Guest blogger Kay Carlson’s maternal great uncle, Thomas Allen Houston, was a student at Transylvania University when he won the Southern Inter-State Oratorical Association Contest in 1908. (large photo) Kay with daughter Kendra and husband Lawrence. Retired from teaching, Kay’s pursuing her favorite roles of wife and mom, though ever the student, she’s now studying for her real estate license.
Born in 1957, I was raised in California by kind parents who had come to California from Oklahoma during the Depression, when their families could no longer make a go of it on their farms.
Hard-working, church-going, and educated, my parents found themselves employed as migrant farm workers for quite a while. Often insulted as “Okies,” they understood poverty and discrimination first-hand, and they taught their five children to be compassionate and respectful of all people.
As an elementary school teacher with a certificate in Early Childhood Education, I was delighted to learn that my great uncle, Thomas Allen Houston, had won the Southern Inter-State Oratorical Association Contest on May 7, 1908. A student at Transylvania University (founded as “Kentucky University”), he was a campus leader, actor, and captain of the football team.
The Lexington Herald reported the news of his victory on the front page. According to the paper, as soon as the judges announced him the winner, fellow students rushed the stage and carried Uncle Tom off on their shoulders.
The following day the faculty declared a school holiday. Still overcome with excitement about my great uncle’s win, “young men immediately chartered two street cars and spent the greater part of the morning riding about the city and yelling for Houston and old Transylvania.”
What a picture that made in my mind: college kids thrilled by words and ideas, rather than touchdowns!
I was able to find a copy of his prize-winning speech, The Rise of the Southern Commons.
He spoke about “universal education.” His words jumped off the page. How thrilled I was to have an ancestor who was such a forward-thinking man!
As I continued reading, my pride slowly turned to fear, as the words “white” and “whites” started popping up. Fear turned to shame as I read the following:
“Thus the presence, in the same community, of two races whose least difference perhaps is the color of their skin, makes necessary the maintenance of separate systems of education. This is a question which with us is settled. We do not care to discuss it. We believe that separation is better for both races, and besides, there is something within us that says it must be so.”
My Uncle Tom’s vision of “universal education” was a vision for white children, not for all children. How could this educated man of God believe that whites and blacks were so different they could not be educated together?
I can only conclude it was because he was born in 1878 in Kentucky, a state built on slave labor. Despite his education, his brilliant mind, and his caring heart, he’d been raised with lies about his fellow man.
Today, as I’m bombarded with political ads, speeches, and Facebook posts that foster fear, mistrust, and hatred of people who are different from me in one way or another, I must ask, what’s our excuse?