Bahai News - Visit brings back memories of civil-rights struggle

Visit brings back memories of civil-rights struggle

Lennie Pendleton's house in Newburg was filled last week with memories of the 1960s civil-rights movement, and of friendships that knew no racial barriers.

The Pendleton clan reminisced with a visitor, Brigid "Birdie" McHugh Wendover, who in 1962 became the first white student to graduate from Central High School.

Some of the Pendletons went to Central when Wendover did. But they also knew her from the friendships of their mothers, who met through the civil-rights movement.

For a brief time, Wendover lived in the Pendleton household on 39th Street and watched the prejudice they endured as one of the few African-American families in the area at that time. "I can remember being showered with gravel when I walked home," said Bertha Pendleton Underwood, a younger sister of Lennie.

Wendover remembers her experience with school integration at Central as a positive one, however.

"I was treated the same as the other students, and I found the teachers and administrators were more interested in individual students than other schools I'd gone to," she said.

Wendover, 56, had moved to Louisville from Arizona as part of a white family that wanted to live in a black neighborhood to take a stand for integration.

At first, she attended duPont Manual High School. But when her family moved to the Southwick public-housing complex, going to Central made more sense.

"My mother and I asked permission for me to transfer, and after some trouble I was allowed to do so," Wendover recalled.

Wendover now lives in Toronto and is married to a Canadian. The couple have adopted two daughters, from India and Sri Lanka.

Wendover maintained some contact with various Pendletons over the years but hadn't seen 55-year-old Lennie Pendleton, a younger classmate, in about 35 years.

Then came an e-mail from Wendover, and a plan was made for her to come during the holidays.

"We're once again family," Lennie Pendleton said, beaming.

Wendover has been of the Baha'i faith since she was a child, a faith with an ethnically diverse membership that vigorously condemns prejudice. She works at the Baha'i national spiritual center in Toronto.

Baha'i was the faith of Wendover's mother, and mother and daughter also shared an early commitment to the civil-rights movement. That led Wendover into what she considered a natural placement at Central.

It was a time of marches, sit-ins and rallies, and Wendover had already been participating in civilrights demonstrations before she arrived at Central. "I already had friends there," she said.

A story in The Courier-Journal on March 14, 1961, that described black students marching on City Hall to end racial segregation at such establishments as restaurants and movie theaters also included an announcement by Atwood S. Wilson, then principal of Central.

He revealed that Miss Birdie McHugh, of 1629 S. 38th, had transferred two months earlier as the first white student admitted to all-black Central, then the largest school of its kind in Kentucky.

Wilson said in the article that some white students had applied in the past but had been rejected "because we felt they would be problems rather than assets."

The former McHugh, then a junior, was described as an A and B student with plans to attend Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn.

She was the first Central student to become a finalist in the National Merit Scholar competition, and she did go to Fisk, where she earned a bachelor's degree in history. The principal, a Fisk alumnus, and the PTA helped raise scholarship money for her when they heard she had been turned down by the National Fund for Negro Students because she was white.

Wendover was not familiar with the current controversy surrounding Central, which had been turning away some black students even though it had room for them in order to meet racial guidelines set by the school district. Parents filed a lawsuit, and a federal judge ordered that racial guidelines at Central be lifted and that court-ordered school desegregation cease.

Wendover chose not to comment on the case specifically but did say, "Central is an historically black high school, and people who go there should have a pride in that."

Several Pendleton siblings enjoyed the company of their old friend one morning last week as they gathered in Lennie Pendleton's kitchen.

They described the death of their mother, whom Wendover called "Mom," and their sister, Mary, who of all the siblings was closest to Wendover. Like Wendover, Mary was of the Baha'i faith.

The late Mary Pendleton's daughter, Donna Martin, 35, had only vague memories of her mother's friend, whom she knew as Birdie.

"It was a pleasure to become acquainted" during the recent visit, she said. "My mother and Birdie really took stands, and they are an example to me. I think Birdie continues to bring about unity - look at the children she has adopted - by opening her heart to people of different races. I hope my relationship with her continues through my life."

In 1962, Brigid "Birdie" McHugh, shown with then-principal Atwood S. Wilson, became the first white to graduate from Central High.

©Copyright 2001, The Courier-Journal Louisville, KY

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