High hopes for an inclusive, progressive Lexington as a native daughter returns home

Valerie Wright
Valerie Wright Valerie Wright

Hello, Lexington!

I think it’s only right that I reintroduce myself. My husband and I moved away from Lexington in the summer of 1980 and, except for brief visits, we have not spent any extended time here since then.

For the next nine months, we are taking up residence in Lexington again. I’m anxious to experience the city as a returning resident and to learn if my ambivalent feelings about the city will change.

I spent most of my childhood in East End Lexington. I attended Constitution Elementary School and was a student at the old Dunbar High School through my sophomore year. When my family moved, I became a student at Bryan Station High School where I graduated in 1968.

I grew up in a mostly segregated Lexington. My Saturday afternoon movie outings were spent at the Lyric Theater. I attended black Baptist churches on Sundays. I never went to Scott’s roller rink or the Joyland amusement park because my parents would not allow my brothers or me to patronize any business where we were welcome only on days and times set aside for African Americans.

The main branch of the Lexington Public Library was off limits to me because of my race, but the book mobile came into our neighborhood. And between the book mobile and the library at my public schools as well as television, I learned about lots of opportunities and experiences that could possibly be available to me outside of Lexington.

I remember when my parents canceled their subscription to this newspaper because the editors continued to relegate news about my race in the “Colored Notes.” And it was obvious that the newspaper buried stories about desegregation deep inside its pages.

By the time I graduated from the University of Kentucky, life had begun to change for my race. I had received a Martin Luther King Jr. scholarship to attend the university which was increasing its initiatives to increase black student enrollment.

However, my formative years prevented me from feeling fully welcome at the university, and I did not feel totally embraced as a citizen of Lexington.

Therefore, I followed through on my plan to move away from Lexington once I graduated college.

There was a brief period when my husband George and I returned to live in Lexington. In 1977, George achieved one of his career goals which was to be a history professor at UK. And from 1977 until 1980, I was a reporter at this newspaper. But when an opportunity to leave the state came, I was ready to go again.

We have returned to Lexington during the past 39 years — for weddings, funerals, vacations and honorary occasions. George has been the university commencement speaker two times, received an honorary doctorate, been featured on the cover of the alumni magazine and awarded UK’s Intellectual Medallion Award. I’ve been installed in the university’s Journalism Hall of Fame. Both of us have been on a first-name basis with every university president since Dr. Otis Singletary. We have felt included in the university community.

And now we are back as residents. George will be a visiting professor as part of the university’s observation of its desegregation 70 years ago. I intend to experience Lexington. I am living in a downtown Lexington that is much different from the one I knew as a child. I have walked to the old public library building site. It’s not nearly as intimidating as it once seemed.

I saw three pictures in the Sunday Herald Leader featuring new students or their relatives moving into the University of Kentucky. None of the students pictured appeared to be African American, Hispanic or any of the other diverse groups that I’m sure will be enrolling. But I’m betting that’s just an oversight.

I’m expecting to find a Lexington that is all inclusive, progressive and the model for every other city.

Valerie Wright is a former newspaper reporter and retired magazine editor who now lives in Texas.