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June 2012
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Emancipation did not happen overnight in Paducah

By Gladman Humbles

Why was Aug. 8th designated "Emancipation Day" in Paducah?

What happened after Emancipation?

What civil rights occurred in Paducah during the era of segregation before the 1964 Civil Rights Bill was enacted?

Emancipation Day?

The Emancipation Proclamation was enacted by President Abraham Lincoln on Jan. 1, 1863. The old, often-told tale that the message didn't arrive in Paducah that same day because of bad weather is a figment of an unknown person's imagination. It's an old time-worn tale that isn't in any way connected with the "8th of August."

Lincoln's Proclamation only freed slaves in states that seceded from the Union. Kentucky stayed in the Union. Kentucky slaves didn't breathe their first breath of freedom until Dec. 18, 1965. The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was the instrument that completely eradicated slavery.

So why celebrate the "8th of August"? August is a good month for family and friends to reunite and enjoy themselves. The 8th of August is as appropriate as any other August day. But "Emancipation Celebration"? That's still a mystery. The mystery isn't history. History is not as we think it was but "as it was." Now that you know the history, forget the mystery and enjoy your 8th of August.

After the Civil War, Reconstruction lasted until March 31, 1877. Reconstruction was a good period for freed slaves. They voted, held political offices, owned land and had access to public accommodations.

Republicans were in power during part of Reconstruction. One faction, including Lincoln, wanted a gradual approach in trying to bring about racial harmony. The Radical Republicans, as they were called, wanted to punish the secessionists and establish full equality for African-American freed slaves.

It is believed by many that African-American loyalty to the Republican Party during Reconstruction, and for many years after, was based solely on the good deed of the Great Emancipator, President Lincoln.

Lincoln's act was only part of the reason for African-American allegiance to the Republican Party. The Radical Republicans were responsible for the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution - all progressing toward full citizenship for African Americans.

The 13th Amendment ended slavery. The 14th, in a broad sense, brought African Americans into full citizenship. The 15th Amendment ensured and protected voting rights. The Republican-controlled Congress was responsible for adding those powerful amendments to the U.S. Constitution. One could not have pulled my father away from the Republican Party with a team of "donkeys."

From generation to generation, after being in a dominant position for 250 years, secessionists were shocked at seeing former servants as equals.

President Andrew Johnson, a Tennessean, was a Unionist - but his heart was in Dixie. Johnson made no effort toward reconciliation. Southern Democrats grew stronger and opposed everything that Republicans had accomplished. The Ku Klux Klan's numbers grew, and African Americans were terrorized if they exercised their newly-gained equality.

As the secessionists grew stronger, Republicans lost their grip. Toward the end of Reconstruction, the focal point was to stop blacks from voting - at all costs. And they did - through intimidation, violence, impossible-to-pass literacy tests and poll taxes.

When the voting left, the equality left, and white Southerners were totally in control. For blacks, it was back to the fields - literally - and to back-breaking work. The pay was just enough to survive from month to month. The sharecropping system kept blacks and poor whites perpetually in debt. They always owed "the boss." Slavery was over, but positions remained the same, with new names, the "bossman" and the "workman."

From my childhood to manhood, the president of the United States didn't even have a sun tan. I simply didn't think that a black man could ever become president, but it happened.

And for a black woman to hold the rank of full admiral in the U.S. Navy? Impossible? No. Adm. Michelle Howard, mentioned in one of my previous articles, was recently promoted to full admiral.

In 1948, Paducah native John Rudder became the first commissioned officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. Rudder wasn't "hounded" out. He was "pit-bulled" out under threat of death.

In 1979, Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen became the first African-American three-star general in the U.S. Marine Corps. Petersen flew 64 combat missions in Korea and 250 combat missions in Vietnam, earning both the Distinguished Flying Cross and a Purple Heart.

Petersen encountered racial discrimination both in the Marine Corps and outside. Some people have the strength and determination to overcome huge hurdles placed in their paths. Petersen was one of those super-willed people.

How about Madame C.J. Walker, a poor Louisiana orphan who realized that African-American women liked to have nice hairstyles and did something about it. Madame Walker developed hair products for African-American women and became America's first African-American female millionaire back in the early 1900s.

And on a personal note, my grandfather, Augustus Oakes, who lived in a small Mississippi town called Yazoo City, owned the largest lumber company in the South, shortly after emancipation.

This is a small sampling of the ascension of the descendants whose ancestors once owned nothing, had nothing and worked for nothing. Sometimes, hard times become the motivating factor that leads to better things.

How did what happened in 1865 have any bearing on what happened in Paducah prior to 1964 when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Bill? The past is inextricably tied to the future.

Paducah never encountered the harsh, heavy-handed and hard-hearted treatment of African Americans of those trying to survive in the deep South. Paducah people did, however, believe in separation based on race.

There was also an economic divide. A black man working as a post office janitor was considered middle class in the black community. A black woman operating an elevator was someone "special" downtown.

African Americans always had access to the ballot box in Paducah.

An odd thing happened in the Kentucky General Assembly in 1873. A poll tax of $1 was levied for each colored male over 18 years of age. The Kentucky tax was not levied to keep blacks from voting, as it was in other southern states. In a way, it was levied to encourage Kentucky blacks to vote. By 1893, 13 schools for African Americans in McCracken County were established because of a poll tax coupled with a property tax.

Paducah Community College, as it was called in the 1940s, didn't admit blacks. The NAACP, led by Curlee Brown, a proud, powerful black man, decided to sue for blacks to gain admission. Thurgood Marshall, chief counsel for the NAACP, came to Paducah to advise and to argue the case. After a long, hard fought battle, the NAACP won. Thurgood Marshall stayed at the Hotel Metropolitan and later became the first African-American Supreme Court justice.

"Colored Balcony," the sign so read on the second floor of the Columbia Theater. Local NAACP President Brown assigned Mrs. Osceola Dawson and me to meet with the theater's general manager, Glen Schrader, and convince him to allow blacks to sit in any available seat.

Schrader informed us the policy was about economics, not race. Admission to the "Colored Balcony" was 26 cents for adults and 12 cents for children. Our position was that we felt entitled to make the decision of choosing where to sit.

We talked him into it! Soon we did learn it wasn't entirely about race when we started paying a dollar to sit downstairs. The former "Colored Balcony" fare was raised to 50 cents, so most of us went back to the balcony. One thing eased our pain. The "Colored Balcony" became the "Second Balcony."

George Jacobs was mayor of Paducah from 1956 through 1960. A clerical position opened in the Public Works Department. An African-American woman, Lucille Clark, applied and scored highest on a test. A controversy arose about hiring Mrs. Clark.

Jacobs was a strong mayor who could "urge" people into coming around to his way of thinking. George held up the test score and "urged" the City Commission to hire Mrs. Lucille Clark - the first African American hired as a clerk in Paducah.

In 1963, two members of the City Commission campaigned for two African Americans to be hired on the fire department. The chief went out recruiting and informed the commissioners he couldn't find anyone suitable for the job.

Ex-mayor Jacobs encouraged me to apply for the firefighter position. I declined. George "urged" me to apply. I changed my mind and stayed for 29 years, retiring as assistant chief, thankful that George Jacobs "urged" me to apply.


Gladman Humbles, a frequent contributor to The Paducah Sun, is a retired Paducah assistant fire chief.

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