A group of alums from the Louisville Male Class of 1961 have been gathering over meals every couple of months to catch up on their lives and talk candidly about their vastly different high school experiences.
Peter Smith, The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal4:01 a.m. EDT August 24, 2013
Decades after they attended school together, the former classmates are seeking to mend long-unspoken racial wounds of their high school years.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — After Louisville schools integrated in the mid-1950s, Joyce Howard Able and Beverly Neal Watkins became fast friends in junior high school. But as they moved to Male High together, their friendship waned, for reasons that Able says she didn’t understand at the time.
Theirs is part of a larger story of the Male Class of 1961 and a group of alumni who, decades later, are seeking to mend long-unspoken racial wounds of their high school years.
Many of the white alums remember it as an exciting and hopeful time, while black alumni recall being marginalized and ignored — even as they made history with sit-ins that eventually integrated Louisville’s downtown restaurants and stores.
Since their 50th reunion two years ago, a group of alums — an impressive roster of retired doctors, editors, educators, business owners, social activists and others — have been gathering over meals every couple of months to catch up on their lives and talk candidly about their vastly different high school experiences.
In their own way, they are trying to live out the dream voiced 50 years ago this week by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington — that the descendants of former slaves and slave owners would “sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
At least two African-American Male alums from the class of 1961, Watkins and Raoul Cunningham, attended that historic rally, and Cunningham is in Washington Saturday for an anniversary commemoration.
“They had a revolution,” said Male alum Bob Borders, who is white, “and we missed it.”
Able and Watkins attended Manly Junior High School and enjoyed chatting in class.
Their high school years were deeply formative — but in different ways, and they had less in common in those years.
For Able, who is white, the strict but nurturing teachers at Male provided the structure she lacked in her chaotic home life. “They were the authorities, and we respected that.”
But Watkins and other African-American students encountered racial biases — some of them subtle, others raw — in those early years of integration.
They recall being marginalized by some in the virtually all-white faculty and shut out of student government and several organizations. Watkins said that despite her good grades, she received little encouragement to pursue higher education.
“Unfortunately, I remember more bad than I remember good” about Male, Watkins said.
Also, Watkins didn’t stick around Male much for after-school activities. She was a student leader in historic civil-rights demonstrations, getting arrested along with other teenagers for sit-ins at segregated downtown stores and restaurants.
It was part of a long campaign — over the opposition of their own principal, an alderman and mayoral candidate — that ultimately led to passage of a Louisville ordinance 50 years ago, requiring integration at public accommodations.
Able said she knew some of her classmates were demonstrating, but she learned only years later that they were actually going to jail for their beliefs.
“I feel badly about it, but I didn’t know,” said Able, now of Paintsville, Ky.
And African-American students, who made up about one-sixth of the student body of about 300, were also struggling for equal opportunity within the walls of Male.
African-American students could participate in some athletics. But there were no African Americans on the cheerleading squad, swim team or several other organizations.
Alumnus Kirk Bright recalled seeking the principal’s help for black students when tryouts for the swim team were being held at a segregated YMCA pool, and being told: “Why have you got to mess it up for everybody?”
“To this day, it is still hard for me to believe an educated, ‘responsible’ adult man could be that hateful and insensitive to a developing young person,” Bright said.
Cunningham, who went on to become president of the Louisville chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, recalled that he was one of 10 students who met a deadline to petition as candidates for the 10 slots as student officers in 1960-61. The deadline was later extended, he recalled, and more candidates filed. White students were elected to all the spots.
Bill Holmes, who was class president, publicly apologized at the class’s 40th reunion in 2001 for failing to recognize what his black classmates were going through.
“The black community was fighting battles that we didn’t know about — or we chose not to know about,” Holmes said.
Holmes recalled reading a New York Times article in the early 1990s about African-American classmate Houston Baker — now a Vanderbilt University English professor and award-winning author whose searing memories of growing up in segregated Louisville form the backdrop of his books in racial studies.
For Holmes, such stories were a revelation. He and Baker began corresponding.
Sharing a meal
On a recent hot August afternoon, Borders was busy directing cars to parking spots on a normally quiet suburban street in Indian Hills. More than two dozen Male alums passed the displays of purple and gold balloons — the Male colors — and entered Holmes’ home.
Over a catered barbecue buffet, overlapping conversations and booming laughter, they traded old memories about school and newer anecdotes about grandchildren.
Such interracial breaking of bread at restaurants or one another’s homes couldn’t have happened during high school, recalled alumna Emma Smith.
“It wasn’t anybody’s fault,” Smith said. “Well, it was somebody’s fault, but not ours. We’re just glad to be here and be alive and laugh and smile. We’re all 70 years old. We have more in common than we have differences.”
By the time of their 50th reunion, classmates agreed to start their regular lunch meetings. They’ve been attending each other’s birthday parties and other events, such as Holmes’ recent ordination as a second-career Baptist minister.
It’s enabled Able and Watkins to renew their friendship.
“When we started getting together, it was like we were the same as before,” Able said.
The relationship between black and white alums has been “evolving wonderfully,” as Bright put it. “The dialogue is the perfect answer.”
Cunningham said the classmates “can now discuss openly and honestly with one another what has transpired over the last 53 years.”
Borders said, “It’s incumbent on those of us who went through that to tell the story to make sure our kids aren’t ignorant. For our generation, it’s up to us to bridge the gap, no matter how late, and stand up for what’s right.”