By Lachin Hatemi M.D
Lexington Kentucky is an interesting city; my adopted hometown; an ever
growing college town, full of potential. Surrounded by beautiful and
legendary horse farms, it is also home to the 2012 NCAA Basketball
champions: the Wildcats of the University of Kentucky. A team of mostly
black college athletes carried the championship cup back to Lexington, an
achievement recognized by the entire country and President Obama. Given
that the University’s sports teams were not integrated until the late 60’s,
it is worthy of note that of the University’s 8 NCAA basketball
championship teams, the 2012 team was the first to have an all African
American starting lineup. In the sports arena, UK has seemingly come a long
way when in comes to including African Americans and minorities, and
remains a popular destination for black high school athletes.
Unfortunately, the same degree of inclusion does not exist on the academic
side of the University. The numbers of undergraduate and graduate students,
professional students, and tenured professors do not come close to matching
the diversity of the overall US or state population.
Despite being home to many notable Black Americans and being the location
of a great deal of Black American history, Lexington, Kentucky has never
been seen as having a reputation of being a hospitable place for
minorities. Much of this reputation is rooted in the city’s ties to
slavery. The area known as Cheapside in downtown Lexington was once home to
the most well known slave auction facility in the south. It was here that
African slaves were beaten, sold, and lead off in chains, forever to be
separated from parents, siblings, children, brothers and sisters for the
sake of the greed and profit of the white aristocracy. It is a horrible
legacy, and in many ways its spirit still exists in the area, though in far
less apparent ways.
Henry Clay is looked upon with pride in the region as being a great
statesman. A high school is named after him, and his home in Lexington is a
tourist attraction. Clay’s role in the US congress as being a supposedly
great “peacemaker“ in advocating compromise between the north and south’s
debate over slavery is widely trumpeted as being a great achievement. He is
considered a hero for helping to stave off the civil war for 15 years —
but a hero from whose perspective? For the black slave, Clay’s supposed
noble efforts to delay the inevitable war that had to be fought for theri
freedom meant 15 more years of bondage, hard labor, brutality, rape of
women and children, and murder.
The spirit of racism was definitely publicly and historically evident on
Lexington’s UK campus for many years. State law forbade African Americans
from attending UK until 1947, when Lyman T. Johnson won a lawsuit against
UK and was admitted to the school. It would be 20 years later before UK
recruited a black athlete. More on that later.
Further evidence of racism at UK his hidden in the names of its buildings.
The Chandler Medical Center, the anchor of the medical campus, is named
after Governor Happy Chandler. As commissioner of baseball, Chandler
approved the inclusion of Jackie Robinson as the first black to play in the
major leagues. But Chandler’s pioneering effort of racial inclusion as
commissioner was largely offset at UK by his behavior in later years as a
board of trustee member, when he consistently used the word “n****r” openly
during board meetings and was never admonished or punished for his
behavior. On the contrary, he is seen by many as an admired part of
Kentucky history, and his use of the “N” word was considered by board
members and others as harmless and quaint, and even acceptable, as it was
deemed to be the acceptable way of speaking during Chandler’s day.
The legacy of racism relating to UK athletics goes back many years as well.
A residential apartment complex on campus is named after UK football player
Greg Page. Coming from the small mining town of Middleborough, KY, Greg was
a true star; he broke the racial barriers by being the first black football
recruit in UK’s history. Unfortunately, Greg Page never got the chance to
play in a game. Kentucky was not ready to permit the integration of its
sports program, not even by a native born son, simply because of the color
of his skin. Instead of celebrating the arrival of a talented player, Page
was in fact targeted for racial discrimination and violence by his
teammates. Such was the level of their racial hatred that Page would pay
with his life for daring to be a trailblazer. In a football practice
session, before playing a single game for UK, his white teammates targeted
him mercilessly. They hit him, tackled him, and piled on him with no
remorse. In a story that was routinely told and retold by adult and youth
alike in Lexington in the years following the incident, Page was
deliberatly and vicously subjected to one hit after another, his teammates
unleashing all of their hatred on him until his body suffered lethal
injuries and simply gave out. Greg Page’s neck injuries during that
practice session left him paralyzed and comatose.
This all took place in 1967. Page and Nat Northington were the only two
blacks on the University of Kentucky football team, the only blacks in all
of the Southeastern Conference. Whereas Northington broke the color barrier
wearing the Wildcats uniform, Greg Page died 38 days after that practice
session beating. Nat Northington, not wishing to suffer the same fate as
his teammate, packed his belongings and left UK forever. Though the entire
incident amounted to a veritable lynching, no charges were ever filed and
the incident was never investigated. It was instead “white washed” as have
been so incidents of racism and hate over the years at UK.
That day, Greg Page was not alone in that football field. Everybody who
witnessed the event knew what his teammates were doing to Greg. Coaches,
spectators, other players, they all chose to do nothing to stop it.
