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Desegregation of Centre College

In response to Berea College's policy of admitting African-American students, in 1904 the Kentucky legislature passed the Day Law. Proposed by state representative Carl Day, the law prohibited any person, group of people, or corporation from the teaching of black and white students in the same school. After Berea College's challenge to the law failed before the Kentucky Supreme Court, the case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the state, although Justice John Harlan, a Centre College graduate, vigorously dissented, writing that "The capacity to impart instruction to others is given by the Almighty for beneficent purposes and its use may not be forbidden or interfered with by Government ...." The result of the Supreme Court ruling was to allow Kentucky to prohibit integrated schooling in private institutions, as well as in public schools until 1954 when Brown v. Board of Education case struck down segregation laws.

Although Centre never had a policy that expressly denied African-American students admittance, for the first half of the twentieth-century it operated under the restrictions of the Day Law. However, beginning in the late 1940's the issue began to play an increasingly important, and controversial, role. In 1948 Centre received applications from two Nigerian students attending Kentucky State College. The school asked Kentucky's Attorney General for an opinion on the application of the Day Law in this situation. The response was very clear: "... Centre College, being a school organized and operating under the laws of the Commonwealth of Kentucky and being subject to Kentucky's laws, cannot be permitted to accept negro or colored students as long as white students attend the school. There is no difference between a privately owned school and a publically owned school as far as the application of the law is concerned." The Day Law was amended March 21, 1950, permitting schools above the high school level to voluntarily desegregate if they so wished. On May 12, 1950, President Walter Groves wrote a confidential memorandum to the Board of Trustees asking that they give consideration to enrolling African American students. He noted it was a question that sooner or later must be answered by the college. In fact, the school had received an application from an African American, Robert E. Harding, Jr., to attend summer school in 1950. The application would be turned down. In the memorandum Groves stated his position as being in favor of desegregation, but also his belief that any change in current policy would require support by a decisive majority of Centre's trustees, faculty, and the congregations of Kentucky's Presbyterian churches. The previous year a Centre faculty member had polled the faculty on their views of admitting "Negroes or other widely divergent races" to Centre. Of the 26 faculty members replying to the questionnaire, fifteen were in favor of accepting African American students, seven opposed, and four felt the time was not yet right. Groves clearly lacked his "decisive" majority at least of the faculty. In the summer of 1954 both Synods of the Presbyterian Church – U.S. (Southern branch) and U.S.A. (Northern branch) – passed resolutions urging trustees of colleges and universities affiliated with the church to adopt policies of opening the doors of their schools to all races. These resolutions were placed before the Board, as noted in the minutes for October 30, 1954. Groves’ position was that there no longer existed any reason to deny admission to African American students, but he fully recognized that desegregation would require considerable wisdom and planning. He noted that some parents would withdraw their children; some alumni would turn against their alma mater; some donors would withdraw their gifts; and some agitators might try to do the college harm in ways that couldn’t be seen. The Board, however, drug their feet. In July of 1954, a request for application material from Martha D. Simpson, resulting in a reply from Jameson Jones that Centre’s policy remained "We have your inquiry, but I see that you are a graduate of Bate High School. Therefore I must inform you of the present policy of Centre College to refuse admittance to Negroes."

In October 1954, Groves wrote another memorandum to the Board of Trustees, noting that there seems little question of accepting qualified African American students sooner or later. "The only real question is ‘when’?" Groves felt strongly that the answer was now. In November 6, 1954, Groves wrote a letter to the Synod stating the Board’s position on integration: that a majority of trustees recognized that Centre should admit African American students, but in such a way and at such a time as would not result in serious setbacks to race relations in the area. Groves was placed in the difficult position of advancing his personal views against the resistance of some members of the Board of Trustees.

By early 1955 both Synods had become increasingly impatient. A letter from E. Fay Campbell (Board of Christian Education, Presbyterian Church, U.S.A) to Groves requesting a letter from Centre on the school’s integration policy pointedly stated "Really, it is going to be most difficult for us to defend Centre College if questions are raised on the floor of the General Assembly. I may say that Centre stands alone now in our group in the uncompromising attitude that is taken on the matter." The Board wouldn’t budge. In May 1955, a committee of the trustees (consisting of Norris Armstrong, Logan Caldwell, and John Gosney) delivered a report to the Board stating that "The committee feels that more harm than good for the College, for the community of Danville, and especially for better relationships between whites and negroes of Centre’s constituency would be done by any precipitous action at this time. Your committee recommends, therefore, that it continue its explorations with committees of the alumni, alumnae and other."

