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DAVID WOLFFORD: Wolfford, and it is the 19th of August 2002. I'm in Louisville, Kentucky with Meredith Grady Johnson at her home.


DW: Johnston, J-O-H--

MJ: N.

DW: N.

MJ: S-T-O-N.

DW: T-O-N. Okay. We're going to talk a little bit about schools in Adair County where she grew up and the desegregation of those schools. Ms. Johnston, just go ahead and introduce yourself and tell me where you went to school at the early ages of your life.

MJ: Well, my name is Meredith Johnston. I went to school in Jackman High School in the black section of town. I went from the first grade, we didn't have kindergarten at the time. So I went from the first grade to the tenth grade, I attended there. From the tenth grade our school got burned down, and 1:00so we went to school in the community houses and churches. After that, after integration began, we were integrated in the white public schools.

DW: Okay. Tell me a little bit more about Jackman School.

MJ: Jackman School was a very exciting school. We had lots of activities kind of like the Waltons. We had family togetherness at Jackman High School. We had social activities at the school. We had, last night I was telling my husband about May Day activities. We'd invite a neighboring schools over, and we played 2:00games and the main thing for the day was the girls played softball and the boys played ball, and it was just kind of like something going on all the time. That was just to raise money to keep our schools going because it was a poor school. We had, we had teachers. Some of my teachers, some of the teachers that were at the school are here in Louisville. Miss Brown and Miss Crowe my home ec teacher. I didn't, I wasn't under Miss Brown, but she was elementary teacher. Mr. Traylor was my principal. Mrs.--oh what's her name? She was Mrs. Bomer, 3:00but she married Mr. Irving Bomer at Columbia, but she was a Miss Tandy from Hopkinsville. She was a history teacher or English teacher or something like that.

DW: Did the teachers there, how would you rank the teachers from Jackman in terms of their skill?

MJ: Very good teachers. Dedicated teachers. Teachers that wanted to see the children excel. They were really, really good teachers. They were good in the community too. I mean if something was wrong, they were the kind of teachers that would get those parents together and talk to them. So they were good teachers. The one teacher, Fred Willis's uncle he was a teacher too. Robert Ewing.


DW: I guess Jackman kind of served as an institution for the black community as well as the school.

MJ: It was. It definitely was. It was an institution for the community because like I said social--we just, I equate ourselves with the Waltons. Like on Walton Mountain, we were in Columbia, and that's the way our community operated, like the community in Walton's Mountain. That's the way we were. That's the only way I can explain it to get you to have an idea of how we were because the parents, and you know how when you go away from home and you do something you shouldn't do. We had no telephones. You go away from home and you do something you shouldn't do, and by the time you got home your mom knew 5:00about it already. That is--we wondered how they got the news so fast. Well, I don't know, I still don't know how they did it.

DW: I'm sure that was pretty beneficial though for children.

MJ: Yes, because everybody watched everybody's children. That was our community. Everybody was parents.

DW: Do you think that was stronger, first of all do you think that existed countywide or do you think that was that something that was stronger in the black community?

MJ: I think, I don't know about, I think it was just probably in the black community.

DW: Before schools were integrated was there much interaction between whites and blacks in Columbia?

MJ: We would like go to their schools on special occasions, and they would visit our school on special occasions.

DW: Such as what? What kind of occasions?

MJ: Well, like maybe Black History Week. They would, might come to our school 6:00or we might go to their school or like for Christmas, they would come and sing Christmas carols and we would go, like that. But that was about it.

DW: Were you well received in those cases?

MJ: Yes. Yes.

DW: They, were the whites well received over at Jackman?

MJ: Yes, yes indeed. But you know what. I'm going to tell you something about the whites in Columbia. They were, and they still are, very nice people. I don't care where you go. You're going to have some that are indignant. But for the most part, most of them were very nice people. I babysat for the guy who drove the school bus that I rode on. It was, he was as nice as he could be. Sometimes I was late, he wouldn't go off and leave me.

DW: Right. When the Jackman School burned down, what was the reaction in the 7:00black community?

