Proposals would name new high school after coach or old Douglass High

Former Dunbar High basketball coach S.T. Roach at Rupp Arena in 2004.
Former Dunbar High basketball coach S.T. Roach at Rupp Arena in 2004. Staff File Photo

There are separate movements to name Lexington’s new high school after pioneering local basketball coach S.T. Roach and abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

Senior U.S. District Judge Joseph Hood, retired Keeneland president Nick Nicholson, businessmen Jim Host and Alan Stein, and others have begun a campaign to name the high school for Roach, who built the old Dunbar High School into a powerhouse and was at the forefront of integrating the high school game..

The push for Douglass is being led by alumni of the Old Frederick Douglass High School on Price Road.

The high school is set to open in 2017 on Winchester Road. Once the principal is named, a committee will help decide the name after reviewing suggestions from the public. The community leaders began their initiative this week.

S.T. Roach

“There wasn’t anybody in Lexington who did more to promote the integration of schools than Coach Roach,” Hood said. “We thought that would be a wonderful idea, to name the high school after him.”

Roach had 610 career victories, 512 of them coming in 22 years (1943-65) at Dunbar High, which was segregated, according to Herald-Leader archives. He died in 2010 at age 94.

Before integration, the Bearcats played in the old Kentucky High School Athletic League, which was for black schools. Roach led them to two state championships among black schools.

In 1956, Dunbar was the first black school to join the Kentucky High School Athletic Association.

Roach guided the Bearcats to the Sweet Sixteen six times, finishing as state runners-up in 1961 and 1963. After the segregated school closed, Fayette County school officials named a new high school Paul Laurence Dunbar in 1990.

“Roach’s legacy is as much about the man as it is the coach,” now retired Herald-Leader sports reporter Mike Fields wrote when Roach died. “Roach was a gentleman on and off the court, quiet and dignified, yet unflinchingly determined in getting things done.”

When the University of Kentucky considered Tubby Smith as its first black men’s basketball coach in 1997, Roach, a member of the UK Athletics Association, made the motion to hire Smith.

Roach was “a very honorable, exceptional person,” Nicholson said. “I learned from him every time we talked.”

“Look at his role in Lexington’s history,” Nicholson said. Like Henry Clay, for whom another Lexington high school is named, “he helped define Lexington.”

“He helped bring out what’s best about Lexington, and I think it would be a grand tribute to a very deserving person and also tell the world what this community stands for.”

Jim Host, founder of Host Communications, a sports marketing and management firm, said Roach was one of the greatest coaches in Kentucky history.

In terms of integration, Host said, “He made more difference in high school athletics than any other coach in its history.”

“I can’t think of anything greater than to name a high school after him. I don’t think there’s anybody who deserves it more.”

Lexington businessman Alan Stein said segregation was a significant issue in the 1950s and 1960s in Lexington.

“By his own talent and will, Coach Roach was able to help the Dunbar basketball program lead the crossover,” Stein said. “It was part of what helped Lexington mature into the community it’s become.”

Sanford Thomas Roach was born in Frankfort in 1916.

He was a standout athlete at the old Danville Bate High School and starred in basketball at Kentucky State College in Frankfort.

Roach began his career as a high school teacher and coach at Bate. After three successful seasons in Danville, he was hired at Dunbar.

Roach pushed integration forward by taking his Dunbar teams across the state to play.

The Bearcats weren’t always treated well by opponents or opposing fans, but Roach wouldn’t let his players give in to racist taunts.

“Some places treated us rough,” former player Bobby Washington told Fields in 2010, “but Mr. Roach wouldn’t let us react. He told us to just play and behave and be men.”

“He insisted on his players being dignified even in adversity.”

Roach retired from coaching at age 49, soon after No. 1-rated Dunbar lost in the quarterfinals of the state tournament in 1965.

Members of the group seeking to honor Roach said they’ve contacted various school district officials this week and have been told about the process for naming a new school.

Roach’s “positive influence and leadership in the integration of Kentucky high school athletic competition, particularly basketball, was exemplary,” said Wayne Martin, a retired general manager at WKYT-TV and a member of the group. “As a youngster, I observed a man who did this with enormous professionalism, composure and dignity, even and especially noteworthy during some not so professional challenges he faced.”

“When I became a coach, I continued to seek his advice and counsel, which he graciously provided,” Martin said. “Later in my life in the media, I did likewise and I have long cherished that relationship. While he was superior as a basketball coach, that is not the reason I recommend the new high school be named in his honor. I do so in recognition of his many contributions to our community and the lessons in life so many have learned from him.”

Frederick Douglass

The movement to name the high school after Frederick Douglass is intended to honor the segregated high school in Fayette County and to honor the abolitionist.

Douglass alumni David Duncan and Andrew Smith told the Herald-Leader on Friday that the old Frederick Douglass High School served black Fayette County children living outside the Lexington city limits during the segregation era.

Douglass was a leader in the anti-slavery movement and was the first black citizen to hold a high U.S. government rank, serving in several diplomatic positions, according to the website

In an interview, Duncan said that when Paul Laurence Dunbar High School opened about 26 years ago, it was renamed for Dunbar, the segregated Lexington high school that also closed in the 1960s. Paul Dunbar was an American poet, novelist, and playwright of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was born in Ohio to parents who had been slaves in Kentucky before the Civil War.

Smith, who sang with the Metropolitan Opera and directed the opera program at Kentucky State University, said Douglass did much for blacks in America “as an abolitionist and civil rights leader.”

Alva Mitchell Clark, a member of the Douglass Alumni Association board, said the Douglass high school building was an elementary school in the 1960s and closed in 1971.

Clark said the Alumni Association is active in Lexington, providing scholarships to Fayette County high school students each year.

Lisa Deffendall, school district spokesperson, issued this statement about the school naming process:

“As construction continues along Winchester Road, there is growing excitement about our soon-to-be sixth Fayette County high school, including speculation and conversation about possible names for the new school. Once a principal has been hired, he or she will follow our school board policy on naming a new school. This is the same process that we recently used for naming our two new elementary schools. A committee of community representatives will be selected, and there will be ample opportunities for the public to submit suggestions.”

Valarie Honeycutt Spears: 859-231-3409, @vhspears