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'They Raised Me To Stand For What You Believe In.' Scholarship Honors First To Integrate Lex Schools

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Lexington Herald-Leader
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It’s been 66 years since Helen Caise Wade became the first African American to integrate a Lexington school. Now, a group of teachers has organized the creation of an endowed scholarship at the University of Kentucky that honors Ms. Wade and will help students of color become teachers themselves.

Helen was almost 16 years old when she decided to attend Lafayette High School’s summer program. In 1955, the school was all-white and she attended the all-Black Douglass High School. She put her request to Douglass’s principal.

"She told me, she said, 'Helen, you know you can't go to Lafayette.' And I said, 'I don't know why I can't, Mother and Daddy are paying county and city taxes.' So, she called Dr. Turpen and she told him what I wanted to do. He told her to 'give me a week or two and I'll call you back.' I guess he approached the board - and they agreed that I had a right to go."

Dr. N. C. Turpen was the county Superintendent at the time. It was a year after the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling on Brown v. Board of Education.

When the Lexington Herald-Leader published a story about the decision to integrate the summer program, the Caise family got threats at their house. Helen’s father, a contractor, lost all of his work in Lexington. He and her uncles had to travel to Erlanger to find work. Helen was escorted to and from school by self-appointed guards.

"It was a caravan, like. My father's car was in the middle, there were two cars in the front of us, and two cars in the back. And before they went to work, they would take me to school. I was there a half day, and they would take their - whatever their lunch break was - they would come back, I'd come out, and that caravan would be out in the front waiting on me."

At Lafayette, most white students were standoffish to her, but Helen had one young friend and a teacher, Mr. Tucker, who supported her. When she graduated high school, the second person in her family to do so, she went on to the University of Kentucky. There she met more prejudice and discrimination. As Helen puts it, she was blessed with a musical voice. She was a soloist at Main Street Baptist Church and sang at Douglass High School. Regardless, she wasn’t accepted into UK’s choir.

"The music teacher that I had at Douglass encouraged me to 'make sure you get into the chorale at UK.' And so, I went and tried out. And I was told by the director that I didn't have a voice that would fit into her program." 

At a certain point, the racism she encountered at UK became too much.

"Mother and Dad were very proud that I was going to UK. I came home one day, and we were eating dinner, and I said to them, 'If I ever have to go back - I will never cross the threshold of a college. Never.' And I have never been the kind of person [that] would tell my parents what I wasn't going to do. That was unacceptable. And my father said, 'Well, if you think you don't wanna go back, where do you wanna go?' I said, 'Dad, if you'll let me go to Kentucky State, I guarantee you I'll get me a college diploma. He said, 'If that's what you want, that's what you do.'"

Kentucky State was an all-Black university at the time. When she auditioned for KSU’s choir, the director immediately told her when to show up for the next rehearsal. She became part of the first KSU concert choir that went on tour every Spring. Having again found support from her own community, Helen set out to become the same kind of role model as an educator.

"Well, back during that time, we didn't have quite a bit of role models other than ministers, teachers - and you know I think in Lexington we had one African American lawyer, we did have doctors - but most of the people that we were around [who were] educated were teachers."
 
She left in 1962. KSU professor Henry Cheney wrote her a letter of recommendation that helped her get the job. She became the first black teacher in the history department at John Adams High School in Cleveland, Ohio. The school was integrated, and Helen was able to be the role model she aspired to be.

"From young people that I started teaching when I went to Cleveland in 1962 - they still remember and call me to check on me."

Helen enjoyed her teaching career. She was even selected to teach social studies at the very first Upward Bound program at Case Western University. When she retired, she came back to a different Lexington than she had known growing up.

"Do you know, I can remember going into the courthouse. If I ever went into the courthouse as a little girl, and wanted a drink of water, I drank out of the 'colored' fountain."

As an African American, Helen wasn’t allowed in the Kentucky Theatre growing up, but five years ago she entered the building for the first time to see Barry, a movie about Barack and Michelle Obama.

"I basically had a lot of apprehension. I was almost at the point of saying I had an anxiety attack. Because I could not believe that I was going into a theatre that I had never been able to go into. It was the first time that I had ever been inside of the Kentucky Theatre."

The latest chapter in Helen’s story sees the University of Kentucky, where she faced discrimination all those years ago, establishing an endowed scholarship in her name. It’s the brainchild of the group Teachers for Equitable Kentucky Schools, founded by 2021 Kentucky High School Teacher of the Year Christopher McCurry and other teachers at Lafayette. McCurry says they formed the group during the nationwide unrest following the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd last summer.

"In Kentucky, 95% of teachers are white. So that was one of the problems we identified: we need more diverse teachers to reflect our diverse student bodies and we also want to help build generational wealth, because that's a larger problem."

The scholarship seeks to put more students of color on the path to being educators in Kentucky. The initial fundraising effort is happening now in collaboration with the Wade family. Chris McCurry’s GoFundMe campaign has so far attracted over $5,000. They have five years to raise the $50,000 needed to establish the scholarship, which will be called Future Teachers of Kentucky Honoring Helen Caise Wade.

"It's amazing for us to have the opportunity to honor her, but it's a thousand times more amazing that she had the courage, bravery, tenacity to integrate an all-white school and get her education."

Helen says she was a precocious youngster, but she gives credit to her family.

"I have to say that I was brought up in a family who stood for something. I told my father, when I found out how they were taking his work away from him, I said to him, 'Daddy, I do not have to go back to Lafayette. I can quit.' Because I didn't really have to go to summer school, it was just something that I wanted to do. He said 'If what you're doing you believe in, you don't worry about how hard it's made for me.' They raised me to stand for what you believe in."

Contributions to the scholarship’s gofundme campaign can be made here.

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