African American Cheerleaders and School Integration in KentuckyThere has not been a written history about the African American cheerleaders at Kentucky's segregated high schools and colleges and their continued journey through the turbulent years of integration. The former cheerleaders are pictured in yearbooks, and some of their personal experiences have been shared in oral histories, journal articles, books, and newspaper articles. These sources also contain accounts of those who fought for the integration of cheerleading squads starting in the 1960s. School yearbooks are reliable sources for tracking the changes that may or may not have taken place over time.
The cheerleading squads were just one of the many school and college activities that were to have an integrated student membership. Students of all races were faced with the change from participating at their former segregated schools to trying to figure out how to participate at the newly integrated schools. The school teams and organizations rosters changed.
Cheerleading was not considered a competitive team sport during this period but rather a team support unit. Not just any student could be a cheerleader. Before and after integration, cheerleaders were expected to have the right grades and a certain body image and also be able-bodied with a degree of athleticism. Cheerleaders represented a standard of beauty and good looks. During the years of school integration, there was an extra degree of resistance to having African Americans on the cheerleading squads at integrated schools. This was yet another challenge in the overall Civil Rights in Education Movement.
The push to include African American cheerleaders at integrated schools was taking place all over the United States. One example of unrest was in Burlington, NC in 1969. Four African American girls at Williams High School were booed at the try-outs and denied a place on the cheerleading squad. The whole situation of discontent grew beyond the high school, and violence erupted in the city. A 15-year-old African American student was killed in an exchange of gunfire. (Minchin and Salmond)
In Kentucky, the fight to include African American cheerleaders at the newly integrated schools continued. Sometimes the struggle became a media story, sometimes not. Discussion of the disagreements may or may not have been added as agenda items at school board and board of trustees' meetings. At some locations, the first African American cheerleader was added to the squad without a public announcement, recognition, or disruption. For other schools, the question of having an African American cheerleader was never addressed and nothing changed for a decade or two or even longer. There was no state-wide mandate or law requiring a certain number of cheerleaders of any given race on a squad. No how-to manual addressing the issue existed for the schools and colleges. No one kept count of how many Kentucky schools had an integrated cheerleading squad.
Title IX would come about in 1972 and addressed sex-based discrimination but not race-based discrimination. Each school responded in its own way to cheerleading concerns. For those locations where there was dissatisfaction among the students and parents, there was the potential for student protests, sit-ins, walk-outs, walk-offs, pushback from community leaders, conversations and advice from civil rights and other organizations.
In 1968, Hopkinsville High School closed for a day because of several incidents of racial unrest after two African Americans were appointed to the school's cheerleading squad. That same year at Paducah Tilghman High School, Wanda Stegar, had been a cheerleader in junior high school, tried out for the cheerleading squad and was denied. Stegar's friend and fellow student Arlando McReynolds took up Stegar's cause by organizing a protest with football players walking off the field at the season opener. According to an article in The Paducah Sun newspaper, Principal Bradley Mutchler did not go to the school board but instead negotiated with Arlando McReynolds to call off the walk-off in exchange for allowing Wanda Stegar to join the cheerleading squad and stopping the school band from playing Dixie during pep rallies. When it came time for the first football game, there was a bomb threat and none of the cheerleaders got to cheer. Wanda Stegar Platt was the first African American cheerleader at Paducah Tilghman High School.
In January of the following year, 1969, a delegation of African Americans came before the Hopkins County Board of Education to request that at least two African Americans be included on the cheerleading squads at all schools in the system. In October of that year, the Kentucky Human Rights Commission urged high school principals to mainstream African American students in student activities such as cheerleading and student government.
In 1970, the lack of African American cheerleaders at Earlington High School was one of the complaints brought to the Earlington Human Rights Committee. The committee was formed with the hope of easing racial tensions in the city following the shooting of an African American man by a white police officer. According to the local newspaper, Earlington Mayor Robinson responded to the complaint that there were no African American cheerleaders at the school by stating, "This is a matter for discussion by the school board." ["City Talks Problems: Human rights group named at Earlington," The Messenger, 12/30/1970, p. 9.]
Also in 1970, Murray State University had its first African American cheerleaders, Vivian Walls and Floyd Rigers. That same year, Vicki Williams joined the University of Kentucky cheerleading squad without a formal announcement. In 1971, two African American students tried out for the Campbellsville High School cheerleading squad and were denied. African American basketball players asked that there be one African American cheerleader added to the squad. They were denied. In response, 20-25 African American students walked out of the school. Several meetings were held with students, parents, the Board of Education, and local citizens. It was decided that the cheerleading squad would be expanded to accommodate one more cheerleader, and an African American cheerleader was named at Campbellsville High School, the second African American cheerleader since the first was chosen eight years earlier during the first year of the school's integration process.
African American students at Butler High School in Louisville were told that they could add one more African American cheerleader in 1971. This news came from principal Herbert Hatfield as he had been directed by the County Board of Education. Also in 1971, Mrs. Charles E. Ford from Louisville sent a letter to Dr. Dero G. Downing, the fourth president of Western Kentucky University. Mrs. Ford explained that she was going to contact the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) because there were no African American cheerleaders at the school, yet most of the starters on the basketball team were African Americans. Dr. Downing pushed back, telling Mrs. Ford that she did not have all the facts. In 1972, there was a peaceful sit-in of an estimated 250-300 African American students in the lobby of the Western Kentucky University administration building. The students were demanding that a second African American be added to the cheerleading squad. One African American cheerleader had been added to the squad the previous week.
