Bellarmine University’s historic place in the vanguard of the civil rights movement is important for all of us to know and to remember.
In the first place, Bellarmine opened its doors to Black students in 1950—the very same year it opened its doors to anyone at all.
The year Bellarmine opened was also the year that state law was amended to make interracial education legal—not legally required, mind you, but legally allowed.
The 1904 Day Law prohibited Black and white students from being educated together in public or private school at any level. In 1950, an amendment to that law allowed Black students to attend colleges that offered courses not available at the all-black Kentucky State College for Negroes in Frankfort.
That year, three Black students were among the 112 students who entered the new Bellarmine College.
Fr. Alfred F. Horrigan, the founding president of Bellarmine, along with the presidents of Nazareth (now Spalding) and Ursuline colleges, announced in The Courier-Journal that Black students would be accepted in all their classes. They added:
“The doctrines of the Fatherhood of God and the consequent brotherhood of all men must be given unqualified expression in these days of universal crisis if the values we cherish are to remain a significant factor in the world of affairs. We also wish to affirm our faith in the principle of Christian social philosophy that all human rights derive from man’s spiritual nature and his supernatural destiny as a child of God. When the right to intellectual and spiritual development which is the proper concern of higher education is curtailed by the physical accident of race, there is implicit in such curtailment a materialistic philosophy of life which is intolerable in a Christian and democratic society.”
“We can no longer tolerate the exclusion of any American, regardless of the color of his skin, from full and unhampered participation in the economic, political and educational life of our country.”
The year those words appeared in the newspaper, Louisville was a thoroughly segregated city:
Public parks were segregated.
Public transportation was segregated.
Theaters, restaurants, stores, swimming pools—even water fountains—were segregated.
In fact, a decade later, in 1960, they were still segregated, and a proposed city ordinance that year to open public accommodations to all human beings regardless of skin color was defeated by the Board of Aldermen by a vote of 11 to one.
It was not until 1961—when Martin Luther King Jr. arrived in the city, on a day after more than 50 sit-ins were staged at downtown businesses—that the civil rights movement got fully and powerfully underway in Louisville.
A large advertisement appeared in the Louisville Times, headed “FOR INTEGRATION.” The ad called for “the immediate desegregation of public accommodations.” The Bellarmine College Faculty Association and the Bellarmine College Student Government were among the signers and sponsors of that advertisement.
Also in 1961, Bellarmine hired a Black Baptist chemistry professor, Dr. Henry S. Wilson, who would become the university’s first full professor before his retirement in 1967.
In 1962, Msgr. Horrigan told the Louisville Rotary Club, “We can no longer tolerate the exclusion of any American, regardless of the color of his skin, from full and unhampered participation in the economic, political and educational life of our country.”
In 1964, King led a march on the state capital. Msgr. Horrigan gave Bellarmine faculty and students permission to miss class to attend the march, and many did so.
Also that year, 35 Bellarmine faculty members signed a letter to Kentucky’s congressional delegation urging members to support the federal Civil Rights Bill. Three Bellarmine students traveled with a Bellarmine philosophy professor to Mississippi to renovate community centers for Black people and encourage them to vote.
In 1965, Louisville Mayor Bill Cowger appointed Msgr. Horrigan chairman of the Louisville Commission on Human Rights, and Fr. John Loftus, academic dean, joined about 50 other Louisvillians for the final two days of the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The Rev. C.T. Vivian, one of the organizers of that march, spoke on Bellarmine’s campus.
In 1966, the Kentucky Civil Rights Act was finally passed—a full 16 years after three Black students entered the new Bellarmine College.
After leaving Bellarmine, Msgr. Horrigan served as executive director of the Archdiocesan Commission on Peace and Justice and co-founded the Council of Peacemaking. He was inducted into the Kentucky Civil Rights Hall of Fame in 2003.
In 2020, we celebrate our entering first-year class, which with 22 percent students of color is the most diverse in our history, and we recognize and embrace the fact that our history compels us once again to be leaders in the ongoing fight for equity.—Dr. Paul M. Pearson, director and archivist of the Thomas Merton Center