes Kentucky Commission on Human Rights and prohibits discrimination in state employment.

“Nothing New for Easter” boycott targets segregated downtown businesses in Louisville and sparks other acts of nonviolent resistance around Kentucky.

Kentuckian Whitney Young Jr. becomes executive director of the National Urban League.

General Assembly empowers cities to create local commissions on human rights in order to prohibit discrimination in public accommodations and teacher employment.

Gov. Bert Combs issues a Governor’s Code of Fair Practice against segregation in state government and state contracts. He also issues the Fair Service Executive Order to discourage discrimination in public accommodations, but that order is later suspended.

Harry N. Sykes and Luska J. Twyman are the first African Americans elected to the city councils of Lexington and Glasgow, respectively. Twyman would become mayor of Glasgow in 1969.

The use of scare tactics to force African Americans out of newly integrated neighborhoods is banned by the Kentucky Real Estate Commission. A group of Louisville women form the West End Community Council to encourage peaceful integration of residential neighborhoods.

Martin Luther King Jr., 1964 1964
U.S. Congress passes federal Civil Rights Act. Lack of support in the Kentucky legislature for a strong public accommodations bill leads to a mass march on Frankfort. More than 10,000 people, led by King, baseball’s Jackie Robinson, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, and folk singers Peter, Paul, and Mary, demonstrate in support of civil rights legislation. Later, 32 people hold a hunger strike in the House gallery to coerce legislators to pass the bill, but it never comes out of committee.

At a major conference on civil rights in Louisville, Gov. Edward Breathitt pledges support for a strong civil rights bill addressing employment as well as public accommodations.

General Assembly passes the Kentucky Civil Rights Act, and King calls it “the strongest and most comprehensive civil rights bill passed by a Southern state.” The law prohibits discrimination in employment and public accommodations and empowers cities to enact local laws against housing discrimination. The legislature also repeals all “dead-letter” segregation laws, such as the 62-year-old Day Law, on the recommendation of Rep. Jesse Warders, a Louisville Republican and the only black member of the General Assembly.

Bardstown adopts a comprehensive model ordinance prohibiting discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations.

Mae Street Kidd of Louisville is elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives.

Open housing ordinances are passed in Covington and Kenton County, and the Fayette County Fiscal Court bans discrimination in housing in Lexington and the county. One of the first acts of Louisville’s new Board of Aldermen is to pass a strong ordinance against housing discrimination, replacing the weaker, voluntary one.

Georgia Davis Powers 1968
Georgia Powers of Louisville is elected to the Kentucky Senate. The General Assembly adds housing discrimination to the enforcement section of the state Civil Rights Act.

A protest against police mistreatment in Louisville turns violent, and a week of disturbances ends in the arrests of six African Americans—dubbed the “Black Six”—on charges that they conspired to blow up Ohio River oil refineries. After more than two years of demonstrations and court hearings, all charges against the six would be dismissed.

The Kentucky Commission on Human Rights opens centers in Louisville and Lexington to help African Americans moving into new neighborhoods.

A group of black students, inspired by the Black Power movement, takes over a building at the University of Louisville to force changes on campus.

The Jefferson County Fiscal Court extends enforcement of Louisville’s local housing law to the county.

Cross-district busing to equalize the racial makeup of Louisville’s public schools sparks sometimes violent reactions, which eventually subside after two years.

Correcting a historical oversight, the General Assembly, after a campaign led by Kidd, ratifies the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution—more than 100 years after they became law.

The state constitution is amended to remove provisions for a poll tax and segregated schools.

Living the Story > Timeline