Merlene Davis: Woman seeking former West Kentucky classmates for reunion

I can't recall a class reunion that I really wanted to attend. So when I heard about Vickie Brown's efforts to reunite with former students of the West Kentucky Industrial College in Paducah, later known as the West Kentucky Technical College, I was curious as to why.

"I like going back to see my old teachers," she said. "I like seeing an area where I used to be and reconnecting with friends I used to have when I was there."

She must have been popular, something I was not.

Teachers at the college were very caring and still are, Brown said. One couple, former teachers at the college, host the Friday evening gatherings in their home at their own expense when the reunion is held in Paducah.

Each time she attends, Brown said, other former students question her about people from Lexington who attended the school. Most of these people she isn't familiar with.

Because the reunion is in Lexington this year, Brown wants to contact as many of those fellow classmates as she can to make this reunion successful.

West Kentucky Industrial College was started by Dennis Henry Anderson. His dream was to offer an education and job training for black students so they could better their lot in life.

According to information on the Jackson Purchase Historical Society's website, Anderson, a native of West Tennessee, opened schools in Fulton and Graves counties before digging the foundation for the college on Dec. 9, 1909, with his wife. He knew few blacks received an education beyond the segregated one-room schools that ended at eighth grade.

Although classes were held, Anderson struggled for years to get enough funding to build that first building, rebuffed by first a governor and later state lawmakers.

Janett Marie Blythe, author of My West Kentucky: A History of West Kentucky Technical College 1909-1999, noted Anderson eventually received about $8,000 from the state government primarily because men returning from World War I needed job skills and his school could teach them.

Although blacks could attend the black teacher's school that would become Kentucky State University in Frankfort, there were no formal skilled educational and vocational training institutions available on the western side of the state.

In addition to teacher training, boys were taught agriculture and farm management, while girls were taught domestic skills such as cooking, canning and sewing.

Once funding was secure, the school's reputation grew quickly, drawing students from as far away as New York and Florida. It became the second largest black junior college in the United States.

By 1937, however, after significant flooding and few repairs, Blythe wrote Gov. A.B. "Happy" Chandler and proposed it be closed. Critics didn't think it was up to snuff.

However, civic leaders in McCracken County, along with some black residents, protested that move. A compromise was reached in which the teacher training program at the college was transferred to the teacher college in Frankfort and the Paducah school continued as West Kentucky Vocational School with expanded class offerings such as brick masonry, electricity, plumbing, tailoring, carpentry and auto mechanic training.

Because it was affordable and proven, the school flourished.

Disappointed with the decision, Anderson resigned but remained as the school's chaplain. He died in 1952.

After a merger in 2003, the school is now a part of the West Kentucky Community and Technical College system.

Brown enrolled in 1976, just after graduating from Henry Clay High School. She really wanted to be an embalmer, but the only school nearby that taught that was in Cincinnati, and her parents weren't in favor of a single girl going there.

So she chose her second love: sewing.

"I was always a big girl coming up," she said, adding she couldn't find fashionable clothing in her size. "I learned to sew for myself.

"When I looked at colleges, the best I could get was a small section in the home economics major."

Then her guidance counselor gave her a brochure for West Kentucky, which had a course on tailoring. There were two dorms, she said, one for boys and one for girls. The girls had to be in by 10 p.m. and the boys had to be out.

What she remembers most is the camaraderie with students from other states, including one from Florida who had never experienced snow. She also remembers the school fondly because she met her future husband there. He was also in tailoring.

She often attends reunions and is frequently asked about other Lexingtonians who attended the school.

Now that the reunion will be in Lexington this year, she wants all those in the area who attended West Kentucky to gather and reminisce.

"I am surprised at how many in Lexington used to attend," she said. "They are barbers and brick masons. I want to reach out to all of them and get them to come together.

The last time it was held in Lexington, between 200 and 250 people attended. She knows there are far more.