The addition of the first African American cheerleaders in Kentucky's integrated schools and colleges continued well beyond the Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky. Dr. Beverly Dillworth-Frye, a 1984 graduate of Heath High School in West Paducah, KY, was the first African American cheerleader at the school, where she was captain of the squad and also elected the first African American homecoming queen. In 1989, Members of the Citizens Concerned About Our School System brought their grievances of racial discriminatory practices to the Hopkins County Board of Education meeting, complaining that no African American cheerleaders were selected for the Madisonville-North Hopkins Cheerleading Squad.
In 1993 there was a protest in Louisville. The U.S. Justice Department's Office of Civil Rights in Atlanta, GA was contacted because the local high school cheerleading and dance teams in Louisville were nearly all white. In response, the Jefferson County School Board mandated that "[e]ach cheerleading and dance team in the county must have at least one black member."
There are many, many more accounts of the actions and decisions made in response to requests to integrate cheerleading squads in Kentucky schools and colleges. No two stories are the same and not all fights ended successfully. Those memories that have not been recorded continue to be shared within the individual communities. At the bottom of this entry is a list of sources that will help direct searches for additional information about the overall history of the cheerleading integration movement in Kentucky.
Sources: "Closed for day after racial row," The Courier-Journal, 11/1/1968, p. B4; "Board asked to name Negro cheerleaders," The Messenger, 1/21/1969, p. 5; "High schools urged to insure Negroes a role in activities," The Courier-Journal, 10/13/1969, p. 44; After the Dream: Black and White Southerners Since 1965, by Timothy Minchin and John Salmond; "Give a cheer: first Negroes join Murray State's yell team," The Courier-Journal, 1/27/1970, p. 5; the second paragraph under "The Mail bag" in The Courier-Journal, 9/9/1970, p. B4; "City Talks Problems: Human rights group named at Earlington," The Messenger, 12/30/1970, front page & p. 9; Mike Brown, "At Campbellsville High: Cheerleader controversy resolved," The Courier-Journal, 5/28/1971, p. A12; "Butler suggests cheerleader plan," The Courier-Journal, 4/23/1971, p. 32; Western Kentucky University, by Lowell H. Harrison; "Black student protest [at WKU]," Sun-Democrat, 9/7/1972, front page: "Black cheerleader added," Lexington Leader, 9/7/1972, p. 8; The Color of My Skin: high school student struggles to become one of the first Black varsity cheerleaders in Sachse, Texas, by JerrKelia L. Brazile; Gladman C. Humbles, "Pride of a family," The Paducah Sun, 2/27/2022, p. 17; Sue Templeton, "Board response termed token," The Messenger, 9/12/1989, front page; "Louisville squads must have at least one black," The Lexington Herald-Leader, 3/7/1993, p. B2; and Steve Ivey, "Tilghman's first black cheerleader now knows how fellow student helped. 2 former students remember change they caused," The Paducah Sun, 8/9/2003, p. 3.
Attached Image Sources:
1. 1953 The Thorobred Yearbook, Kentucky State University, Frankfort, KY - online at Kentucky State University.
2. 1955 The Revler Yearbook, Douglas High School, Henderson, KY - within subscription database Ancestry.
3. 1957 The Mustang Yearbook, High Street School, Bowling Green, KY - within subscription database Ancestry.
4. 1964 Centralian Yearbook, Central High School, Louisville, KY - within subscription database Ancestry.
5. 1969 Parisian Yearbook, Paris High School, Paris, KY - online at Hopewell Museum Historic Paris-Bourbon County webpage.
6. 1970 Kentucky Kernel (newspaper), University of Kentucky, September 18, 1970, p. 2 - online at ExploreUK. [Information provided by UK Athletics.]
7. 1970 Porphyrian Yearbook, Kentucky Wesleyan College, Owensboro, KY - within subscription database Ancestry.
8. 1973 Royal Purple Yearbook, Madison High School, Richmond, KY - within subscription database Ancestry.
9. 1987 Stespean Yearbook, Union College, Barbourville, KY - online at Internet Archive.
Suggested sources for researching the history of the integration of cheerleading squads in Kentucky high schools and colleges.
1. Inquire at the local high schools, public libraries, and historical societies for high school yearbooks in paper and online and for correspondence, board of education minutes, and other documentation.
2. Inquire at the college library archives for college yearbooks in paper and online and board of trustees' minutes, campus newspapers, and other sources.
3. See the scanned collection of city and county high school yearbooks within Ancestry (1900-2016) and see the yearbook collection online at the Kentucky Digital Library.
4. Kentucky State University Yearbooks (HBCU) are available online. Simmons College Yearbooks (HBCU) are online at Kentucky Digital Library.
Contact the university archives for additional documentation on integration efforts.
5. There are only a few African American high school yearbooks (Kentucky) included in online collections or available to the public in paper. To locate more of these yearbooks, search in Ancestry.com, contact the associations that represent the formerly segregated high schools, and contact local historians and historical associations.
6. Search Kentucky newspapers and college newspapers for articles. The newspapers are available in paper, on microfilm, and online at public and college libraries. There are also newspapers online at the Kentucky Digital Newspaper Program (KDNP) at UK, Chronicling America at the Library of Congress, and in the subscription database Newspapers.com.
7. Search oral history collections such as SPOKEdb at the University of Kentucky and oral histories in the Kentucky Digital Library collections.
8. See the Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHAA) records at Eastern Kentucky University Special Collections and Archives.