Dewayne came to Murray State in 1982 to satisfy requirements for a teaching certificate in middle school social studies. He had a bachelor’s degree in history from Kentucky State University.
He completed his coursework and by spring semester he had only his student teaching experience left to earn a certificate. He had done well for himself in his studies.
The dean of education asked me to supervise Dewayne’s student teaching in Marshall County schools. Mary and I had recently completed building our home in Marshall County, our daughter had started in the school system, and the dean thought I should get acquainted with county school personnel. The visitations and consultations would at least be close to home.
Dewayne was a good student, a dependable worker and a strikingly handsome young black man. He was tall, strong and articulate. And even though I was aware of the anti-black reputation for Marshall County, I was hopeful it was a relic of times long past.
When Dewayne was assigned, he instantly refused. He said he would never student teach in Marshall County schools. He told us, “All of us know that Marshall County is a ‘sundown county’ — it is not safe, black people are not welcome.”
“It has changed …” the dean began.
But Dewayne had no hesitation. “I will leave Murray State today and not finish my program if that is my assignment,” he said, “I will not go to that county.”
The dean assigned him to a different school district and Dewayne went on to complete his student teaching requirement for Kentucky certification.
As a young kid visiting my grandparents on the farm, I remember hearing a neighbor say that Benton — and Marshall County — was a “sundown” place. When I asked my granddad what that meant, he said, “You don’t see any blacks around here do you?”
I told him I didn’t remember seeing a single one.
“Well, that’s what a ‘sundown’ town is,” he said.
“So why do they call it ‘sundown?’ ” I asked.
“Because any colored must be gone before the sun goes down, or else.”
“Or else what?” I was just a kid.
“Or else be whipped, or shot.”
In all my growing up years in Paducah, racial segregation was the norm but I had never heard about “sundown” areas until that day I asked my granddad.
Probably all African American young people in the region know where the old “sundown” places are. Such warnings remain as a part of the instructions for living issued to each new generation. It is necessary for survival.
Those of us who grew up white in white America need to acknowledge our country’s racism. It is a racism that has persisted. Yes, we did abolish legal slavery. Yes, we did enact a massive civil rights law.
Yes, we did declare separate but equal schools unconstitutional. Yes, we did formulate a voting rights act for minority voter participation. Yes, we did enact affirmative action initiatives. And yes, we elected a black president for two terms. We have made many important gains in minority rights since our country’s beginnings.
In the main these gains were designed to secure legal rights and to promote freedom from Jim Crow laws. We have not been nearly so successful in enabling black people to strive and thrive in social, emotional and economic dimensions.
In 1941, German social psychologist, philosopher and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm wrote “Escape From Freedom,” a classic treatise on the meaning of human freedom in times of social upheaval. It has been reissued many times since.
Fromm describes how people freed from restraints may still be crippled by feelings of alienation and dehumanization. Even though they may be free from legal and physical chains they are overwhelmed by feelings of helplessness and hopelessness cultivated by a treacherous past. They feel they are pawns of circumstance. They are not free to direct or control their own life’s course.
Since the time of Dewayne’s balk at a placement in Marshall County, I have worked with teachers in our schools for over 20 years. County schools are filled with outstanding educators — good people who knock themselves out on behalf of kids and solid achievement. Mary and I have lived in Fairdealing for 38 years and are fortunate to have wonderful friends and neighbors.
The sordid history of the county’s racist past in no way soils the solid accomplishments of our county and its schools. But we must be willing to acknowledge the past — to own it as an unfortunate chapter in our development and to be sorry for its influence. Our history should be talked about in school, understood in context and incorporated as an informant for a better future.
The recent multi-racial demonstrations on the old Benton Court House square are modest but noteworthy events given our history of racist ostracism.
It is a beginning.
Dick Usher can be reached at email@example.com.