Everybody who was in that football field that day was guilty, they are all
killers of Greg. They were all driven by a spirit of arrogance and racism,
and they trusted on and were rewarded by a system that covered it up and
refused to investigate.
Today, much has changed at the University Kentucky’s campus, but many
things remain the same. It has been 45 years since Greg Page’s death, and
despite a mission statement that claims that as Kentucky’s “flagship
institution” the University “plays a critical leadership role by promoting
diversity and inclusion,” racism and segregation is still alive and
widespread on campus. Racism, however, has changed its form, becoming more
subtle, more hideous, and more systematic. But then again, for a look at
some far more visible signs of prejudice and racism, a quick visit to the
campus will suffice in making racism and the lack of ethnic diversity
clearly visible to the naked eye.
At the student center, African Americans are employed widespread in food
services. There, and in other campus buildings such as the Patterson Office
Tower and the Whitehall Classroom Building, the custodial staff is also
predominantly black. But check out any of the offices on the 18 floors of
Patterson and you will be hard pressed to see a single black person at an
information desk, at a secretary’s desk. or in any of the faculties’
offices. At the appropriately named Whitehall Classroom Building, a look
into the classrooms reveals that black instructors are virtually
non-existent. Are we to believe that blacks only make good food servers and
custodians, and athletes, but not good secretaries or receptionists or
teachers? Why are there so few blacks in the more prestigious, better
paying UK jobs?
When it comes to the leadership of our predominantly black, money making
championship basketball team, UK is definitely committed to paying that
team’s leader millions of dollars. But for the average black student at UK,
one of their mentor’s and leaders was deemed worth far less than our
beloved Coach Cal. In the month following the basketball team’s NCAA win,
UK’s black students and alumni witnessed the termination of Chester Grundy,
a man who had dedicated 30 years to working on behalf of UK’s minority
students as an advocate and mentor. As the founder of UK’s Martin Luther
King Jr. Cultural Center, and having brought the popular Spotlight Jazz
Series and Roots and Heritage Festival to UK and Lexington, Grundy was a
strong figure to the African American community on campus and in the
region. UK chose to cite budget cuts in justifying the end of Grundy’s
position. Grundy’s termination shows African American students and local
residents that UK really doesn’t care about them — unless they are
bringing in millions in revenue by excelling on the basketball court or the
Actions like these by UK which clearly ignore and work against diversity
and inclusion are visible to anyone who looks closely, but they still go
largely unquestioned and ignored. The status quo, the white aristocracy,
stays in control. Think then how much more racist and discriminatory action
is taking place where it is even less visible.
This brings us to another major area of concern that remains hidden from
the public — it is the poor enrollment and retention of black students at
University of Kentucky Medical School. A significant number of black
medical students have either been dismissed or held back a year or two in
their education over that last decade. The exodus of black students is so
great, it cannot be explained simply by individual student’s failures.
The reign of terror and racism at University of Kentucky Medical School
corresponds to the tenure of Dr. Darrell Chester Jennings, who was the dean
of Medical Education at University of Kentucky for most of the last decade.
During the same period, Dr. Jay Perman was the dean of medical
school. Under their leadership, countless black medical students had to
end their dreams to become physicians. Dr. Jennings was never reluctant to
use his power and authority to misrepresent student records and punish a
student by denying access to his grades. Currently, Dr. Jennings is the
chairman of Pathology department and Dr. Jay Perman is the president of the
University of Maryland. Their actions were never investigated, at least not
It would not surprise me if UK names a building after Dr. Jennings or Dr.
Jay Perman — and unless their actions are thoroughly investigated and
exposed, they probably will. But their efforts to keep minorities from
succeeding at the College of Medicine, and the underlying racism that
persists in the med school and throughout UK must be exposed.
The NAACP is now requesting the demographics and retention rates of black
medical students between 2004-2010, as well as overall records to compare
to those with students who are allowed to stay in the program. Until the
enrollment data becomes fully available to the general public, we will
continue to fail to recognize the depth of systematic discrimination at UK.
UK‘s refusal to release the records to the NAACP following the
organization’s initial request shows that UK has much to hide. But the time
has come for the “white washing“ by the aristocracy at UK and in this
region to end. The demographics of this past presidential election shows
that America is changing, becoming increasingly a nation of increased
ethnic and cultural diversity. The oppressive regimes of discrimination,
and the spirits of racism and arrogance behind them, must be exposed and
UK must decide where its future lies. Does the university want to remain a
part of the old “white” America, the old south, where sometimes overt
racism and discrimination still go largely unquestioned, where blacks and
minorities are tolerated or promoted as long as they conform to the desires
and cultural rules of the white aristocracy? Or do they want to join the
new millennium, where inclusion of race, ethnicity and culture is embraced?
In other words, do they want to truly live up to their own mission
statement, and as Kentucky’s “flagship institution” play “a critical
leadership role by promoting diversity and inclusion”?
Time will tell…
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