MJ: Stunned. You know completely stunned. Then all, not well, there was no money to build a new school. You know I really think, we weren't supposed to say anything about this, but there was money sent to the superintendent for our school, and he took that money and put it in the white school.

DW: Why weren't you supposed to say anything about it?

MJ: Well, it just, the teachers told us not to say anything about it, but we knew he did it because our principal was mad as heck. Her name was Ruby Smith. Now she was from I think Harlan, Kentucky. She lived here in Louisville, but I 8:00think she's dead now. But he took our money and built the white school. So we didn't have any money for our school.

DW: Was that money? What kind of money was that? Was that insurance money?

MJ: I don't know whether it was insurance money or grant money. I think it might have been grant money or something. I don't know. But that was long, that was way before the fire.

DW: Oh it wasn't a result of the building burning down.

MJ: It wasn't a result of the building burning down, but this was something that our principal found out about.

DW: While Jackman still stood.

MJ: While Jackman still stood, uh huh.

DW: Okay.

MJ: They wouldn't, that's not the reason Jackman burned down either. Jackman, it was just an old school, and it was cold, and I think one of the stoves that 9:00you put coal in, one of the stoves had a spark in the attic part probably, and it just burnt like paper.

DW: Was that during a school day? I mean, were there students?

MJ: School was just out. I hadn't got home just before it was down to the ground.

DW: Really. What was the speculation in the black community after it happened? You know after they got over the, you said the black community was stunned. After that initial realization that our school doesn't exist anymore, did the black people, what did they speculate would happen?

MJ: Well, I don't think there was any speculation. The, I think the fireman said it was caused by maybe a spark in the--you would have to see. It was an 10:00old frame school. It was not a brick school. It was a.

DW: What did the black community would predict would happen in the future, the immediate future?

MJ: They didn't know what was going to happen in the immediate future because they had no idea where the kids were going to go to school at because we didn't have any place to go to school then at the time. So the teachers, I think the teachers got together with the community and decided to let us use the churches, and some of the houses that were empty.

DW: That went on for how long?

MJ: I really, really and truly don't remember because we weren't out of school 11:00long. I think we, if I'm not mistaken, we were back in those churches and houses the next week. We, I don't remember being out of school that long. I'm not good with back then, but I really don't. I don't think we were out of school that long. Some of the kids went to Lincoln Ridge.

DW: When students went to Lincoln Ridge back then did they, I'm guessing they lived up in at Lincoln Ridge. That was too far to travel daily, wasn't it?

MJ: Yeah, it was. I don't know where the kids from Jamestown went. I know one of the guys went to Lincoln Ridge along with one of the guys from my class went 12:00to Lincoln Ridge. But they, no, they stayed there. They didn't, they came back home like once a week or once a month or something like that.

DW: Some time had passed and during this same period after Jackman had burned, the Supreme Court made its ruling about segregation, declared it illegal, and then they clarified it a year later and pretty soon thereafter a lawsuit was filed against the Adair County system. Do you remember how your parents became involved in this lawsuit and you and your siblings?

MJ: No. They were just, I think my parents were just looking for equal opportunity. They, my parents belonged to the NAACP, and I think that's what 13:00got them moving is the NAACP. They are the ones that called the meeting. The members of the NAACP called that meeting.

DW: Let's talk about that meeting. What was the meeting?

MJ: Sweetheart, I have no idea because I didn't go to the meeting, and as a matter of fact I don't think any of the black children went to the meeting.

DW: Was it a meeting between obviously black parents and was it white parents and school officials at this meeting?

MJ: Right.

DW: And the purpose of the meeting?

MJ: Was to decide whether they were going to let the black kids go to the white schools. Uh huh.

DW: Do you remember the outcome of the meeting?

MJ: We went to the white school.

DW: Okay.

MJ: You know what. I think the outcome of the meeting was very favorable 14:00because the few that were protesting got a surprise.

DW: The few that were protesting what?

MJ: The blacks going to the white schools.

DW: The white protesters against integration.

MJ: Right.

DW: Okay. They got a surprise you say.

