Past, present and future, Kentucky State University is intent on providing opportunity and access to all students. Though it has changed presidents, names and educational philosophies over its more than 120-year history, it has remained true to its mission.
KSU started out Oct. 15, 1885, as an idea. A conference was called for leaders in Kentucky to discuss issues critical to the social welfare of America and the state. The Commonwealth needed more normal schools to train African American teachers for the African American elementary schools.
The subcommittee charged with investigating the issue and devising a plan of action proposed creating a State Normal School for Colored Persons. It submitted a resolution to the General Assembly in the spring of 1886 and the legislators authorized the school’s creation May 18, 1886. They also pledged biennial contributions of $3,000 for operating expenses and $7,000 for classroom construction.
Many schools began as normal schools back then for the sole purpose of training teachers. At that time, students enrolled in a two- to three-year program that focused on training teachers, after which they would earn their teaching certificates.
Though several cities submitted bids to be the site of the state-funded normal school for African Americans, Frankfort offered the best package – a monetary incentive and a parcel of land where the school could be built.
When it opened Oct. 11, 1887, the school had limited resources and sparse attendance. In the first term, the school had three teachers, 55 students and one building – Jackson Hall.
Almost immediately after opening, the normal school added a high school. The students coming to the normal school came from parts that only had school available to them through eighth grade. They could come and earn the high school requirements and then continue on to earn their teaching certificate.
In 1929, President Rufus Atwood closed down the high school because it was a financial drain and by then most students had access to high school. Atwood used the money to improve the college.
Atwood was an influential figure for the sole reason that he served for 33 years. Frankfort was a political town. Often the president would be removed when a new governor or legislature came to power and then reseated when that administration was voted out.
Atwood registered as an independent and tried to maintain a neutral front, avoiding political battles and instead focused solely on improving the school. He began the first modern yearbook, the first student newspaper and gained accreditation for the school.
Atwood, who had no children of his own, treated his students as his children, acting as a father figure and administrator. He also positioned the university for change, including integration, and expansion.
Atwood left in 1962 and the first white student who went on to graduate began at the college in 1960.
As the university began to grow and change, so did its moniker. The school was renamed several times in its 120 year history, starting with the State Normal School for Colored Persons in 1886, when it opened. In 1902, the name changed to the Kentucky Normal and Industrial Institute for Colored Persons, in keeping with the school’s new teaching philosophy.
Taking its cue from Booker T. Washington, the school began focusing less on its liberal arts roots and offering more manual and industrial training for its students when it took advantage of the 1890 Morrill Land Grant Act. That move helped the school acquire additional money and property and more political and economic support from whites who favored the Hampton-Tuskegee Industrial Education Philosophy.
Washington publicly promoted and implemented an educational philosophy at Tuskegee Institute that African Americans should develop their place in the South by working hard at skilled trades in agriculture and industry.
School president John Henry Jackson said producing skilled mechanics, agriculturalists and females trained in domestic economics would maintain and improve the “moral and intellectual well-being of each community.”
The school became the Kentucky State Industrial College for Colored Persons in 1926. But in 1938, the school began to focus again on offering a more traditional, liberal arts education and changed its name to the Kentucky State College for Negroes. It was fully accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in 1939.
In 1952, the name became simply Kentucky State College. In 1972, it became Kentucky State University and began offering graduate degrees – master’s of public affairs – in January 1973.
Over 122 years, the school has changed from an institution that focused solely on training teachers to one that looked more like a comprehensive university with a variety of majors students can choose from, Butler said.
Though the school has maintained its liberal arts roots, it also offers training in professional fields such as nursing and public administration.
The school also has changed in terms of its population. The faculty, staff and students are a diverse mix, making KSU the most diverse public institution in the Commonwealth.
Technology has allowed the school to reach out to even more people, including the newly approved master’s of special education program, which is completely an online curriculum and will allow students throughout the national and world earn their degree from Kentucky State University.
The university also was called to find a way to collect and preserve Kentucky African American history, including university history and contributions African Americans made throughout the commonwealth. Thus the Center of Excellence for the Study of Kentucky African Americans was born.
Other unique programs for the university are the aquaculture program, KSU’s program of distinction, and the governmental services center, which enables the university to contribute to the training of state workers.
However, it is the sense of community, of family, that sets the university apart for alumni. It began as a special relationship between the faculty and students in the school’s early days because classes were so small. But the school kept that atmosphere as it grew. Many alumni still refer to the university as “mother” because of the foundation it provided them in their formative years.