EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of two stories reflecting on Booker T. Washington School, which saw its final class graduate in 1961.
ASHLAND Fanfare and historic events were happening as May ended and June arrived in 1961 at historic Booker T. Washington School in Ashland. It was the end of an era at the school that educated African American children for 58 years. It was the last year for the school in a time of huge social change.
When readers of The Ashland Daily Independent picked up their paper on Sunday morning, May 28, 1961, they saw an article referring to Professor Charles Buckner (C.B.) Nuckolls, school principal, as, “One of Ashland's and Kentucky's giants in education during the past 39 years.”
Locals said Nuckolls could be seen early every day carrying his brief case on the long walk from his home at the corner of 35th Street and Greenup Avenue, to BTWS, near present-day Ashland Town Center. Along with the annual ritual of students moving on to the next phase of life, in 1961 things were much different, and this time Professor R.W. Ross, Professor W.A. West, librarian/secretary Alice Thomas, custodian Lawrence Banks, and his wife Flora Banks, kitchen director, were left without a job, and the days were quickly winding down to the last commencement on June 6. Also, Nuckolls was finally ready to begin a well-deserved retirement. Mr. and Mrs. Banks were the parents of Marshell and Wendell Banks, Ashland city commissioner from 1984-1991.
“We all had to attend some classes at Ashland Senior High. We were going to Booker T. in the morning, and then in the afternoon we had to go to Ashland High School to get some more classes, classes that were not held at Booker T.,” said Paul Johnson, from his home in San Antonio, the last living member of BTWS's Class of 1961. Johnson is a veteran, pastored a Baptist Church in Texas for 22 years, and worked for a construction company in Saudia Arabia. “I did a lot of traveling,” Johnson said, chuckling. He started taking classes at AHS in his sophomore year. “Classes like foreign language and all our science classes.”
Johnson was a very close friend with Damon Nuckolls, son of C.B Nuckolls. He said that they, and a couple of other guys, had a very tight friendship.
“Professor Nuckolls and the board of education in Ashland had got together and come up with a plan on integration. The integration plan included the first two grades be integrated then fully. We were allowed to participate (at AHS) in the band, but never the athletic department,” Johnson said, adding, “Me and my best friend John Johnson played drums in Ashland High band.” He said that during the same school year, that his African American friends could play on athletic teams at Coles Junior High School. Through the years BTWS did have a marching band, and excellent photos exist of it performing in local parades. Johnson played basketball for BTWS, and said the only year BTWS didn't have a basketball team was the last year, because they didn't have enough players.
“One year we had baseball, but I think that was just one year,” he said.
“It was never an outward showing of dislike between the Blacks and whites,” he said. “It wasn't like up in your face, anything of that sort. But you always knew your boundaries. It’s almost like if you go outside and don't put mosquito repellent on, mosquitoes will bite you. So if you go beyond the boundaries you know that there's going to be some consequences.
“Professor Nuckolls' son got in trouble because he was dating the city manager's daughter. The city manager paid a visit to Professor Nuckolls' house, and told him to tell his son (Damon) to cease and desist. It wasn't him chasing the girl. It was the girl chasing him,” Johnson said. “The girl had gone to Morehead College, she left Morehead to come back and be with Damon, and that's when the parents got upset.”
Johnson said Damon was the youngest of seven children (all sons) of Nuckolls and his wife Mary Mack Nuckolls.
“In fact he became a millionaire. He was very smart. All the Nuckolls boys were smart." Damon Nuckolls co-founded his own successful company, Medical Innovations Corp., in Milpitas, California, which focused on the development of gastrostomy catheters and other medical products.
Samuel Smith was valedictorian in 1961. “Samuel went on to become a retired lieutenant colonel in the Air Force. He was a professor at some small university in the Boston area.”
Johnson said that Bobby Bryant was in his class also.
“Somebody called him Simpson. His name wasn't Simpson, it was Bobby Bryant. There was a Simpson, and they were like half-brothers, and maybe they (people printed seniors list) didn't know that his name was Bryant,” Johnson said.
Bryant, Johnson, Samuel Smith, Sharon Smith (recently died) and George Childs were the only members of BTWS's Class of 1961.
The family of W.A. and Marguerite English West were parents of six children, and created a lot of memories in Ashland.
“They integrated, and my father was a teacher, and he didn't have a job, so we had to move to Hopkinsville, Kentucky, from there. So my first nine years were spent at Booker T,” said Paula West, from her home in Lexington. She’s the daughter of Professor West, math teacher/basketball coach at BTWS.
“That experience, for me, was very eye-opening as I got older. When I started looking back I remember an African American, going to an all African American school, our books were so tattered, and beat up, and battered, and pages missing, and a binder of the book missing, the covers missing, because they were all throw aways from the white schools,” West said.
At some point, Ben Williamson, a U.S. senator, businessman, and namesake of the Ben Williamson Memorial Bridge, paid for books and school supplies for BTWS.
“Paul Blazer did a lot for the community, and for the Black community,” said Darrell Smith, a local historian. “My great aunt, Clementine Garrett, actually worked for the Blazers for years.”
Mrs. John Russell Sr. was a huge help in getting playground equipment for BTWS, in what appeared to be in the 1930s.
West said after her father graduated from college that white schools weren't hiring Black teachers.
“In order to support his family he was a porter on the railroad for Chesapeake and Ohio.” West said her father started his career as a teacher, and a coach when he was hired by BTWS.
“All of those teachers were excellent teachers, and we got an excellent education. They cared about us as people. They knew our parents. It was indeed a village raising the children, because anything we did, it was going to get back to the parents. The parents were right there and they worked together to make us good people. They did a great job,” West said.