MJ: They got a surprise from the more influential white people in Adair County because they were the ones that said, I'm not firing the people that work for me. I'm not, these kids have a right to go to these schools, and they were the ones that backed the black people.

DW: Why do you think that happened like that?

MJ: Because of the type of people that really are in Adair County.

DW: You think that the majority of the white community really supported the 15:00idea of integration at the time?

MJ: They did at that time. They did.

DW: Do you ever recall any kind of pressure to not be involved with this, any kind of threats, any kind of animosity at all?

MJ: No. No. No, no, no.

DW: Okay. Let's talk about your first experience at the white school. This is Adair County High School.

MJ: Well, everybody was nervous. You didn't know what to expect. You didn't know how you were going to be received. I think everybody was a little nervous. My grandfather was very outspoken black man, and I think everybody in Adair County knew him, and he said, "Nobody better not touch none of his grandchildren." He was down on the courthouse square saying that. I think 16:00everybody was just, the parents of the black community was just waiting around to see if there was any negativity and there was none. We were received peacefully and calmly, and it was almost like we'd been there. And I know that they were nervous too like some of the teachers were nervous too because they didn't know what we knew. We didn't know what they knew, and you just didn't know how to approach it. They did it beautifully. Very, if you didn't know she'd appoint somebody to help you with it. The teacher would appoint somebody to help you with it, to bring you up to date because we were behind. Then it 17:00worked beautifully that way.

DW: Do you think you were behind because of the situation without a school building and kind of a disrupted?

MJ: No, no, no.

DW: Period or was it that way anyhow?

MJ: It was that way anyhow because they had more to work with than we did.

DW: The white students?

MJ: The white schools. They had more to work with than we did. Not, not putting our teachers down, they did marvelous with what they had to work with. They did great, they did a great job. Then you know how some kids are going to be smarter than others.

DW: Sure

MJ: Well, the ones that were going to be smarter than others excelled beautifully. Then the ones that were a little bit slow, which I was one of them, but I did fine.


DW: It sounds like there may not have needed to be a concern for that first day of integrated school, but there still was a concern.

MJ: Sure there was.

DW: How did you prepare yourself for that first day?

MJ: Well, I thought if there was anything, if anything happened, I was going to leave and go home. If there was anything to happen in the classroom I was going to get out because I was within walking distance. I was just going to get out and go home. I think all of us had that idea that if anything happens, we'd just get out and come home or call your parents and tell them to come and get you.

DW: When you and the other black students that first came to Adair County High School, how did you guys arrive to the school? Like were you accompanied by anyone or was there any kind of protection even if it wasn't necessary? Do you 19:00recall anything like that?

MJ: Let me see if I can remember that. Maybe some of the parents were out there. Maybe they were. Like I said I really don't remember because it was so normal. I can't recall any, and I'm sure some of the parents did go, like Mr. Willis for one because he was a concerned parent. He was a good person. I'm sure some of the others went, probably my mother. I don't know if they did or not.

DW: I understand. I understand.


MJ: I'm drawing a blank here.

DW: It sounds like it wasn't necessary for them to go other than they have.

MJ: Yeah, it really wasn't necessary. I'm sure some of them did. But it was okay.

DW: Tell me a little bit about.

MJ: I'll tell you there was no people standing out front saying, here comes the niggers and all that kind of stuff. There was none of that. Or niggers go home. There was none of that. We just walked into the school and we got our assignments and we went to class, went to our classroom study hall.

DW: Tell me a little bit about the interaction you had with white students over the course of that first semester?

MJ: It was just like when you go to a new school, an all-white school, and you meet new students. Some you interact with and some you don't. That's the way 21:00it was.

DW: Did some whites embrace you a little bit more than others?

MJ: That's with any school though. Some kids are, you kind of gel with some more than others.

DW: Regardless of race.

MJ: Regardless of race. Then that's just the way it was. Like I said Michael Campbell was a nice guy. Bill Balew was super nice. Let's see about--. One of the guys that I went to school with is a principal here in Louisville. He was crazy, super nice. The girls were as nice as they could be. June and Jo Young.

DW: What were some things that these people did to show their niceness.


