Black students have only been present, much less welcomed, for less than half of the University of Kentucky’s 155-year history. Seventy-one years ago, Lyman T. Johnson won a lawsuit that helped integrate the all-white school. Even though he never graduated from UK, and never intended to, his actions helped future generations of Black students.
However, despite Johnson’s efforts so many years ago, UK’s Black community is still facing challenges today. For the first time last year, the university offered a major in African American and Africana studies. But 2019 also saw the Main Building sit-in led by the students of the Black Student Advisory Council and the Basic Needs campaign. Among demands to make the university more diverse and inclusive via policy changes, students were also demanding, again, that the New Deal-era mural in Memorial Hall be removed. The mural depicts Black slaves and a single Native American and has been seen as offensive for years by Black students on campus. In 2018, the university commissioned an additional work of art, “Witness,” to add context to the mural, but students still demanded the mural’s removal. In June of this year, after outbreaks of Black Lives Matter protests across the globe, President Eli Capilouto announced plans for the mural’s removal.
For many, there has always seemed to be a “white UK” and a “Black UK,” with the former dominating the mainstream media and, ultimately, campus life. To see the other side of the story, a Kernel reporter spent a week talking to Black activists, both students and alumni of UK.
Brandon Colbert, 22, from Louisville, Kentucky, is a May 2019 graduate with a BA in communication. As a student, he was one of the principal co-organizers for the Black Student Advisory Council. Colbert is now a coordinator for Social Justice Education and Engagement in the Division of Academic and Student Affairs at UK.
Chandler Frierson, 21, from Stone Mountain, Georgia, is a senior integrated strategic communication major and community leadership and development minor. Frierson has been president of the UK NAACP chapter, helped form the Black Student Advisory Council, and currently interns at the Martin Luther King Center.
Khari Gardner, 20, from Baltimore, Maryland, is a senior management major and Social Enterprise Scholar in the Lewis Honors College. He has protested in Washington, D.C., and with Black Lives Matter in Lexington, and he recently started @BlackatUK, an Instagram account that shares minority students’ experiences with discrimination and outlines what students are demanding of the UK administration.
Jaida Hampton, 22, from the southside of Chicago, Illinois, is a May 2020 graduate with a BA in political science. Currently, she is the Kentucky State Conference Youth & College Division President and oversees all the councils and college chapters across the state of Kentucky.
Hampton was one of the 87 people arrested on Daniel Cameron’s lawn on July 14 while protesting for justice for Breonna Taylor.
Mia Lapointe, 18, from Lewis Center, Ohio, is a sophomore with a double major in political science and African American studies. Last year, she participated in the Audre Lorde Social Justice Living Learning Program at UK. Her work to address racism within education began in high school, when she joined the Black Students of Olentangy. This summer, she helped form a group called SADIE (Student Association for Diversity Inclusion in Education) to continue that work.
What does being Black mean to you?
Brandon Colbert: It is a blessed burden being black… because we have to learn at an early age the struggles that Black people have dealt with since arriving in the United States— since being stolen, not necessarily arriving— and treated as property in the United States. I think recognizing that we were able to withstand everything that we have as a people and be able to still be here, as Dr. Joy Degruy put it, is a miracle. We have to find the joy in our suffering every day and have to constantly laugh to keep from crying. Being Black is recognizing the vulnerability of your identity but also recognizing the strength of your ancestry and embracing that and walking in that and being constantly aware of it. I think James Baldwin said it best: ‘To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.’ But having to always be mindful for the sake of survival. How visible that rage is.
Chandler Frierson: These shared experiences that I had as a Black male, I feel intertwined with this whole idea of being Black. And to me, it’s about the struggle, the pain, the heartfelt moments, the connection, the rhythm, the beat, the— I don’t know. It’s just kind of this intangible type of entity that connects all of these Black people together and it’s just that shared experience for me that’s so beautiful. And then how my experience has been different because of the color of my skin and I think that there’s a lot of things that come with that that are negative, that a lot of us would see as negative. But on the other hand, there’s a lot of things that I’ve learned from being Black and I think that intrinsically it’s made me to be an overcomer. So I just find beauty in the shared experience and the way that I’ve been equipped as an individual because I’m Black.
What are some challenges you’ve faced, if any, because of your race?
