Kentuckians love a good story. But when it comes to recording the stories of blacks in the commonwealth, historians have had a lot of catching up to do.
Gerald Smith, a University of Kentucky history professor, makes that point in the introduction to a special black-history issue of The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, which he edited for publication in April.
Historians had written about slavery in antebellum Kentucky, but a deeper exploration of the black experience didn't really begin until 1971, Smith writes. That was when the Kentucky Human Rights Commission published Kentucky Black Heritage, a supplementary text for seven- and eighth-grade students.
Then, in 1982, The Fascinating Story of Black Kentuckians was published by Alice Dunnigan, who was born in Russellville in 1906. Dunnigan made history of her own in 1948 when she accompanied Harry S. Truman on a Western tour, becoming the first black journalist in Washington to cover a presidential trip.
A scholarship milestone came in 1985 when George C. Wright published a book about black life in Louisville between the Civil War and 1930, Smith said. Wright followed that five years later with the chillingly detailed study, Racial Violence in Kentucky, 1865-1940. Wright, now president of Prairie View A&M University in Texas, and Marion Lucas, a Western Kentucky University history professor, published the two-volume A History of Blacks in Kentucky in 1992.
Since then, more academics have mined this rich vein, including Smith and fellow historians J. Blaine Hudson, John Hardin, Tracy E. K'Meyer and Douglas A. Boyd. Another valuable resource is the UK Libraries' Notable Kentucky African American Database (www.uky.edu/Libraries/NKAA).
Smith, Hardin and Karen C. McDaniel are now editing the Kentucky African American Encyclopedia and trying to raise money to finish the book by 2014.
Smith said this issue of The Register is another significant milestone. The Register, created in 1903, is one of the nation's oldest historical journals. The quarterly publishes work from leading academics, but it also tries to be accessible to average readers. It is a good mix of scholarship and storytelling.
Hudson writes about the free black community in antebellum Louisville, and Hardin tells the stories of key figures in the desegregation of higher education in Kentucky. Smith writes about Kentucky chapters of the Congress of Racial Equality during the civil rights movement. Joshua D. Farrington's article looks at strategies used to pass public accommodation laws in Louisville in 1960 and 1961.
One of the most interesting stories, by Sallie L. Powell, is titled "It is Hard to be What You Have not Seen." It tells about Brenda Hughes of Lexington and the complex issues of race, gender and sports culture that she navigated to become a pioneer in Kentucky's unofficial religion, basketball.
The Kentucky High School Athletic Association certified Hughes as a basketball referee in 1973. She went on to become the only black woman to officiate at a Kentucky girls' state tournament game during the 20th century.
Good timing helped Hughes, a young mother of two, succeed. In 1971, a federal judge had ordered the KHSAA to hire more black referees. That was because, 15 years after desegregation, half of student athletes were black, but only 1 percent of refs were. The year after Hughes became a referee, the federal Title IX law forced Kentucky to reinstatement girls' high school basketball after a 40-year absence that many people blamed on sexism.
While studying at the old Dunbar High School and UK, Hughes' only athletic opportunities were cheerleading. But she grew up with three brothers, and sports became her passion. The full-time postal worker became a part-time youth sports leader for the city's Parks and Recreation Department.
"This is no front or cause for me," she told Lexington Leader reporter Gary Yunt in 1973. "I want to be a referee."
Hughes died in 1986 at age 39. Nine years later, she was inducted into the Dawahares-Kentucky High School Athletic Association Sports Hall of Fame. Her story, and others told in this issue of The Register, remind us that Kentucky history is a rich tapestry of stories, from epic social movements to a young woman determined to become what she has not seen.