JCPS Graduates Reflect On Integrating: 'We Can't Let It Get Like That Again'
This story is the second in a 5-part series on the proposed student assignment plan and what it could mean for JCPS’s legacy of integration, as well as the future. You can find part one here.
As districts across the country have abandoned busing plans that integrated their schools, Jefferson County Public Schools has received national attention for staying the course.
More than 45 years after JCPS was first integrated through busing, the district’s middle and high schools still meet diversity targets, and surveys show white and Black parents continue to support diversity in the classrooms. Attempts to dismantle busing plans have failed in the nearly 20 years since the plans became voluntary.
But in the fall of 1975, the support for integration that would emerge in coming years seemed unimaginable to the Black students who crossed the color line. Now, with a plan on the horizon that could see Black and white students largely separated again, those who fought the integration battle wonder what the district’s new legacy will be.
'I wanted to do something different'
Pamela Horne grew up in Louisville’s West End in the 1970s. Because of discriminatory housing practices, the western section of town was one of the few places where Black people like her family could live. Then, as now, Louisville was extremely segregated. By the time Horne was 11 years old, the only white people she had ever met were a couple white teachers and the insurance collectors who circulated the neighborhood.
Like most students in the West End, Horne went to an all-Black elementary school, Jessie R. Carter Elementary. As she approached middle school, her mother learned they had a choice: Horne could attend the chronically under-resourced, mostly Black school in the neighborhood, where her sister went, or she could opt for a mostly white school on the other side of town.
“I said I wanted to venture out,” she said.
At the time, in 1974, Jefferson County was split into three public school systems: Louisville Independent Schools, the Jefferson County school system, and Anchorage Independent Schools. Horne’s school was in the Louisville Independent School District, which mapped roughly to the area inside the Watterson Expressway.
Louisville Independent officially desegregated in 1956, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregated schools unconstitutional in Brown v. Board Of Education in 1954. However, because of housing patterns, most students continued to attend school with students of the same race. And workarounds were easy. The district created a transfer option for parents who wanted to avoid desegregation. In 1956, in the first month of desegregation, 85% of white parents requested a transfer and 45% of Black parents.
But in 1974 Horne’s mother used the transfer option to integrate, and send her daughter to a mostly white school, Highland Middle.
“I wanted to do something different,” Horne said. “For some reason I wanted a better education.”
Horne has always stood up for herself, even as a child, and even in the face of overwhelming odds against her.
“I’ve just always had to speak my mind,” she said. “If it was wrong, I always said it was wrong, if it hurt me or not.”
57 years old today, Horne still has vivid memories of that first bus ride she and a handful of other Black students took to Highland Middle. They got off the highway exit, and turned north onto Newburg Road, heading into a white neighborhood, with large homes and sweeping front lawns. Before this moment, Horne said, she had never realized her family was poor.
“I just remember me and the other students looking out the window. We were just in awe of what we saw,” she said.
1956-1974: Desegregation But Not Integration
When Louisville’s schools first desegregated, the move faced little overt opposition, according to University of Louisville history professor Tracy K’Meyer.
On the first day of school in 1956, there were just five white protesters at the school board offices.
“We get all kinds of national positive press for it because we were one of the first school districts in the south to do it [desegregation],” K’Meyer said.
But even though students were finally allowed to attend school with students of another race,, there still was very little actual integration because of housing patterns, and the transfer option, K’Meyer said.
In the two decades that followed, the Louisville Independent School District became more and more majority Black, as white families left the city school system for the largely white county school system. Because of discriminatory housing practices, Black families could not follow. Between 1956 and 1969, the percentage of Black students in the city system grew from 26 percent to 46 percent.
1975: Louisville Ordered To Meaningfully Integrate
Horne didn’t know it, but while she was in elementary school, the local chapter of the NAACP and other civil rights groups had been fighting a court battle to meaningfully integrate schools across Jefferson County.
