In 2004, the Herald-Leader wrote a series of stories about how Lexington’s newspapers had not covered the city’s civil rights movement. The stories described the historic practice of numerous Southern papers that ignored protest in their own backyards because their leaders thought that by doing so, they could minimize the protesters’ impact or make them disappear altogether.
There was much material never before described in these pages that led to many other stories, such as the integration of Rupp Arena, Keeneland’s segregated bleachers, numerous Black students whose achievements were ignored, or the teenage Calvert McCann, whose many previously unpublished photographs documented so many important moments of the struggle here.
But naturally, there is always more to this story, and a reader recently pointed out an entry in the University of Kentucky’s Notable Kentucky African Americans database on Helen Caise Wade, the brave 16-year-old who integrated the Fayette County Public Schools when she attended summer school at Lafayette High School in 1955. The entry notes that the Lexington Herald, the morning paper, reported Caise’s entry, her parents and her home address.
It turned out that both the Herald and the Leader printed her home address in the stories they wrote about her entry at Lafayette. Wade, now 82, didn’t remember that her address was in the stories, but two other details stood out: Her father, John Caise, a well-respected plasterer, would not allow either paper to take Helen’s picture, and he slept outside in the car for several nights after summer school first started.
“My father would sit out in the car and guard our house but he never told me why,” she said. “He never told me why. I know we were never approached by the police department for protection.”
The Herald-Leader wishes to apologize to Mrs. Wade. Although hardly anyone who worked at the papers in 1955 is still alive, we think it’s important to recognize the harmful ways that the white power structure as represented in a newspaper did and still can harm marginalized communities.
Database founder and UK librarian Reinette Jones said newspapers frequently printed people’s addresses back then.
“So, the thing that bothers me is not only the published home address, but the articles gave a minor’s name and other personal information about her, along with her parents’ names and occupations,” Jones said. “There was a disregard and lack of caring on the part of the newspapers for the safety of this African American teenager and her family, regardless of whether that act was intentional or unintentional. It was left to the devices of the Caise family members to ensure that Helen would get to the school and back without being harmed.”
UK historian Gerald Smith, whose 2002 book on Black Lexington and research into Lexington’s civil rights protests in the 1960s guided the 2004 series, was more critical of the Herald and the Leader, which consolidated under corporate ownership in 1983.
“Yes, it was that malicious,” he said. “It was another form of intimidation.”
“The coverage from that time got it wrong, and it’s sickening to think of the effects that had on the lives of a brave teenager and her family in this community,” said current Herald-Leader Editor Peter Baniak. “Helen Caise Wade is an inspiration, for the barriers she broke, the resolve she showed and the countless lives she has touched through education in the many years since. After all this time, an apology seems woefully insufficient, but it is most certainly necessary.”
Systemic racism and fake outrage
It’s instructive to be reminded of moments like this, particularly because of a year of racial reckoning after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, along with more recent protests about critical race theory and questions of whether systemic racism existed in the past or today.
Mrs. Wade could set them straight in the much-told story of her life. She went to Lafayette because the segregated Black schools did not offer summer school. After she went to Lafayette, her father’s business was destroyed, with one client asking John Caise if he was related to Helen, then firing him. John Caise ended up moving to Erlanger to work. The family stayed in the house on Maryland Street, where Black families could live only in the five houses at the top of the street.
She got into UK for education, but said it was the worst experience of her life. “I was a history major and I ran into some of the most racist teachers that I’d ever met,” she said. “I didn’t realize people were like that.”
She transferred to Kentucky State University, the state’s only historically Black school, and got her teaching degree. She found a job in Cleveland, and taught there for 45 years before she retired back to Lexington. That’s where she met her husband, James Wade, who faced his own battles with systemic racism. He was also a teacher who worked night shifts at the post office — the only ones Black men could get there — to pay for law school at Case Western University. When his schedule forced him to miss some school work, one professor failed him and Wade dropped out. He taught school for the next 50 years.
This history is relevant today in the ongoing firestorm over critical race theory. So much of the legislation to ban CRT is so vaguely worded that it could effectively shut out stories like Wade’s because her life is a testament to the ways in which white people used systemic racism to marginalize Black people.
Wade’s story is also one of triumph over racism. She is now being honored with a new scholarship in her name at UK to help educate more Black teachers for today’s classrooms. But she hasn’t forgotten a thing.
“I used to say it’s unreal the way things are changing, but now it’s going backwards,” Wade said. “Now it’s about African American history and how they don’t want it discussed. It saddens me. I’m really saddened by what I see.”
A group of teachers from Lafayette High School have set up the Future Teachers of KY Honoring Helen Caise Wade at UK. To donate, go to https://gofund.me/37c0469e