MJ: We went to, we had PE together. We sat in the gym and talked together. We played rook together. We, it was just like any other school day. We, I never did learn how to play rook good, but we played.

DW: Card game you're talking about, rook.

MJ: Um hmm.

DW: Did you expect that before you arrived there? Did you expect this kind of harmony?

MJ: I didn't know what to expect. I didn't know what to expect, really and truly. I didn't know what to expect, but I was willing to be flexible. I was willing to be flexible and with, well, just like with when you go to the stores and things, people were already nice. When you went to the stores to try on clothes and all that, people were--. I don't know anything about, I know it's 23:00there, but I know I never experienced any from before school started, before schools were integrated, I never experienced any--. I was never around any whites that were how do I say belligerent or nasty or what. I was never around any of them like that. The only ones that I were around were extremely nice. So I know the indignant part of them was there, but I never experienced it. I was never, I don't think I've ever been called a nigger.

DW: Um hmm.

MJ: I don't know if anybody in my family has ever been called. They may have 24:00been, but I can't remember my sisters or anybody saying that they were called that. But and I don't know of anybody in our neighborhood, any of my girlfriends. They may have said it behind our backs, but they never said it in our face. So if they had those kind of, and I'm sure they did. I'm sure they had preju--. I'm sure some of them were prejudiced, and I'm sure some of them, I guess it's because like this is your area. You stay in this area and don't penetrate ours. I don't really think that was what it was either.


DW: You didn't feel like you were relegated to a certain area of town or anything like that.

MJ: No, I didn't. I never did. No. Never. Adair County is a peaceful little place. It really is. It's a very peaceful little place.

DW: Could you talk a little bit about Mr. Bomer, the teacher? Now you didn't have him as a teacher you said.

MJ: I didn't have him as a teacher, but they say he's an excellent teacher. I did not have my teachers were like Miss Tandy, Miss Spruill, Robert Ewing, let me see who else--Miss Crowe. Miss Edna Crowe. But Mr. Bomer was one of the 26:00most educated men in the black community. He was, I think Robert Ewing, most of those people's education didn't go any further than well, some of them went to the twelfth grade. Most of them went to eighth grade. I think my mother had twelfth, twelve years of education. But my mother was born in Adair County, but at some point in time in her early life they moved to Ohio, I mean Indiana and 27:00stayed for several years. Then she came, then they moved back to Adair County. I think Mr. Bomer was the most educated black man in our community.

DW: Did he push for this integration to happen?

MJ: I don't want to say that he did or didn't because I don't know.

DW: I understand.

MJ: I know he was involved in it. But whether he, but I think most of the people, it was a community decision from the NAACP because they all belonged to the NAACP, and I think that's where the push came from. The attorney for the 28:00NAACP, I think he pushed it.

DW: He was the most instrumental in getting--

MJ: He was the most instrumental.

DW: James Crumlin you're talking about.

MJ: Right. He was the most instrumental, and he was at that meeting with them. So I don't know who got it together or anything. It's just that he, it was a community decision.

DW: Do you think, when do you think schools would've been integrated in Adair County had Jackman never burned down?

MJ: Probably never unless the government pushed it. But probably never. Then it may have and it may not have. But I can't see it happening if Jackman hadn't burned down. I think what Jackman, the Jackman really needed was to upgrade 29:00their educational facilities, upgrade the things that they needed like books, typewriters, just keep us along with what's going on, and I don't think there would've been a problem with integrating anywhere. But like I said the government, and I don't think anybody would've complained if our school had've been on the same level as the white school.

DW: It sounds like there was no desire really for the blacks to attend school with whites outright. It was just in search of a building and better materials and?

MJ: In search of a better education. That was the main thing. You want them 30:00to teach us. Our teachers came to the schools to teach us but given what they needed to teach us with. They didn't have what they needed to teach us with. All of that was put in the white schools, and when that was put in the white schools, then that's when we had a gripe. Give me what you want for yourselves. That was the biggest gripe. Just give us what you have, what you're working with. Let us have the same thing. That was the biggest, that was the main gripe.

DW: Ms. Johnston I've.