This is the second part of a series from Hyde Parker Billie Jean Miller Gray. The first part, which discusses Ms. Gray's experience integrating Paducah Tilghman High School, can be found here.
Upon graduating from Paducah Tilghman High School, I applied and was accepted to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Both my mother and I were overjoyed. I told everyone that summer that I would be attending Fisk in the fall. My mother made me promise her that I would pledge Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, which was her sorority.
I began to notice that while my mother and I were so excited about Fisk, my dad had remained relatively quiet. I needed to speak with him, because while my mother and I had the enthusiasm, he had the money for my college expenses.
Change of plans
In July 1958, my dad said that he wanted to talk with me. I thought that he wanted to congratulate me on my Fisk acceptance. Instead, he informed me that he wanted me to attend the University of Kentucky (UK) in Lexington, Kentucky. I was shocked. I asked if I had a choice and the answer was a resounding no. He said that he wanted me to continue to be a trailblazer.
I told my dad that I was very much against his decision. I also told him that I thought UK didn’t permit African Americans to live on campus. Where would I live? His answer shocked me even more. He said that I would be making history by being the first to integrate the campus undergrad dorm.
I know my dad believed that he was doing the best for me, but his decision left me heartbroken. I felt that this was a huge responsibility to place on the shoulders of an eighteen-year-old. Leaving home for the first time was difficult enough, but to be sent into a potentially hostile and unwelcoming environment at this young age was unfathomable. I was leaving my entire support system in Paducah.
The first year
My UK experience was, in many ways, quite similar to my Paducah Tilghman experience. Once again, I felt isolated, invisible, marginalized, intellectually inferior and unwanted. This time, I also felt frightened — I had lost all sense of a feeling of safety.
In September 1958, three African American female students, including myself, enrolled at UK as freshmen to stay on the campus. We were assigned to Jewel Hall, a freshman dorm. Another African American student from Paducah and I were roommates. We had a very large private room with a full bath. We were asked not to use the main shower with the white girls. The other African American student was from Louisville, and was given a smaller private room with a bath.
Shortly after arriving at UK, I had my first experience with unfairness and bias. Along with a white student from Paducah Tilghman who had been in my Spanish class, I went to register for the intermediate Spanish class. We both had taken two years of high school Spanish. The department head enrolled her without question into the intermediate Spanish class, but told me that I would be placed in the beginning class. I told the head that the other girl and I had been in the same high school Spanish class with the same teacher and were both A students. He said that I had the option of taking a placement test or enrolling in the beginning class.
I took the test, and according to the professor who administered it, I scored exceptionally high. I never saw my score, but I was placed in intermediate Spanish. Later that year, I was offered a job in the language lab assisting freshmen who were having difficulty with beginning Spanish.
My grades were good, especially in the Spanish Language and Culture class where I maintained an A average. Most professors graded fairly but there were an isolated few who would only give me a B regardless of my A average. This was also true for some teachers at Paducah Tilghman.
My social life as a freshman at UK was practically non-existent. At Paducah Tilghman, I had friends with whom I could socialize in the community. Going into the town of Lexington to meet other African Americans was difficult because I didn’t have a car. I was ready to leave UK after my first semester.
At the end of the school year, I told my dad that I would not be returning to UK for my sophomore year. I was going to reapply to Fisk. I did reapply to Fisk and again got accepted.
The second year
I couldn’t convince my dad that UK and I were not a good fit, however. So, I found myself once again at UK in the fall of 1959. This year I had a small single private room in a new dorm with a bathroom that had no shower. I was told that could shower with the white girls.
My second year at UK was somewhat different and slightly more pleasurable than the first year. The change was due to some things that I did differently. This year, because I was a Spanish major, I became a member of the Foreign Students Organization, I joined CORE, and I volunteered at an orphanage.
The foreign students allowed me to be a part of their organization because I was a Spanish major. I had the good fortune to meet students from all parts of the world, and they were so welcoming and accepting of me.
They had a difficult time understanding why I couldn’t go places withthem off-campus. Each foreign student had a ID card that allowed them to go places in the city that African Americans couldn’t go. They did not want the foreign students to be mistaken for “Negroes.”
The Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) started recruiting on UK’s campus during the 1959-60 school year. Its focus was to protest segregated establishments. I joined CORE, and my first assignment was to try to eat at the University Grill. My white friend and I went and were served the first time. The waitress assumed I was a foreign student. The CORE coordinator asked us to go back and tell the waitress that was African American. I did tell her and she asked me to leave.
Sophomores also had to do some type of community service volunteer work. I was sent to an African American orphanage across town. The university said that there was no place near campus to place me, which is normally the policy. I loved this experience. All the love, warmth, and respect that I missed on campus I received from these children. I was sad to leave when my time was over.
At the end of that school year, I decided that two years at UK were more than enough. I planned to tell my father when he came to get me that I was either going to go to another college or I would join the U.S. Navy WAVES. I said that I wasn’t going to have all four of my years of college experience be as the first two had been. This time my dad didn’t say no. I transferred to Roosevelt University in Chicago. The experiences there were wonderful.
This article is in memory of my son Timothy Clarence Gray (1967-2016), who always strongly encouraged me to tell my story. Tim interviewed me on May 10, 2014, for StoryCorp about my University of Kentucky experience.
Billie Jean Miller Gray retired in 1994 as an Assistant Superintendent with the Chicago Public School System. She has also worked as a national educational consultant. Ms. Gray is the President of Miller-Gray Associates, a consulting and coaching firm. Ms. Gray is currently focusing her coaching skills on grief recovery. She received her Masters in Education from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She has been a Hyde Park resident for 27 years.