Khari Gardner: It’s different when you feel like the police don’t protect you. I know I’ve had multiple instances where I’ve seen friends get, you know, harassed by police, where I’ve been just hanging outside and being harassed by police, where I’ve been stopped by officers for no reason. You know, it’s something that’s really indescribable— the fear of someone who’s supposed to be a public servant.
Chandler Frierson: Coming to school, especially at the University of Kentucky, it’s been extremely apparent to me that my blackness in this setting is looked differently upon, like in a negative way, like I have to overperform and people are always surprised I’m smart and teachers are surprised. Or I’m the first person they call on to speak for Black people as a whole or they’re surprised that I’m on time, or surprised that I’m sitting in the front row of the classroom. Just stuff like that that I have to deal with on a daily basis.
Jaida Hampton: Even at the University of Kentucky there are limited opportunities. And so when I did my internship for WilDCats at the Capitol, it was like I had to work 10 times harder just to fulfill my duties of being an intern and getting scholarships compared to my white counterparts.
What were your views on race and diversity before college? Now?
Khari Gardner: I kind of glossed over the fact of some of the lack of diversity and inclusion at UK when I chose to come here… I had experiences at the beginning of my college career which were very intense and really shook me to my core. You know I never had dealt with really overt racism in such a way. I was followed back to my dorm. I’ve been called racial slurs from people at my dorm. So it’s something that I didn’t expect to be at the forefront of my college experience, but it’s transitioned into that… It just reignited some type of passion I had for, you know, to make the spaces more inclusive and diverse and to see things that I wasn’t seeing before.
Brandon Colbert: I saw myself as a gifted Black person who was the exception to what I was shown of what the caricature of what a Black person is, and because I centered myself I wasn’t able to see the fact that it wasn’t that I was, I guess, so exceptional but that other individuals had been so hindered by these systems and inequities in these systems, these systemic issues. And so learning from the time from junior, senior year of high school throughout college and even now, doing the work that I do, learning that really this happens on much more than an individual level was probably the biggest change I would say that has happened in my perception.
Mia Lapointe: Not only did Audre Lorde identify as multiple different minority groups, if you will, but she also was an activist for each and every one of them altogether because she brought up the point that if you’re against one ‘minority’ group then technically you’re against them all. And that’s something that’s always stuck with me. For example, racism is another ugly form of sexism, it’s another ugly form of ageism, it’s another ugly form of ableism. So on, so forth. So that really kind of rammed home. If one of us isn’t free then all of us aren’t free, to quote a Black Lives Matter quote.
Do you think UK is a safe, welcoming and understanding university for Black students?
Brandon Colbert: When I was a student, there were a lot of instances where Black students had to be very intentional about centering blackness. I think as UK continues to strive to better their diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, we can get more comfortable centering blackness and not making it feel like a sort of otherness that Black students tend to feel. And as we strive for that, we can get to a place to where UK is a safe, welcoming, and understanding environment for students.
Chandler Frierson: I would say that the University of Kentucky promotes diversity, but I would say that that’s about it. Everything else is surface level. Inclusion to me is surface level. It’s not well thought out. It’s very whitewashed, if you will. Like if you let white people as a group define what diversity and inclusion look like, I feel like that’s what UK is.
Jaida Hampton: No. I recall having to create our own spaces. Luckily NAACP was able to get an office but before then, all we had was the MLK Center. And so it was like we had to create spaces within our own living situations, like our dorms, spaces on campus. And so I think that no, it’s not a safe community at all and we’re still fighting through that.
Mia Lapointe: I believe they’re very welcoming because they want those diversity numbers. Every university, every school, every job wants those diversity numbers. They want you to be a statistic. They want to be able to paste you on all their little brochures and flyers or whatever showing, ‘We have diverse community.’ Whatever.
How would you define an activist?
Khari Gardner: Activism comes in lots of ways… I can tell you it’s not posting a black square on Instagram and calling it a day. It’s not making sure you get, you know, your sign up on Snapchat for the clout and everything. It’s not that. What it is is actively educating people and advocating for a better community. Now there’s a lot of ways to do that. I’m not saying everybody has to be out in the streets, not everybody has to be making the calls and donating money. But at the same time, if you take the time to educate yourself and educate others around you and have them start to learn that our communities can be better, you’re an activist in your own way.
