Even after racial integration of schools became law in the United States, students and their families struggled with contentious and even violent confrontations when they attempted to put the law into practice.
“When the school year started in 1956, a handful of brave African Americans in Union County, Kentucky, in the town of Sturgis, went and enrolled in Sturgis schools,” says historian David Wolfford. “When a mob prevented them from attending after a few days, Governor A. B. Chandler ordered the National Guard in to make sure that they could attend. It became national news.”
In Madisonville, several individuals filed suit against the Hopkins County School Board in order to integrate the schools. However, the plaintiffs were harassed and some lost their jobs. Several dropped off the lawsuit.
“When the school year started in September of 1957, James Van Leer was the only student who actually withstood a lot of that heat and actually entered what was called Waddill Ave. or Waddill Elementary School,” says Wolfford.
James Van Leer’s family members were active in the civil rights movement of the time. Both his mother, Elizabeth Eliot Van Leer, and his aunt, Willie Mae, were leaders in the local NAACP chapter.
“My mother, she was every bit of 4’11”. A powerhouse,” says Gloria Van Leer-Smith, James’s sister. “She was an activist. She fought until there was a change. My father was a pastor, so he gave her the spiritual support. He was not the activist in the family. He was the protection and the guard.”
But even with strong family support, James had to take a lot of responsibility upon himself, even as a young student.
“He fought a fight that nobody else would fight as a child,” says Gloria. “Mom took him to school, but he entered the door without her.”
“They talked with James about what he might encounter,” says Michael Lowery, a childhood friend of James, regarding his mother and aunt. “I later learned that James did not tell them a lot of the things that happened to him. He told them some, but not all of it. He kept a lot of that to himself. He didn’t tell them of the shoving and pushing and a lot of things that happened to him at school. So he knew what he was doing was important, and he knew it was important that it be successful. We talked about that. So therefore, some of the things that most children would have shared with his parents, he did not.”
But the response from angry white residents was no secret.
“The Van Leer family put up with a lot of abuse,” says Wolfford, adding that crosses were burned in their yard on at least two occasions. “They did go through a lot to do this.”
“Integration progressed slowly,” says Lowery. “Each year a few more went, and a few more. That’s how it went up until 1966, when the doors were finally closed at the all-black institution.”
James’s sister Gloria believes that her brother was well-adapted to deal with adversity.
“James suffered with sickle cell anemia,” she says. “He suffered with this horrible disease and he was able to laugh. He was able to love. He was able to have fun. And I believe that his finding joy in life was his way of coping.”
James continued to be active in civil rights causes through college and beyond. He passed away in 2017, but friends, family, and his community remember his brave contribution toward racial equality in Kentucky.
“James and his experience can lead us to a more perfect union if we will just take what he did and learn from it,” says Lowery. “I think there are a lot of Jameses throughout the south in this country, and it will just take time to find their stories.”
This segment is part of Kentucky Life season 25, episode 9, which originally aired on January 11, 2020. Watch the full episode.