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This article appears in the January 2011 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.

The Rev. Kevin Cosby moves amid a roomful of large framed photographs, one after another displaying images of erudite black Louisvillians from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He shakes his head and wonders why he hadn’t known more about these determined men and women staring seriously at the camera.

When Cosby discovered the photos, soon after he was named president of Simmons College of Kentucky in 2005 and while digging into the institution’s past at the University of Louisville Photo Archives, he took note of one in particular. “Oh my gosh,” he said, pointing to a well-dressed black man in a ministerial alliance group photo from 1922, “that’s my grandfather.”

Today several of those images, reprinted and framed, hang in a handsome second-floor great room on the Simmons campus at Seventh and Kentucky streets in the city’s Limerick neighborhood. They’re so prominent and full of life, it seems hard to imagine not knowing the story they tell — about how a generation of African-Americans, barely removed from the Civil War experience, with hardly an idea of what formal education entailed, carved out a system of their own and for their own. A Herculean effort envisioned and enacted across the South by the sort of proud people in the photographs.

Yet it’s true. Though the first generation of freed slaves, Harriett Beecher Stowe wrote, valued “books over bread,” Cosby says that recent generations’ collective shame over being treated as second-class citizens has led African-Americans to block out glorious, innovative parts of their culture’s past.

It’s a rainy Tuesday, just after Thanksgiving, and I’m meeting Cosby to discuss a new agreement between Simmons and the University of Louisville — called the Signature Partnership Educational Achievement Collaborative, which went into effect last fall — that could ultimately return the small bible college to its historic roots as a full-fledged liberal-arts college.

Currently, says Cosby, prominently known as the pastor of St. Stephen Baptist Church, the memorandum of understanding he and U of L president James Ramsey signed last April allows for co-registration — U of L-vetted courses taught on the Simmons campus by Simmons, and in some cases U of L, faculty. The ultimate goal is to reach a full “articulation” agreement, wherein U of L would wholly accept as many as 64 hours of general-education course credits from Simmons toward a U of L bachelor’s degree. Cosby sees a day not far off when a Simmons student with enough co-registered credit hours can transfer to U of L as a bona fide junior.

Two co-registration courses — entry-level psychology and geoscience — were offered during the semester that just ended, with three available this semester (psychology, African-American history and world civilization). “We’re looking forward to seeing who’ll be the first Simmons student to go on and earn a U of L degree,” says Brian Wells, Simmons’ vice president of academic affairs (and also pastor of Westwood Presbyterian Church).

*****

As I compose this story, the Forum section of Sunday’s Courier-Journal carries yet another imploring essay about Louisville’s subpar educational attainment and the latest plan to address the crisis. Soon to follow will be a news feature on the subject. You’ve heard it more than once: Having too few college-educated folks places the city at an economic disadvantage, particularly compared to the list of cities we consider competitors. The Greater Louisville Project, which studied how Louisville compares to a list of similar-sized cities, lists education as its deepest “driver of change.”

The numbers are stark. The project compared Louisville to 14 peer cities and found that, as of 2008, 30.4 percent of white Louisvillians age 25 or older had earned a bachelor’s degree. That ranks the city 13th of 15. Divided by race, it’s worse: 14 percent of Louisville’s comparable African-American population have earned degrees, ranking us ahead of only Kansas City (13.6 percent) and far behind Raleigh, N.C. (26.94 percent).

Louisville’s latest effort to turn that tide is called 55,000 Degrees. By adding that number of college degrees (40,000 bachelor’s, 15,000 associate’s) to the city’s current number, the thinking goes, the city will get to the 50-percent mark by 2020. Take that, K.C. Look out, Raleigh.

Louisville’s African-American community figures prominently into this equation. Benjamin Richmond, president and CEO of the Urban League and part of a group of African-American leaders involved in the 55,000 Degrees initiative, says the group projects that African-Americans should account for 15,000 of those degrees (12,000 bachelor’s, 3,000 associate’s).

“That’s a huge commitment,” Cosby says, and Simmons is a key component of that commitment. As Cosby emphasizes, each of the surveyed cities with the highest percentage of college-educated black citizens has at least one HBCU — historically black college or university, defined as an institution of higher learning established before 1964 to serve the black community. Raleigh has two HBCUs, plus one in nearby Durham; number two Charlotte (23.35 percent) has one HBCU; number three Nashville (21.86 percent) has three; and Number four Greensboro, N.C. (21.83 percent), has two.

Louisville had an African-American school of such stature — Simmons University — but its successor has been considered a “deactivated” HBCU that is now completing a process of reactivation. The diminishment of Simmons occurred through a complicated set of circumstances at the advent of the Great Depression, when it dropped its liberal-arts curriculum and moved 11 blocks west to become strictly a bible college. For more than 70 years, before a recent return to Seventh and Kentucky, Simmons lived in a sort of exile, unable to educate students outside of that realm.

