Thursday, August 4, 2011

Kentucky School for the Deaf honors black students once denied diplomas

From The Herald-Leader. In the picture, Emerson Lee Clay of Lexington stood to applause when he was recognized as a fabulous dancer during his days at the Kentucky School for the Deaf at a special graduation ceremony.

DANVILLE, Ky. — It was, as the chairman of the state board of education called it, "a small opportunity to correct a large wrong."

During a Wednesday afternoon ceremony, the Kentucky School for the Deaf presented diplomas to a handful of blacks who had left the institution decades ago without receiving the official recognition of their completion of courses.

"From 1930 to 1955, during what can be described as a dismal time in KSD's history, some of the students were denied recognition that they had completed the school's course of study simply because of the color of their skin," said David Karem, a former state senator who now chairs the Kentucky Board of Education.

But if there was bitterness, it was not expressed. Tears were shed, but they were of joy. The diploma recipients expressed nothing but happiness to be back at the school, to see former classmates and to finally hold a long-denied piece of paper.

"I really am proud to get my diploma today," John Henry Brown, 76, of Louisville, said through interpreter Vicki Brashear. Brown, plagued by arthritis in his back, used a walker to go and receive his diploma.

"I've thought about some of the black students that have graduated from school, and I think all of them are smiling today," Norma Jean Williams, 76, of Louisville said through interpreter Linda Kolb-Bozeman.

The Kentucky School for the Deaf became the first state-supported school of its kind in the nation in 1823. But blacks were segregated into the KSD "colored division." They did not have the same expectations or opportunities as their white counterparts, and were not held to the same academic standards.

Students at KSD could stay until graduation or until they were 21 if they had not qualified for graduation, said Carolyn Gulley, whose mother, Margaret Marshall, taught black deaf students. All KSD students at that time graduated with an eighth-grade education, Gulley said in remarks to the assembly.

Integration came gradually at the school. First-year classes were integrated in 1959, and in 1960 it was carried out in all academic classes, Gulley said. Full integration in dormitories and dining halls came in 1963.

Sharon White, president of the Kentucky Association of the Deaf and also secretary of the National Black Deaf Association, got the ball rolling to get diplomas. She notified Virginia Moore, executive director of the Kentucky Commission on the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, and Joseph Meyer, secretary of the state Education and Workforce Development Cabinet, about the need to rectify the situation. They, in turn, worked with the state Department of Education, which serves as the school board for KSD and the Kentucky School for the Blind in Louisville.

Those receiving diplomas Wednesday, in addition to Brown and Williams, were Henrietta Duncan Burnette, Emerson Lee Clay, Oscar Hamilton, Emma Bell Hill Heard, Marilyn B. Allen Jones, Pearlene Briscoe Mollett and Richard David Riley. In addition, Henry Woodson accepted a diploma on behalf of his mother, Beatrice Mollet Woodson.

About 75 individuals have been identified to receive diplomas, according to the state. The state Board of Education seeks information about any other black students who left KSD without receiving recognition of graduation. Individuals should contact KSD principal Rodney Buis at (859) 239-7017 or

"They said, 'You need to come and get your diploma.' And I was like, 'Here I am,' and I've gotten it today," Clay, 75, of Lexington said through Brashear. "I loved going to school here, though, and I am so thankful to the school for what they did for me."