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Freedom on the Border

Freedom on the Border: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky

Catherine Fosl
Tracy E. K’Meyer
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 344
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    Freedom on the Border
    Book Description:

    Memories fade, witnesses pass away, and the stories of how social change took place are often lost. Many of those stories, however, have been preserved thanks to the dozens of civil rights activists across Kentucky who shared their memories in the wide-ranging oral history project from which this volume arose. Through their collective memories and the efforts of a new generation of historians, the stories behind the marches, vigils, court cases, and other struggles to overcome racial discrimination are finally being brought to light. In Freedom on the Border: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky, Catherine Fosl and Tracy E. K'Meyer gather the voices of more than one hundred courageous crusaders for civil rights, many of whom have never before spoken publicly about their experiences. These activists hail from all over Kentucky, offering a wide representation of the state's geography and culture while explaining the civil rights movement in their respective communities and in their own words. Grounded in oral history, this book offers new insights into the diverse experiences and ground-level perspectives of the activists. This approach often highlights the contradictions between the experiences of individual activists and commonly held beliefs about the larger movement. Interspersed among the chapters are in-depth profiles of activists such as Kentucky general assemblyman Jesse Crenshaw and Helen Fisher Frye, past president of the Danville NAACP. These activists describe the many challenges that Kentuckians faced during the civil rights movement, such as inequality in public accommodations, education, housing, and politics. By placing the narratives in the social context of state, regional, and national trends, Fosl and K'Meyer demonstrate how contemporary race relations in Kentucky are marked by many of the same barriers that African Americans faced before and during the civil rights movement. From city streets to mountain communities, in areas with black populations large and small, Kentucky's civil rights movement was much more than a series of mass demonstrations, campaigns, and elite-level policy decisions. It was also the sum of countless individual struggles, including the mother who sent her child to an all-white school, the veteran who refused to give up when denied a job, and the volunteer election worker who decided to run for office herself. In vivid detail, Freedom on the Border brings this mosaic of experiences to life and presents a new, compelling picture of a vital and little-understood era in the history of Kentucky and the nation.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7363-4
    Subjects: History, Sociology, Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Series Foreword
    (pp. ix-ix)
    James C. Klotter, Terry L. Birdwhistell and Doug Boyd

    In the field of oral history, Kentucky is a national leader. Over the past several decades, tens of thousands of its citizens have been interviewed. The Kentucky Remembered series brings into print the most important of those collections, with each volume focusing on a particular subject.

    Oral history is, of course, only one type of source material. Yet by the very nature of recollection, hidden aspects of history are often disclosed. Oral sources provide a vital thread in the rich fabric that is Kentucky’s history.

    This work is the seventh volume in the series. For all too long, the African...

  4. Map of Kentucky
    (pp. x-x)
  5. Chronology
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    Popular images of the movement for African American civil rights center mostly on the Deep South: from the Mississippi delta to the smokestacks of the industrial Alabama city African Americans called “Bombingham.” Kentucky, situated at the region’s northern border and once central to the struggle for African American freedom as the escape route from slavery across the Ohio River, is little more than a footnote in most histories of the modern civil rights movement. Yet the movement for racial justice swept through the commonwealth just as it did the Deep South, changing irrevocably the lives of post–World War II...

  7. Chapter 1 Life under Segregation
    (pp. 13-37)

    ALTHOUGH the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865 ended slavery in Kentucky, by the end of the century a new system segregated African Americans in nearly every aspect of public space and relegated them to second-class status in the economy, education, and social life. “Jim Crow,” as racial segregation became known informally, got its nickname from a minstrel character created by Thomas Rice, a white performer from Louisville.¹ Blacks in Kentucky as elsewhere around the region built their own separate communities, culture, and institutions in response to Jim Crow. But while they taught their children how to navigate...

  8. Profile: Jesse Crenshaw
    (pp. 38-48)

    AT the dawn of the twenty-first century, Jesse Crenshaw was one of only five African Americans in the Kentucky General Assembly. His district—the 77th, which he has served since 1993—includes parts of Lexington and Fayette County, and he was the first African American ever elected to represent that area. Crenshaw also teaches law and politics at Kentucky State University.

    Born in 1946, Crenshaw came to Lexington as a young adult, part of the first generation of African Americans to attend the University of Kentucky Law School, from which he graduated in 1973. Crenshaw’s childhood, however, was spent on...

  9. Chapter 2 Desegregation in Education
    (pp. 49-79)

    EXCEPT for a handful of tiny private schools operated by free people of color, very few opportunities existed for African Americans to obtain an education in antebellum Kentucky. Although literacy was not criminalized for slaves in Kentucky as it was in some southern states, many owners punished slaves who sought education, while free people of color were exempted from paying school taxes in 1837 because of an assumption that no schools would serve them.¹ Racially segregated schools then became the norm in every former slave state once a system of public schools began to be instituted across the South after...