*****

Simmons traces its origins to August 1865, when the General Association of Colored Baptists of Kentucky voted to establish a college for African-Americans in Kentucky. In 1879, after further planning and years of fund-raising, the Kentucky Normal and Theological Institute opened at Seventh and Hill streets in Louisville. A year later, the Rev. William J. Simmons, a former slave and Howard University-educated minister, became president and helped develop elementary, secondary, teacher-training and religious education programs. A college department was added in 1885 and the school was renamed State University. By 1900, the private enterprise was training nurses, doctors and lawyers, providing professionals to serve the black community in a segregated city.

“On its own initiation, the freed race began to found schools — to found them in their ignorance,” writes B.F. Riley in his book The Life and Times of Booker T. Washington. “It was a racial groundswell. About five percent of the emancipated people could read and write, and these were not slow to inject the spirit into the rest of their people, and by the time that the states were ready to inaugurate a system of schools, no class was more responsive than the late slaves. Some of the former slaves who had heard of colleges and universities, but had never seen either, aspired to found such for their people. The most remarkable instance occurred at Louisville, Kentucky, where a group of ex-slaves . . . bearing the marks of slavery on their bodies, and simply knowing that a university meant a place of learning, took steps to begin a school which gradually developed into the State University of Kentucky ...”

Blaine Hudson, dean of U of L’s College of Arts and Sciences, notes that the school’s approach was unique — black colleges of the day tended to follow the Booker T. Washington model, which focused on industrial arts training (hence the preponderance of still-extant A&Is and A&Ts and the like). State University (renamed in honor of Simmons in 1918) was a religious institution also committed to liberal-arts education, meaning it “received neither public funds nor private support from white philanthropic organizations that sustained ‘industrial education’ schools such as Tuskegee or Hampton Institute,” Hudson writes in the Simmons entry of The Encyclopedia of Louisville.

In other words, by going against the educational grain of the day, the school paid a price. Despite occasional high points in the first two decades of the 20th century — when Cosby’s grandfather earned his bachelor’s degree in math and algebra (and would be among the first four African-Americans to earn advanced degrees from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) — Simmons found itself insolvent by the onset of the Great Depression in 1929.

While Simmons was thriving, education-wise if not in its pocketbook, municipally funded U of L was looking to grow larger, and in 1920 it attempted to float bonds through a referendum to purchase more property. But the city’s African-American leadership, frustrated by U of L’s failure to make provisions for African-American education, helped defeat the bond issue — a historic feat, Hudson says, the first application of black political power through the vote after Reconstruction.

“Because African-Americans in Louisville had the right to vote, it gave them leverage other blacks (throughout the Southern states) didn’t have,” he says. “It was a breakthrough for that period.”

In 1925 U of L revived the bond issue with promises to commit 10 percent, or $100,000, to African-American education. This time supported by Louisville’s black power structure and voters, the referendum passed. A subsequent agreement led, in 1931, to the formation of Louisville Municipal College — the segregated African-American arm of U of L.

Because Simmons was in sorry financial shape, U of L president Raymond Kent offered a take-it-or-leave-it deal it could not refuse: U of L would buy Simmons’ holdings at Seventh and Kentucky — a place Kent had once called a “poor excuse for a college” — and locate Municipal College there. In exchange, Simmons would relocate and relinquish its liberal-arts curriculum.

And that’s how we got where we are today.

*****

Metroversity is a consortium of seven higher-education institutions in the Louisville area, and one of its key tenets involves the ability of students to mix and match coursework from member schools. But some prospective college students aren’t quite ready for that level, often because of finances or grades, and the Urban League’s Richmond notes that Simmons is an attractive option on both counts. Tuition is more affordable at $125 per credit hour, and students can earn GEDs as well as take remedial courses that qualify them for college-level classes.

Simmons’ current enrollment, around 100 students, figures to grow quickly now that it has received provisional accreditation from the Association of Biblical Higher Education (ABHE). The designation qualifies Simmons for financial aid from the U.S. Department of Education. That arrangement took effect this month.

“Pell grants represent the largest percentage of federal dollars on every college and university campus,” Wells says. “It is major — up to 70 percent of many schools’ budgets. Schools like Simmons that have pre-accreditation status with small student bodies have seen up to 300 percent enrollment increases as a result. In our assessments, the number-one reason why people are not attending school has to do with finances.”

Whereas the Simmons student body has consisted largely of non-traditional students, Cosby says, he expects that under the new arrangement the school will be seeing many more students right out of high school.

Stephanie Fry of ABHE says reaching candidate status is significant — applicants often fall out during that process. Simmons is on track to host an evaluation team in 2013 and go before a review committee in February 2014. “By the time an institution gets to the (review stage), 99 percent show a strong readiness for (accreditation),” Fry adds.