“My mother liked his name, and so she named me Paula Jean,” West said, of partly being named after Nuckolls' sixth son, Gene Paul Nuckolls. Gene was the first African American to graduate from Ashland Junior College. He later graduated from Kentucky State College, and earned a master’s degree from the University of Cincinnati. Gene was also the first African American to hold various administrative positions with Cincinnati Public Schools, before having a storied career in education in Michigan.
West said that after her father left Hopkinsville, that he was a teacher and basketball coach at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, and Tates Creek High School, both in Lexington. Even though public schools in Lexington are listed as integrating schools in 1955, West said that PLDHS was segregated until 1967, when schools in Lexington and Fayette County merged.
BTWS's closing wasn't to be the area's last. The curtains came down on Ashland High School, with the opening of Paul G. Blazer High School in September 1962. Also that school year, Russell High School moved into its current building.
Various elementary schools closed in the years after BTWS closed.
“I went to Booker T. one year before they integrated,” said Bill West. “Second grade through the sixth grade I was at Bayless. On the 50th Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, I did a guest editorial in The Independent,.”
West lives in Indianapolis, and is the brother of Paula West and Stella Whitlow from Ashland.
“Before the Black kids started going to white schools in Greenup, they came to Booker T.,” Bill West said. “In the late fifties Greenup High School's basketball team did have a couple of Black basketball players on it. One of them I remember, because he was so good, was Richard Jackson. If you find a picture of the Greenup High School basketball team from 1958-59 time frame, he will be in the middle palming two basketballs.”
Smith is far removed from the BTWS era, but has done extensive work in keeping memories of the school alive. The 1988 graduate of Paul G. Blazer High School operates Ashland, Kentucky Black History on Facebook. Smith's great aunt was Sharon Smith.
“I've got pictures of Booker T. School, I've got pictures of basketball, cheerleaders, the band, Professor Nuckolls … I’ve got a picture of him with his whole family. I've also got a copy of the Booker T. Washington yearbook, the only one that was made (from 1946),” Smith said. “I must have had 4,000 pictures people have donated.” Smith said that Tanya Nuckolls, Professor Nuckolls’ granddaughter, has sent him many things.
In the June 5, 1961, Ashland Daily Independent, Nuckolls invited the public to attend the school's commencement, saying, “to be with us, as it were, on this last mile.”
Ashland Public Schools superintendent, W.C. Shattles, presided over the June 6 ceremony, and said, “Tonight history is being made.”
It was a festive night that included singing from BTWS's girls chorus, and music from AHS's band. Shattles was complimentary of Nuckolls. He also said that of 790 school districts investigated in America, that Ashland Public Schools had the greatest success in desegregation. Dr. E.T. Bufford, principal of High Street High School in Bowling Green said of Nuckolls: “He is the most conscientious educator I know of in Kentucky.”
School board president F.S. Crawford presented five diplomas to the small Class of 1961. Samuel Smith said in his oration, “We shall find abundant cause to remember Booker T. Washington High School.” He also noted that graduates should be indebted to the school for the future made possible through education.
Dr. Whitney Young, president of Lincoln Institute, an African American boarding vocational high school in Shelby County from 1912-1966, delivered the commencement address. Young finished by saying, “To appreciate the created, is to find the Creator.”
Many dignitaries were in attendance including college presidents, and other high-ranking officials from Kentucky State College, Eastern State College, Morehead State College, University of Kentucky, Kentucky Education Association, Marshall University, Ashland Center-University of Kentucky, members of Ashland Board of Trade; and city and school district officials.
Nuckolls was honored on June 8 at a public ceremony in Ashland High School's auditorium, sponsored by Ashland Board of Trade. Ashland Mayor David Aronberg, developer John T. Dietrich, Shattles and others spoke of Nuckolls' contributions as an educator, and as an Ashland citizen. For many years Nuckolls was director of the Kentucky Teachers' Association.
Integration was set into motion seven years before BTWS closed, on May 17, 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court, by a unanimous 9-0 decision ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation in public schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits states from denying equal protection of laws to any persons within their jurisdictions. There was a local connection in the landmark case, because when it began in 1952, Louisa native Fred M. Vinson was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Following Vinson's death in 1953, he was replaced by California Gov. Earl Warren.
Brown v. Board of Education didn't set a timetable for integration. Across Kentucky, a few public school districts in towns like Prestonsburg, integrated in 1955. Some schools in Fayette County began integration in 1955, but the case of Robert Jefferson et al. v. Fayette County Board of Education (1971-72), filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky “dominated the newspapers, revealed attitudes of the community and somewhat effectively integrated the county's schools,” said David Wolfford. The court decided that the school board hadn't followed the U.S. Constitution in integrating grade schools and junior high schools. Wolfford, son of former Ashland Daily Independent reporter George Wolfford, wrote a paper about this, that was registered with the Kentucky Historical Society in 2003.
Even with the Supreme Court ruling, many school and local officials in the South denied it. In Sturgis, which received international attention because of resistance from white supremacists, Gov. Happy Chandler sent state police and the National Guard to protect eight students from a mob. As commissioner of MLB, Chandler in 1947, ended segregation in baseball when Jackie Robinson played his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
In 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower deployed federal troops to Arkansas to protect students known as the Little Rock Nine, at Little Rock Central High School.
In 1963, President John F. Kennedy called for 100 members of the Alabama National Guard to assist federal officials, when Alabama Gov. George Wallace and Alabama State Troopers tried to keep the University of Alabama's first two African American students from entering a university building.