Here is State Historian Jim Klotter's list of missed opportunities —
potential turning points where different choices might have produced
a Kentucky better prepared for the new century.


What if . . .

By James C. Klotter



In the 1940s, Kentucky's education system stood in shambles. Some 95 percent of American children were enrolled in elementary school, but only 63 percent of Kentucky's were. Kentucky's per student expenditure was half the national average. The Commonwealth ranked dead last in the percentage of high school graduates. Segregation, with its separate (and unequal) schools, wasted money and squandered human potential. Kentucky is still struggling to climb out of that educational hole, but it could have been different in at least two ways I can think of.

In 1820, Transylvania University was arguably one of the half dozen best colleges in the United States. It was certainly the best in the South. Its dynamic president, star-studded faculty, outstanding medical and law schools, and widespread reputation caused Thomas Jefferson to say that Virginia needed to establish a university or else "send our children for education to Kentucky or Cambridge."

But — there's always a but — Transylvania's president, Rev. Horace Holley, angered Governor Joseph Desha, who accused the school of becoming elitist. Desha and the General Assembly cut off Transylvania's state funding. Religious leaders criticized Holley, a Unitarian from Boston, for attending the races and buying nude classical statues for his home. Holley finally resigned under pressure, the school lost momentum, and perhaps the state's best chance for a world-class university had passed.

Three quarters of a century later, there was another opportunity for educational excellence. In 1900, Kentucky stood fourth in the South in per capita income devoted to education, and had the only compulsory education law in the South. The 1908 legislature required every county to establish a high school, strengthened attendance rules, and poured more money into the newly created teacher training colleges at Bowling Green (now Western Kentucky University) and Richmond (now Eastern Kentucky University). Legislators and education advocates launched a statewide campaign in support of education, and bright days seemed to lie ahead. But it was a false light that soon dimmed. Funding did not continue at an adequate level, and as Kentucky ambled toward education reform, other states ran ahead. By 1920, Kentucky's ranking had fallen from fourth to eleventh. The cost of this lack of progress was incalculable because it drove many of the best and brightest students and teachers out of the state.


Within a few years, Kentucky had another chance to improve education and at the same time move to the head of the pack in transportation. It was 1924 and the governor was William J. Fields, a former traveling salesman and congressman from Carter County. In the Roaring '20s, Fields was notable for plain and frugal living. He banned dancing at the Governor's Mansion and kept milk cows on the mansion's lawn. But he also had a vision. At a time when the state budget was $25 million a year, Fields proposed a bond issue three times that — $75 million — to pay for improvements in roads, charitable institutions, prisons and schools. He planned to pay off the bonds with a gasoline tax and an increase in the then very low property tax.

Fields' own Democratic party split over his idea, which also highlighted the urban-rural division in the state: road-poor rural areas wanted the bond issue, while urban areas, with better roads and schools, did not. When it was put to a vote of the people, it lost in a landslide. For a very long time afterward, Kentucky would be called the "detour state." Another opportunity missed.


Kentucky may not have been able to make the huge steps toward racial equality needed immediately after the Civil War, but early in the twentieth century the state still had a chance to take a progressive stance in race relations. It could have chosen to be, at least by comparison, a voice of moderation in a region rife with extremism. The test came in 1904. At that time, Berea College was the only integrated college in the entire South. Carl Day, a legislator from Breathitt County, accused Berea of contaminating the white race and proposed a bill banning integrated education. With the support of the state's highest education official, the General Assembly passed the so-called Day Law, and the governor signed it.

When the Day Law was challenged, the state's highest court upheld it, agreeing with a lower court that it was a blessing to Berea College. In 1908, the Supreme Court of the United States also upheld the Day Law. The only dissenter was a Kentuckian, Associate Justice John Marshall Harlan, who had once written that "Our Constitution is colorblind." He condemned the Day Law as the unconstitutional product of racial prejudice, but his lonely voice echoed without support in the halls of justice. Instead of becoming a model of moderation, Kentucky headed down the road of stricter segregation, at great cost to all its citizens.


In the 1920s, Louisville's National Bank of Kentucky, known as BancoKentucky, was the largest financial institution in the entire South. It was controlled by the flamboyant, self-made millionaire James B. Brown, a colorful and, according to some, a careless, even reckless businessman. Working at night and sleeping, vampire-like, during the day, he built up a powerful empire based on his interests in the media, politics, and banking. He also made many bad loans.

By the time the Great Depression hit in 1929, BancoKentucky was in trouble. After a doomed merger with an equally weak Tennessee firm, BancoKentucky failed in 1930 and took several smaller banks down with it. If Brown had been a better businessman, Kentucky might have become the financial center of the South. The state would have had more control over its economic destiny, and been less of a colonial economy.


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