Once Simmons finishes up its accreditation process with ABHE, Cosby says, it will pursue accreditation with the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), the larger agency through which U of L is accredited.

U of L assistant provost and SACS coordinator Connie Shumake sees the partnership developing in phases. The first, which is under way, is the ad hoc agreement that includes co-registration and allows Simmons students access to U of L services such as libraries, electronic course management and academic advising. The next phase, a much steeper climb, is articulation, which would ultimately mean general-education courses taught at Simmons would transfer to U of L, a la Metroversity. The long-term goal is for Simmons students not working toward a religious-studies degree to earn associate’s degrees and matriculate to U of L (or similar institutions) for a bachelor’s.

As the head of U of L’s largest department, Hudson has been involved in helping lay out what needs to happen to get Simmons up to speed. An overriding issue — aside from underperforming students and maintaining up-to-snuff faculty — is ensuring that the curriculum is legitimate.

“I’m aware of the risks and difficulties,” says U of L vice provost Dale Billingsley. “It’s not an easy project to undertake. . . . It’s uncharted territory. The vision is clearly there — the presidents have laid those out. It’s our job to work through the 87,000 details. One thing we have grappled with is how to structure a partnership agreement where we don’t overwhelm Simmons. There are issues of scale — we are 20,000 students-plus.”

Ramsey, in an interview, said Simmons is uniquely qualified to help reconnect the black community to higher education, and noted the partnership lines up with another U of L initiative, a multifaceted effort to improve the educational, health, economic and social status of individuals and families living in west Louisville.

Mayor Greg Fischer told me he envisions an expansive university culture that ties downtown to U of L and creates a critical mass of student life. U of L, Spalding University and Jefferson Community and Technical College are growing downtown, he said, and with more students on the streets, he believes development will follow suit.

“Simmons is a big piece of that puzzle,” Fischer says. “A city like ours should have a prominent HBCU. The whole pipeline from west Louisville to U of L is a natural conduit in creating a college-going culture. They once played that role, and they can play it again.”

*****

Cosby sits on the U of L Board of Trustees and was pleasantly surprised when Ramsey was receptive to discussing an enhanced relationship between their respective institutions. Both say it makes perfect sense given the numerous historical ties, but Cosby isn’t sure Ramsey fully grasps the profundity of the situation.

The 1931 decision by a disdainful Raymond Kent, which pushed Simmons into exile, left lasting damage, Cosby says, because it cut off Louisville’s black community from its most important aspirational stories. About Kent’s “poor excuse for a college” quote, Cosby says, “What Kent should have said is, ‘We have a poor excuse for a democracy.’ What Dr. Ramsey and U of L have done,” he says, “is simply reverse the policies of Raymond Kent.” 

As such, Cosby sees the burgeoning partnership with U of L, as well as similar ongoing discussions with JCTC, as the black community taking charge of its own fate, as it were, as well as fully participating in Louisville’s larger effort to raise its educational attainment across the board, including seeing students graduate from college rather than enter and drop out.

Across the street from Simmons sits College Court, a small public-housing complex. “Ask the average (neighborhood) kid why it’s there,” Cosby says, “and they don’t know. I tell them it’s because it’s across from one of the premier black colleges in America.”

He also tells them that a matter of blocks away on Seventh Street sits the courthouse. “Which means on Seventh, you have two institutions,” Cosby says. “You have a college, and a court, and your name is College Court. So you have to decide which one is gonna define you. You can walk across the street and come to college, or you won’t have the tools to get a job, so you are probably gonna end up down on Seventh Street in the court.”

Cosby turns his focus to black aspiration then and now: Then, the resolve depicted in the photos on the wall. Now, rappers and ballers and gangstas, glorified and promoted by “media, music and movies,” which Cosby calls the “modern KKK.”

He then gets esoteric and invokes the original Planet of the Apes movie from 1968: “I went to the ‘Forbidden Zone.’ You weren’t supposed to go there. At the beginning of the movie you thought it was gases or radiation. But what Charlton Heston discovered was the Statue of Liberty submerged, and it hit him — it’s not the planet of the apes; it’s the planet of the humans. What they did not want him to discover is that these people acting like primates — with their pants hanging down and gold grills and not functioning in school — have not always been like this.”

The Simmons story, he says, “is the greatest myth-buster about black capacity that you could find. Simmons knew it. He said education was the ‘means and manner of a man’s elevation.’ There needs to be a recognition that what these people did was magnificent.

“Simmons is an important institution that was not there (through several previous decades) but now is. It can offer the community what it has not had for a while — an indigenous institution that’s an important part of the community, providing access to degree opportunities and to educational funds. That’s never been done before.”       

Photos: Black and white courtesy of Simmons College, color John Nation

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