A Blackface Photo Resurfaces, And A Kentucky Town Confronts Its Racial Trauma
Holiday light displays are spread out across Bob Noble park in Paducah, Kentucky, lighting up the barren trees at night for the community to drive by. The park has long been a gathering place for the small city, with performances at an amphitheater and swimming during the summer.
Shirley Massie, 76, sits at one the park shelters, proudly wearing a Paducah Tilghman High School football hat — her son was quarterback and wore the number “1.” She points out to the direction where her mother’s house was, saying how the park was nearby in her childhood.
“I never went to Noble Park as a child because I couldn't come over here as a child,” she said. “Jim Crow was really out there during the time that I grew up. But I think my parents protected me from it.”
The park was segregated during her childhood, with a separate park designated for Black people, Stuart Nelson park. During that era, she remembers having to go through a side door and climb a fire escape to a balcony, just to watch a movie at a theater.
As she got older, she decided to transfer from the local Black high school to Paducah Tilghman High School, only a few years after school integration began. Newspaper archives have accounts of PTHS and other local high schools holding blackface minstrel and talent shows about a decade before integration.
Massie said she didn’t walk commencement for her high school graduation.
“My senior year was the year that I met this teacher who apparently was very, very prejudiced,” Massie said. “Even during his lectures on the Civil War, he'd use the n-word and I'd cringe in my seat.”
She said the teacher purposely gave her failing grades that she knew she didn’t deserve. She appealed to the principal but ended up taking summer school classes instead.
Despite that experience, she came back to Paducah Public Schools and dedicated her career to teaching, serving decades at Paducah Middle School. She worked with Black girls to encourage them to love their bodies, to tell them they didn’t have to straighten their hair.
“Self esteem is one of the most important parts of educating the child,” she said. “Once you tear it down, you can't repair it. Not the way it should be.”
But she worries all that work may be tarnished in the future because of a photo, one that’s embroiled her community for weeks.
In October, a photo resurfaced of Paducah Public Schools Superintendent Donald Shively, that he said is from a Halloween party in 2002. He’s pictured in blackface, wearing gold chains, a durag, and a Paducah Tilghman High School Football t-shirt. Shively taught and coached football there at the time.
The reaction was swift, loud, and unabated. Students walked out of the high school in protest. Parents and community members marched around the high school calling for Shively’s resignation, at times gathering at the school to honk their car horns in what they called a “Tornado Warning,” playing off of the school’s mascot.
Paducah was one of many small communities in the Ohio Valley that saw a moment of unity with Black Lives Matter protests over the summer, but Black community members now worry of hardening racial divides because of this controversy.
During a historic year of marches against racial injustice, the Black community in this city is facing racial trauma that hits close to home, wondering what this means for tackling systemic racism in their hometown.
Not A Safe Space
His son played with Shively’s son on a local Little League football team, Andiamo White said, the sun setting in front of the Paducah Tilghman High School football stadium.
On the sidelines the two fathers would talk about their studies — both were pursuing advanced degrees. So when he saw the photo, he said, he was shocked.
“I told him it was hurtful. The thing about it is, it let me know when I'm not in your face, this is what you think of me. I'm a joke to you. My culture is a joke to you. Black people are a joke to you,” he said.
White is a part of a group of parents that have protested and persisted in calling for Shively’s termination, and is an alumnus of PTHS. He remembers in the 90s how Black students seemed to receive harsher punishment and get in trouble more than other students. He worries about the precedent that might be set if Shively remains in charge of one of the most diverse districts in the state.
Kentucky Department of Education statistics show about 25% of the state’s public school students identify as a person of color; in Paducah Public Schools, more than 58% of nearly 3000 students do so, on par with the largest district in the state serving Louisville.
“Every time they pass him, they're not gonna see ‘white Shively’. They're gonna see gold-teeth wearing, durag-wearing, brown-face white man walking to school, walking through the school,” White said. “The white kids are gonna see the same thing. A Shively that is who he really is. The racist Shively. That's what they're going to be seeing.”
For Amina Watkins, another Black parent of three kids who came to speak with White, she said this school year has shown her that the school is not necessarily a safe space for her child.
“So looking at their mental health, making sure that they can be open and honest and vulnerable with me about how they feel is difficult because they're teenagers. They don't necessarily talk about all the feelings and emotions and stuff like that,” Watkins said. “When you talk about something that they don't experience every day and now has become, like, an everyday conversation, it's difficult.”
The situation has been a distraction for her daughter in her senior year, as she’s trying to keep her GPA up and prepare to go into the military. Her daughter shouldn’t have to worry about this, Watkins said.
Watkins said this year of protests and the subsequent controversy has also been an opportunity to create conversations on race that wouldn’t happen otherwise with white neighbors, to help give voice to the experiences and pain Black people are feeling.
“They're not used to hearing it because they're not reaching out to any of us,” she said. “We need people, our white counterparts on our side, to speak out for us to those people who aren't willing to listen to what we have to say.”
At that point in early December, she was frustrated by the lack of communication and action by the school board on what consequences Shively may face because of the photo.
The board over past weeks has had several executive sessions behind closed doors with no word on what progress is being made in those meetings. The board has been collecting feedback and Shively said he’s worked to create an “action plan” for the district.
The Paducah-McCracken County NAACP chapter has called for Shively’s resignation, saying it was the “only viable option” moving forward in a letter to the board on Thursday.
But despite the indecision, Watkins said she felt encouraged by what she’s seen as a large group of allies in her community willing to stand up and break down existing barriers in her community.
A Year Of Protests
Following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police, the start of the summer also saw an eruption of protests across the country calling for racial justice. But these protests didn’t just touch larger cities like Minneapolis or Louisville.
