Some students at Rosa Parks Elementary School got a living lesson in Lexington history on Friday.
Helen Caise Wade, 70, kept fourth- and fifth-graders enthralled for a full hour as she described her experiences as the first black student to ever attend a white school in Lexington, and the price her family paid for helping to break the color barrier in 1955.
Lexington schools were segregated then, even though the U.S. Supreme Court had outlawed segregation the year before. Wade, then 16, attended Lexington's all-black Douglass High School. But she decided to attend summer school at the still-all-white Lafayette High School, where classes were free.
Wade said she was not personally mistreated — most of her white classmates simply ignored her. But white grownups retaliated by boycotting her father's construction business, leaving her parents so financially devastated that they almost lost their home.
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"My father couldn't get a job sweeping streets in Lexington, Kentucky," she said.
Helen Wade offered to quit. Her father said no.
"He said, 'You'll never quit. You're doing something that might affect the next generation,'" Wade told the Rosa Parks students.
She said only one Lafayette student befriended her in 1955 — a young Jewish girl named Barbara Levy. The two reconnected decades later.
Wade now lives in Cleveland. She told students Friday that, other than a few Lexington newspaper stories some years ago, she had never before had an opportunity to tell her story.
Wade was invited to Rosa Parks by Jennifer Jones, who teaches fourth grade. Jones' mother graduated from Douglass with Wade, and Jones has known Wade all her life.
Jones said she invited Wade because "I thought the students should know how things used to be, and don't have to be anymore."
Wade said that she never realized she might make history when she entered summer school in 1955. Today, she feels that she was "an instrument that started something that needed to be done."
Her parents are the true heroes in her story, she said.
"I don't regret it," Wade told students, "because now I'm standing here in Rosa Parks Elementary School, looking at all of you getting an education, regardless of race, creed or color."
Wade eventually returned to Douglass, where she graduated as valedictorian in 1957. She took a degree at Kentucky State University, then spent 30 years as a classroom teacher.
Looking back, she said she hopes that what she did "helped make Lexington, our community and our schools better."
And she offered Rosa Parks students two parting lessons:
"You can be whatever you want to be."
"Judge people by their character, not their color."