In a March 14, 1956, letter to Harry Goodykoontz of the Louisville Presbyterian Seminary, Campbell writes "I have to confess that I am deeply disturbed to find people as thoroughly uninformed about the race situation as members of the Board of Trustees of Centre…. Only the leadership at Centre seems to think that they can sit back and let the problem solve itself. This is an extraordinary position for intelligent people in a world of revolution." Centre’s Board of Trustees, at that time, consisted of twenty-four members, all white, mostly older, and predominately male (only two women were on the Board). Six of the members were from Danville, and only five from outside Kentucky.

In a letter to Ike Lanier, chair of Centre’s Board of Trustees (April 14, 1956), Groves notes that "… the matter is being discussed by the students and faculty at Centre just as it is being discussed everywhere across the nation these days." On April 8, 1956, the Board received a petition from the women’s student government urging "the admission of qualified students of any race." A poll had been taken of women students, and the question "Are you in favor of admitting all qualified person regardless of race" passed by a vote of 89 to 31. A second question, "Would you withdraw if Negroes were admitted to Centre College" resulted in 18 students saying yes, and 94 no. A letter from the Women’s Student Government, dated October 16, 1956, requested that Lanier address students on the Board’s view on racial integration. In a letter to trustee Norris Armstrong, Lanier writes about this "quite interesting" letter, and notes that "Personally, I do not think any poll should be taken unless both sides of the question have been fairly and intelligently presented.” Lanier goes on to express his concern about the number of students who would withdraw if Centre desegregated, how desegregation would affect future enrollment, and concludes that “I do not think we should be swayed from our determination to use our best judgement on this very delicate situation." Students and faculty, if not exactly embracing integration, were moving in that direction. The problem now lay completely with the Board.

On April 20, 1956, the Trustees passed a resolution stating that "… now is not the time to inaugurate a drastic change in current practices. … It is earnestly and sincerely seeking ways and means of solving the problem at a time and under the circumstances which will best serve the welfare of all concerned." On June 1, 1956, Groves received a letter announcing the General Assembly’s (Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.) action to withhold their appropriation to Centre "pending complete acceptance of the Church’s policy." In 1954 the gifts from churches and church boards amounted to $22,547 out of a total budget of $417,000, or about 5%, not an insignificant amount of money.

A list compiled in the summer of 1956 by the Kentucky Council on Human Relations showed that Centre was one of only five colleges in Kentucky lacking a public policy of admitting students without regard to race. In the fall of 1956, a night art class for community adults taught by Centre professor Jack Kellam enrolled an African American school principal after Kellam and the entire class gave their consent. The Board was not happy, and Groves ran into trouble over the incident. In a letter to former Centre president Robert McMullen, Groves mentioned that the Board of Christian Education of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., was holding Centre’s appropriation on deposit until the trustees took a more affirmative action on desegregation.

The problems between the Board and Groves came to a head in 1957. At a February 2 Board meeting, the members could not get a vote to request Groves to resign, nor could they get a vote of confidence in him. Five of the eight who thought Groves should resign were from Danville. Groves told the Executive Committee on February 22 that he would resign when he had found a worthy position elsewhere. At the same meeting the Board also passed a resolution on integration that had not moved very far. "The Board of Trustees of Centre College of Kentucky, recognizing the responsibility that Centre has as a Christian college for admitting all properly qualified students, regardless of race, is seeking ways and means of putting such a policy into effect in a manner and at a time that will serve the best interest of all concerned." On April 15, 1957, Groves submitted his letter of resignation. Although the difference between Groves and certain trustees over the issue of integration wasn’t the only reason for his resignation, it certainly played an important role.

When Thomas Spragens was selected in 1957 to become Centre’s new president, he found a board that had become increasingly polarized over the issue of integration. In the discussions leading up to his accepting the presidency, Spragens made his position on integration very clear: any institution should accept students without regard to race; a diverse student body was an educational benefit; he would not only be open to African American students at Centre, but would actively encourage their admission, but he would not allow Centre’s level of expectation to drop for any student.

In June of 1958, the Board adopted the following admissions policy: "Centre College is committed to a selective policy of admission. It is our purpose to maintain a wholesome environment in which students of capacity above the average may proceed without hindrance to the attainment of superior academic goals. Candidates for admission will be judged in terms of scholastic aptitudes giving promise of a constructive contribution to the life of the campus and of potential future leadership in human affairs. No candidate will be arbitrarily excluded on grounds of race or creed."

Given the school’s position on integration during the 1950’s, it is not surprising that Kentucky’s African American high school students didn’t initially apply to Centre in droves. Centre began to recruit in Lexington and Louisville for African American students, but faced an uphill battle. Educators and councilors in those schools were reluctant to recommend Centre to their students out of a concern that they would not be comfortable or socially accepted. It would not be until 1961 that the first black student, Tim Kusi, a student from Ghana, would enroll as a sophomore transfer student from Kentucky State University. In the fall of 1964, ten years following Brown vs. Board of Education, Centre enrolled its first African American students. In 1972, Shirley Walker, an instructor in French, would become Centre’s first African American faculty member.