Monday, February 12, 2018


President John Oswald described the UK campus in 1968 as a state of ferment.  Free speech, anti-war protests, the women's movement, and student rights issues consumed the campus.  But the push by African-American students for a range of issues needing attention and change was at the forefront of the ferment because of its historical antecedents and its impact on the university's future.

UK President John Oswald and BSU President Theodore Berry
The UK Black Student Union, founded in January 1968 and led by its first president, Theodore Berry, became the focus of the movement on campus.  On February 15 the BSU met with President John Oswald to state their goals.  The BSU called for more black students at UK, as well as more black professors, administrators, and staff.  Noting the difficulty of recruiting black professors because of UK's "white image," the BSU argued that black faculty needed to be "actively recruited by UK in order to get them to come here."  President Oswald agreed emphasizing that "UK should make a greater effort to recruit Negro teachers on a personal basis."

The BSU also demanded an end to off-campus housing discrimination.  Even though the university maintained a list of housing that did not discriminate by race, incidents of discrimination remained.

A course in African-American history became central to BSU's call for action.  Not only did the UK History Department not offer such a course, Professor Carl Cone, History Department Chair, attended the February meeting to say that he would "not recommend that the course be included in its curriculum for the next year."

Cone argued that "the course was too specialized for general interest."  This was a History Department that among its regular curriculum taught two courses on Japanese history; one to 1600 and another from 1600 to the present that likely did not have "general interest!"  He did concede that an existing course in American history "would be broadened to include more about the American Negro."

Cone's comments received a "dubious reaction" from the audience.  The BSU presented Cone a petition signed by 900 UK students stating their interest in a black history course.  In 1968 only 150 African-American students attended UK.

In its reporting on the meeting between President Oswald and the BSU the Kernel identified the organization as a "militant Negro group."  Responding to the label Theodore Berry pushed back saying, "If militant means speaking up for what is rightfully ours without asking, then we are militant, but not in a sense of violence."

But events during 1968 moved at a frantic pace. Assassinations took the lives of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy creating unrest and uncertainty across the nation.  President Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not run for re-election and Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

Locally, President Oswald left UK in April precipitated by disagreements with Kentucky Governor Louie Nunn and other politicians over free speech and other university policies.  Jim Embry replaced Theodore Berry as presidents of the Black Student Union.

In October 1968 the once recalcitrant Professor Cone announced that a new course in Negro history would be available for the spring 1969 semester.  The course, to be taught by white professor Steven Channing, "will be offered at least once every year and will be open to about 100 students."

Jim Embry, 1968
Cone noted that his change of heart resulted from a change nationally in the history profession in the previous eight to nine months that now considered a black history course a relevant part of the curriculum.

Noting the BSU's long advocacy for such a course, BSU President Jim Embry reacted by noting that, "Our asking for the black history course last spring is now showing its effects.  It should have been done in the first place.  My elation is not that great, but I am glad it's going to be started."

The University of Kentucky owes a debt to Theodore Berry, Jim Embry and many others who forced the university to be more progressive in regard to race and diversity.  Over the past five decades much progress has been achieved but much more remains to be done.  Black History Month is a time to reflect and reaffirm UK's commitment to diversity but the effort must continue throughout the year.

1 comment:

  1. Progress is a slow process with a lot of obstacles. Thank you for the reminder in this interesting piece.