  10. Chapter 3 Opening Public Accommodations
    (pp. 80-115)

    COURAGEOUS high school and college students facing arrest or verbal and physical abuse to get a simple hamburger at a lunch counter form some of the most poignant images of the civil rights movement. In many people’s minds, those images are the movement. Such sit-ins—captured on camera and replayed on the evening news in an era when television itself was an innovation—helped expose the moral bankruptcy of segregation to the American public in the early 1960s. Yet they were only the most public and mass-movement phase of a collective struggle that had been building for quite some time....

  11. Profile: Helen Fisher Frye
    (pp. 116-124)

    WHEN the civil rights movement in Kentucky was at its height, Helen Fisher Frye was both a public school teacher and president of the Danville NAACP. She led that organization in campaigns to end Jim Crow in public housing and accommodations as well as to open city government to African Americans.

    Born June 24, 1918, Frye lived her whole life in Danville, moving to a new house only once and leaving her hometown only when traveling or pursuing higher education. Raised in a large family by working-class but economically secure parents, she attended the segregated public Bate School. In 1942...

  12. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  13. Chapter 4 Open Housing
    (pp. 125-148)

    ONCE African American Kentuckians had won the right to eat in restaurants and shop in stores, the next great battle in the state’s civil rights movement was for equal opportunity in housing. Since emancipation, black and white residences had become increasingly segregated. As freed people and their descendants left rural areas and moved to small towns and cities, they congregated in black-only neighborhoods. In part this practice of seeking comfort and moral support among people who shared family, church, and culture mirrored a tendency that was true among all urban emigrants, including those from abroad who found homes in urban...

  14. Chapter 5 Economic Opportunity
    (pp. 149-176)

    JIM Crow in employment, with its resulting economic inequality between blacks and whites, has been perhaps the harshest, most enduring problem confronting Kentucky’s African Americans. Yet this issue also drew relatively fewer dramatic or unified protests, and is least prominent in Kentuckians’ shared memory of the civil rights movement. Black Kentuckians faced serious job discrimination in all areas of the economy from the very beginning of the post-emancipation era. As in other former slave states, many African Americans in Kentucky started out as farmers, an occupation with which they were familiar from antebellum plantation life. Yet, according to the 1900...

  15. Profile: Julia Cowans
    (pp. 177-185)

    JULIA Cowans’s narrative offers a window into what it was like to grow up black and poor in an eastern Kentucky coal camp. Cowans was born in 1925, in an era when the coal economy was still in a “boom,” drawing African Americans to Appalachian Kentucky as an attractive alternative to the harsher field labor options available to blacks farther south.¹ Yet the hardscrabble upbringing described here suggests just how limited African American choices were in many rural areas in the early twentieth-century South, including Kentucky. Cowans’s recollections of race relations in the Bell County coal camp of her childhood...

  16. Chapter 6 Black Consciousness, Black Power
    (pp. 186-212)

    IN the mid-1960s the cry of “Black Power!” resounded throughout the nation, destabilizing the nonviolent civil rights movement of earlier in the decade and generating a new kind of militancy among African Americans.¹ By the latter years of the decade, the philosophy of Black Power began to gain a following in Kentucky, sparking a variety of new initiatives. The central ideas of Black Power were not new. Several of the key elements—including black nationalism, the desire for economic self-sufficiency and independent politics, and the promotion of pride in African and African American history and culture—had been significant forces...

  17. Profile: J. Blaine Hudson
    (pp. 213-224)

    J. BLAINE Hudson is an author, scholar, university administrator, and Louisville native whose activism in the latter phases of the 1960s civil rights movement helped to usher in major institutional changes at the University of Louisville. Born in 1949, Hudson grew up amid the massive social upheavals of the 1960s, and he came of age when the slogan “Black Power” was replacing the early-1960s vision of a nonviolent “beloved community.”

    Hudson’s narrative situates his civil rights activism and his becoming an educator within the influence of family—especially his grandmother—but also in the movements that brought sweeping social changes...

  18. Chapter 7 Black Political Power
    (pp. 225-247)

    IN many ways the defining feature of the modern civil rights struggle was the effort to secure the right to vote and political power for African Americans. After the brief democratic promise offered during Reconstruction and despite the Fifteenth Amendment’s guarantee of the right to vote for African American men, governments of the former Confederate states devised myriad mechanisms at the turn of the twentieth century for denying that right—including the poll tax, white primary, grandfather clause, and literacy tests. When those were not enough, white mob terror visited upon black political activists intimidated potential voters and leaders. As...

  19. Conclusion Remembered and Forgotten: What Kentuckians’ Memories Teach Us about the U.S. Civil Rights Movement
    (pp. 248-262)

    In this volume, more than one hundred Kentuckians offer lessons about the conditions of life under Jim Crow and the persistence required to overcome discrimination in education, employment, and public life. Besides painting a vivid picture of dramatic moments, such as the March on Frankfort, these narratives also explain how collective action is organized. Oral history has long been recognized as valuable for providing these kinds of insights, which are rarely available in the same form from the written record. But more than merely providing new information, oral history can also shed light on how people think individually about the...

  20. Appendix: Narrators
    (pp. 263-284)
  21. Notes
    (pp. 285-296)
  22. Index
    (pp. 297-310)