Jaida Hampton: I would define an activist as someone who put others first. I’ve been a part of NAACP for probably about five years now and at that time I just saw it as something to do. Like I would still go out and live my regular life and then I would probably carve out five percent to give to NAACP. But now it’s 100 percent. I’m giving 100 percent not just to the organization but to the people and all. And I feel like with every great activist and leader gives 100 percent, if not more. And they always put themselves last. And so now it’s like I have no problem with my social media just being full-on for the movement because to me it’s movement and not a moment. And I think that’s another thing: If I was to define an activist, they’re for the movement and not the moment.
Mia Lapointe: Someone who is able and willing to knowledgeably speak on subjects of diverse individuals. Being an activist to me doesn’t mean that you go out and protest at every protest, you don’t write every letter that there is to write, you don’t email every politician that there is to email, or call or whatever. It’s being willing to take the extra step other than just posting a black screen on your Instagram. It’s more than just retweeting someone else’s words. It’s going out and saying something yourself and providing your voice in the dialogue in support of yourself and others.
Do you think UK is trying and succeeding to help its Black community?
Brandon Colbert: I definitely do. I am part of UK’s effort in doing so. And so I definitely feel that as an institution we are working to rectify that.
Jaida Hampton: I will put a hard emphasis on trying. They’re trying… The plans we’re asking for now, how long will that take? Are we looking at a five to 10-year span as well for a change?
Mia Lapointe: They’re just riding the wave of popularity because it’s good and it gives good rep. And all the universities and schools, in my opinion, see that they have to do is make bare, bare, bare minimum efforts to show that, yes, we are going to do something, that way they have positive press and then they just ride the wave and let it die down and then they drop all their efforts.
What do you think UK needs to do to help its Black community?
Chandler Frierson: I think that making fundamental, foundational commitments to this work and commitments that are not tied to a time period, commitments that are not dependent upon leadership or who the president is or who’s this person in this office. People should be able to rotate in and out, and the mission should stay the same. So I think that when it becomes a part of the culture, when it makes it into the mission statement of what’s the purpose of this university here in the Bluegrass, what do we want to do as a university, what do we want to be known for… I think that when it makes it up there to what they truly, truly care about, I think that that’s when some work can actually be done because honestly right now, and I told this to administrators, to me this is the makeup exam. All of the work that you’re doing now is the makeup exam because we’ve been telling you for years. I can personally attest for the past three-and-a-half years we’ve been telling you this. And there’s students that can attest for that since Black students have been on this campus. We’ve been telling you how you can serve Black students and now you care when there’s some heat and when there’s some pressure. This is a makeup exam. And you know, in my family we don’t celebrate good grades on makeup exams. The best you can get is a 50 percent.
Mia Lapointe: I think the things that UK needs to do the most first of all is listen. Like not just, ‘Oh, we’re in a room with you. We hear you.’ But actually hear what Black students or diverse students in general are saying. See it, hear it, roll it over in your mind. You’re thinking about it. You’re actively listening versus passively listening. So the first step is to actually actively listen to your students and what the students need.
What is your goal for being an activist at UK?
Khari Gardner: My goal is to just make sure I made a difference so that somebody, anybody who decides to be part of the Wildcat community in the future, feels a lot better and included and safe than I did. You know, I’ve always felt that walking in the classrooms in Gatton that I was the odd man out, I was the only Black student in a lot of my classes. I don’t want nobody to ever have to feel like they don’t belong in an institution that they fought to get into and that they worked hard to get into, that they had to go through unimaginable life humps to continue on their journey. I don’t want anybody to ever feel like they don’t belong.
Brandon Colbert: My goal is to create spaces, ultimately, at an entire campus where people feel comfortable being their authentic selves. Not only to feel comfortable— they feel safe being their authentic selves. This is not just Black people, though. This is anyone, regardless of their race, their gender, their sexual orientation, their ability. Being able to name that you are who you are, especially those people who belong to groups that you still see marginalized and oppressed and discriminated against. Those people are who I hope to make space for or make spaces for on campus that they are safe in and comfortable in.
Chandler Frierson: I want to be able to come back like five years from now and I want Black students to be able to be students, Black and brown students to be able to be students. That’s literally my goal. It’s for us to be able to be students, to be able to be worried about our schoolwork, and to be able to get an education and not have to fight just to exist on this campus. That’s literally all I want.