- "On the Opposite Side of the Fence":The University of Kentucky and the Racial Desegregation of the Southeastern Conference
On Christmas Eve 1965, Mrs. Flossie Northington mailed a letter to Kentucky governor Edward T. Breathitt. Six days earlier, she and her family had been his dinner guests at the Governor's Mansion, where he persuaded her son, Nathaniel, an All-State running back at Thomas Jefferson High School in Louisville, to become the first African American to play football for the University of Kentucky (UK). In that moment, Mrs. Northington believed that her son "had made an intelligent decision." Now, she told the governor, "I am no longer of this opinion." Attending UK was her son's choice alone, but Breathitt's intense lobbying—including a limousine ride for the family from Louisville to Frankfort—was, by her account, "the determining factor in his decision to sign," which, "I think, is not good." He became "overawed by your advocacy," she warned Breathitt, "so much so that I am beginning to wonder if the influence you exerted was not too great." She worried that he might even have been "coerced" into signing with UK, since she was "certain that he has not given enough thought to the question."1 After all, he was being asked to integrate [End Page 561] not only Kentucky football, which was challenge enough, but also one of the South's most impenetrable bastions of racial segregation, the Southeastern Conference (SEC).2
Indeed, it was "Nat's safety as the first Negro to play in the Southeastern Conference" that animated his mother's "natural apprehension" about him taking on this historic role. "I realize the importance of the integration of the Southeastern Conference," she wrote Breathitt, "and, as a Negro, I am an advocate of it." She admired how her son, bravely, "really wants to play in the Southeastern Conference." "But this does not mean," she insisted, "that I would like to have my son break the race barrier." Such trepidation was rooted in her own personal history. Born in Mississippi, she was well acquainted with the realities of life in the Deep South, and this knowledge frightened her as she now confronted the prospect of sending her son to play in stadiums at SEC member institutions in Alabama, Louisiana, and, in particular, her native state. Without a "guarantee of his safety" from Breathitt and university officials, she threatened to withhold her support for his enrollment at UK, "despite my signature" on his scholarship offer. "My attitude, I know, is not the most progressive, nor unselfish," she admitted to the governor, "but this is the way I feel about my son and the problem of athletic segregation."3
For his part, Breathitt reassured Mrs. Northington and her friends in Louisville that he bore "a heavy responsibility" to ensure that her son's "stay at the University and his visits to other states are pleasant [End Page 562]
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and safe." Nat himself thanked the governor for "your great interest and concern for me" and, in the end, reported for football practice in August 1966 to begin his freshman year at UK. Still, in her motherly concern, Mrs. Northington had put her finger on the main dilemma with which many at UK had wrestled for more than a decade when contemplating the integration of their teams: no one knew what awaited these pioneering black athletes, or their university, inside the SEC itself. UK's president John W. Oswald maintained that it was "our sincere hope" that, since Kentucky "has 'broken the ice,' the others [in the conference] will not feel the same hesitancy they have felt in the past." But not everyone shared his optimism. "I hope that you and the U. of K.," one Northington family friend wrote Breathitt, "have not...