A Black Educator in the Segregated South

A Black Educator in the Segregated South: Kentucky's Rufus B. Atwood

Gerald L. Smith
Copyright Date: 1994
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    A Black Educator in the Segregated South
    Book Description:

    Black college presidents in the era of segregation walked a tightrope. They were expected to educate black youth without sufficient state and federal funding. Yet in the African American community they were supposed to represent power and influence and to be outspoken advocates of civil rights, despite the continual risk of offending the white politicians on whom they were dependent for funding. The dilemmas they faced in balancing these conflicting demands have never been fully examined. Gerald Smith's study of the long-time president of Kentucky State College helps fill that void.

    From 1929 to 1962, Rufus Ballard Atwood served as president of Kentucky State. As chief administrator of the state's foremost black institution, he worked closely with black educational organizations and was often chosen by whites to represent the African American community on various boards and commissions. These appointments gave him access to the state's political and educational power structure, and Atwood proved to be a skilled diplomat; but his influence was frequently at risk.

    In his ground-breaking study, Smith examines Atwood's political relationships with state officials and his efforts to improve education for African Americans in Kentucky and the nation. He also appraises Atwood's contributions to Kentucky State and his relationship with faculty and students, and evaluates his contributions to the civil rights movement in Kentucky. Most important, Smith compares Atwood's style of leadership and the circumstances he confronted in Kentucky with those of black college presidents in other southern states.

    A Black Educator in the Segregated Southoffers an important look at a complex role played out by a remarkable man in an era of change and conflict.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5867-9
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-5)

    Ralph Ellison wrote in his classic 1952 novelInvisible Mana critical analysis of a black college president named Dr. Bledsoe. As one of the central characters of the book, Bledsoe intimidated faculty and students and abused his “power and authority” at the expense of the black community. He was rude and deceitful with blacks yet obsequious and patronizing with whites. He was not an educator but the caretaker of an educational institution controlled by white philanthropists.

    Yet Bledsoe was no fool. He had thoughtfully crafted his relationship with whites to protect the college’s existence and maintain his job. He...

  5. 1 The Homeplace
    (pp. 6-16)

    On April 26,1962, University of Kentucky president Frank Dickey telephoned Rufus Atwood at the Sheraton Hotel in Louisville during Atwood’s meeting with the board of directors of the Kentucky Council on Human Relations. Dickey informed Atwood that he had been chosen by the Committee on Sullivan Awards to receive the Algernon Sydney Sullivan medallion, one of the highest awards presented by the University of Kentucky. The news came as a surprise to Atwood who had recently announced his decision to retire as president of Kentucky State College. Atwood told Dickey that he would be honored to receive the distinguished award...

  6. 2 Goodbye, “Skullbuster”
    (pp. 17-34)

    On September 22,1915, at ten o’clock in the morning, the students and faculty of Fisk University assembled on the campus in front of Jubilee Hall to mark the beginning of a new academic year. The ceremony included a selection of songs, a brief address by President Fayette Avery Mckenzie, and the raising of the American flag over Jubilee Hall. In his remarks, Mckenzie explained to the audience how the flag symbolized “obedience” and “perfection.” “The flag of Lincoln,” observed Mckenzie, “is the flag of the North, and the flag of the South, the flag of the white and flag of...

  7. 3 The New Administration
    (pp. 35-59)

    On July 1, 1929, Rufus and Mabel arrived on the campus of Kentucky State Industrial College for Colored Persons (KSIC). “It was a very warm day,” recalled Atwood, “and the fact that I was nervous and a bit scared about the task ahead didn’t make it one bit cooler.” Although he would not officially begin his duties as president for another week, Atwood tried to make a positive first impression on the faculty and students. At thirty-two years of age he wanted to strike them as a mature and experienced educator. He even wore a straw hat that first day...

  8. 4 Walking a Tightrope
    (pp. 60-78)

    As president of Kentucky State, Rufus Atwood had to be mindful of the school’s development and yet guard the tenure of his administration. He did not want financial mismanagement or political interference to lead to his dismissal. While working at Prairie View, Atwood learned how political patronage influenced the tenure of college presidents. There, the appointment of the school’s principals was controlled by the Democratic party.¹ Aware of Kentucky State’s political history, Atwood was concerned about the longevity of his administration. He knew he would have to walk a tightrope as he tried to dodge the political challenges of dealing...

  9. 5 Beyond the Campus
    (pp. 79-96)

    “I have always operated on the philosophy,” proclaimed President Atwood to the Kentucky State freshman class of 1945, “that the real reason for the existence of schools and colleges is the welfare of boys and girls so that they in turn will be enabled to serve the welfare of society.”¹ Yet, while Atwood promoted this philosophy, he was cognizant of the barriers black students would face upon graduation. Their skills would have to be exceptionally polished in order for them to contribute to society at large. Because of this reality, Atwood was disturbed about the preferential treatment given to white...

  10. 6 Difficult Days
    (pp. 97-115)

    “To be president of a college and white is no bed of roses. To be president of a college and black is almost a bed of thorns,” wrote Benjamin Mays.¹ Mays’s testimony described Atwood's presidency. For thirty-three years Atwood struggled to better conditions at Kentucky State College. He faced racism, politics, and insufficient financial support. As each year passed, the burdens of the job became heavier and more frustrating to overcome.

    In 1940 the General Assembly granted Kentucky State $110,000 for annual “ordinary recurring expenses for operation.” This amount was less than half of what was given to each of...

  11. 7 School Desegregation
    (pp. 116-148)

    During the 1930s and 1940s, as Atwood tried to better conditions at Kentucky State, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was leading a movement to guarantee equal educational opportunities for African-Americans. On May 17, 1939, the executive secetary of the NAACP, Walter White, wrote Atwood congratulating him on completing ten years as president of Kentucky State. “Ahead of us lie days not only of grave difficulties,” wrote White, “but of great opportunity as well. . . . It is good to know that a man of your vision, character, and courage is at the helm of...

  12. 8 Spring 1960
    (pp. 149-165)

    In the spring of 1960, virtually every black president of a state-supported college faced a changing academic world. Black and white students alike questioned their leadership and led demonstrations against racial inequality. This time the dilemma facing black college presidents was influenced by the sit-in movement of February 1, 1960. On that date four students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro walked into a local Woolworth store and purchased a few items. They then sat at the segregated lunch counter and asked for coffee and doughnuts. Although the waitress refused to serve them, they remained in their...

  13. 9 Measuring the Years
    (pp. 166-182)

    On March 30, 1962, in a simple, two-paragraph letter, Atwood informed the board of regents of his decision to retire. For several years Atwood had considered leaving the college for other work. In November 1952, he had written his good friend John Davis, expressing an interest in alternative employment. Davis had retired from West Virginia State College to accept an appointment by President Harry Truman as the director of American Technical Assistance to Liberia. In wishing the best for his “very good friend,” Atwood wrote: “if you see a job in the foreign service which your fellow president in Kentucky...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 183-205)
  15. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 206-216)
  16. Index
    (pp. 217-226)