In 1975, they won. U.S. Federal District Court Judge James Gordon ordered the diverse city school system and the majority white county school system to merge, and to integrate by assigning students to schools outside of their segregated neighborhoods. The merger created the boundaries of Jefferson County Public Schools as we know it today.
Gordon’s plan was known as the “alphabet plan,” because it used the first letter of students’ last names to assign them to schools. It sent white students to historically Black schools, and Black students to historically white schools.
Integration had support from a significant multiracial coalition of people across the city. Many of these groups were already organized around efforts to desegregate housing, K’Meyer said.
At the same time, many white parents, labor unions, along with members of the Ku Klux Klan, made their opposition known.
“By the summer [of 1975], they’re having massive rallies attacking the busing plan,” K’Meyer said. Anti-integration groups gathered at the fairgrounds, at high schools in the South End, and eventually downtown, where protesters threw bricks through the windows of the Courier Journal building because the paper’s editorial position was in favor of integration.
“It [the paper] was seen really as the voice of the enemy,” K’Meyer said.
Below is a clip from WLKY's archive, posted to YouTube.
September 1975: Black Students Face Violent Opposition To Get To School
Heading into the fall of 1975, many Black parents were on edge. Edward Pennix was going into third grade when his parents found out he would be transferred from the all-Black school in his neighborhood, Brandeis Elementary, to Okolona Elementary. It was in the South End, where opposition was fiercest.
“They were not happy about it,” Pennix said. “They just didn’t trust it. But it was what it was.”
So on the morning of September 5th, 1975, 8-year-old Pennix boarded a school bus at a corner in the West End, along with several other Black students.
“We got on the bus, and it was National Guard on the bus. Armed National Guard on the bus!” Pennix remembered. Somewhere along the route, Pennix could hear a helicopter flying overhead, monitoring for safety.
When the bus turned onto Fern Valley Road, the third-grader saw what looked to him like thousands of white protesters lining the road, some in KKK robes.
“They was throwing rocks. I mean, it was like they hated us,” he said.
White protesters continued to gather along Fern Valley Road every single morning, until the winter break. Ducking down in their seats and steeling themselves against fear became part of a daily routine for Pennix and his classmates.
“It toughened you up for sure,” he said. “We weren’t going to let white people see us cry or anything like that.”
For several years, the first day of the school year would set off similar protests. In 1977, Pamela Horne was starting her freshman year at Western High School, and she remembers taking the bus on the first day.
As the bus full of Black students approached the school, white protesters on either side started throwing rocks at the vehicle. The bus driver was a Black woman named Ms. Jean.
“I remember Ms. Jean saying ‘everybody get down on the floor.’ She was trying to protect us. She was trying to drive us through to get us to the school,” Horne said.
She was scared, but she also remembers another feeling.
“There was something in the pit of my stomach, I remember. It was a sadness. Just to know that someone hated you like that to want to hurt you,” she said. “It stays with you. Even to this day, 45 years later, when I’m thinking about it, I can feel that pit feeling that I had when I was a little girl ducking on the school bus.”
Looking back on that moment, Horne worries about what JCPS’s latest student assignment proposal will mean for the future of integration.
“Separation gives others the ability to dehumanize,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons we need to hold onto integration — to our busing policies that we have in place in Jefferson County. We can’t let it get like that again.”
Studies show attending integrated schools has a positive social impact on both white students and students of color. Research shows that white and Black students in integrated schools valued daily, cross-racial interaction. And decades of studies show integration led to real gains for Black, Latinx, Indigenous and poor students in test scores, graduation rates and college-going.
But some, like Pennix, are not sure the gains of integration have been worth the sacrifices. Looking back on his time at Okolona, Pennix said he does believe there can be value in an integrated classroom. But that was not his experience.
“If it’s a fair classroom, and there’s not bias in it, then yeah,” he said. “But that’s not reality.”
We’ll have more on the value of integration in part 3 of this series tomorrow.
This is the second story in our 5-part series on student assignment and the history of desegregation in JCPS. You can find part one here.