The Black Lives Matter movement touched rural communities across the Ohio Valley, including in several western Kentucky communities where such demonstrations were rare.
Tracey Lenox, a Black parent of a sophomore at PTHS, had thought that because many people in Paducah assumed that problems with racism and policing were distant concerns, protests like those would never reach her hometown. But on a June afternoon, hundreds of people of multiple ethnicities and races — in the middle of a pandemic — mobilized in Noble Park.
“When I got there and saw how many people were there, I was just blown away,” Lenox said. “A lot of people said, ‘Paducah doesn't have these kind of problems. So why participate in it? We don't have that here. Don't start that mess here.’ And it was a great turnout.”
It was a moment of unity amid a divisive political atmosphere. But then came news of the blackface photo. Online petitions both supporting Shivley and calling for his removal garnered thousands of signatures following the photo’s resurfacing.
College student and PTHS alumnus Aeronna Orr, a Black woman, helped lead chants at the Black Lives Matter protest at Noble Park. She said where people stood on the issue often came down to race.
“I feel like a lot of people who are against Shively resigning, they are only doing it because ‘it was 20 years ago, because it doesn't matter anymore’. And most of those people who are saying that are not black. So they can't be offended by that picture,” Orr said.
She said a lot of people aren’t fully aware about the history of blackface, and that some people may not be as critical of the photo because Shively wasn’t depicting their race.
Another retired Black educator says there’s a lack of empathy for the trauma the Black community was feeling.
Melanie Nunn taught in Detroit for two decades, and moved to Paducah to be in her husband’s hometown in 1996. She wondered why her area’s Republican State Senator Danny Carroll was quick to support Shively early on in a Facebook post. Carroll declined an interview for this story.
“When you immediately came to his defense, it bottom-line said, ‘I don't care what your feelings are. I don't care how you felt about blackface. I don't care whether or not you were hurt. I care about this man,’” Nunn said. “Those kinds of things make our community even more divisive. Because what it says is that you don't matter. We don't matter. And that's the whole concept behind Black Lives Matter.”
Nunn said her husband was a police officer, and she knows what the law enforcement lifestyle is like. Black Lives Matter isn’t just about law enforcement, she said, but calling for people to care about Black people as much as they do themselves.
“There are people who are not going to forget this and probably never going to forgive,” Nunn said. “Whether that matters to Senator Carroll, Mitch McConnell, whoever else — whether that matters, I don't know.”
When Nunn spoke to the Ohio Valley ReSource in late November, she said she wasn’t sure what should happen to Shively. She wants this to be a teachable moment for him and the community, but she’s not sure it can be with the aftermath that’s happened.
She doesn’t think Shively is the same man in the photo as he is today. But as a former educator, she’s not sure if she trusts Shively to inspire students to reach their full potential.
Jewel Wilson is a man of faith, a man who strongly believes in the power of forgiveness. The 49-year-old minister at a local church said he’s prayed about this controversy entangling the school district, praying that it comes to a resolution.
He sits by the door of a local distillery in downtown Paducah, where he said as a young man he was racially profiled by police when he was driving down by the Ohio riverfront. He has children in the school district, but says he’s forgiven Shively.
“The thing that I was wrestling with being in ministry was the idea of redemption and people having value,” Wilson said. “I believe that you don't throw all of the good of the man away for a moment of something that they did wrong, if you can see them sincerely wanting to understand the mistake they made and do the best they can to rectify that mistake.”
The pastor at his church, James Hudson, is also a member of the school board. Wilson said he hasn’t spoken with Hudson about the controversy.
But Wilson said Shively should be held accountable.
He suggested potentially having Shively suspended without pay to donate his salary to a charity supporting diversity work in the community. Wilson understands he might be in a minority position among others in the Black community about how he feels about Shively, but he still sees work that needs to be done tackling systemic racism in his community.
“I do believe that there is systemic racism. And I believe, again, that it has always been here, but because of the outgoing administration at 1600, Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC, he helped dust things up,” Wilson said, a reference to President Donald Trump’s often racist rhetoric.
Trump won McCracken County, where Paducah is located, by about 65% in the November election.
Shively has some supporters in the Black community, including some who worked with him in the school system.
Randy Wyatt, a Black man who coached on the football team with Shively, said he’s “never heard a racist tone” from Shively, and that he believed the resurfaced blackface photo is due to people with ulterior motives.
Jerald Ellington, the high school principal at the time Shively taught and coached, said he was an “excellent teacher” who challenged students. Ellington added he didn’t perceive any issues with racism or racial prejudice during his tenure at the high school.
Since the photo emerged, Shively has repeatedly apologized, and more recently said it’s been hard to hear that he's lost trust among some students he’s spoken with.
“You give your professional life trying to help others, and so that's hard as a person that cares about others to hear and know that you've caused hurt and lost trust, especially as a leader of the district,” he said.
Shively added that regardless of what position he holds moving forward, he hopes Paducah embraces the opportunity to confront racial divides in the community.
But back in Noble Park, Shirley Massie wonders how more apologizing will help the community ultimately heal and move forward.
“He said I'm sorry, over and over and over, and you know, I don't know what to say after you say I'm sorry.”
In a hastily called meeting Friday evening the school board announced that it was directing Superintendent Shively to take 40 days of unpaid leave, and ordered him to undergo professional development.
Board chair Carl LeBuhn said no resolution would satisfy everyone, but added the board was elected to make difficult decisions and hopes their community will give the plan a "good-faith opportunity to succeed."
The Ohio Valley ReSource gets support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and our partner stations.
Correction: This article previously stated Amina Watkins is a Paducah Tilghman High School graduate. She is a graduate of Reidland High School in McCracken County.