“An Act to Prohibit White and Colored Persons from Attending the Same School” was introduced in the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1904 by Breathitt County Representative Carl Day. The intent of the legislation (which became known as the Day Law) was simple and sinister; it would prohibit interracial education in the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
The legislation was also simple in its aim – directly at Berea College – the only integrated college in Kentucky (and in the South) at the time. Berea College President William G. Frost and his wife Eleanor led a group that went to the state capital in Frankfort to protest the legislation.
Despite opposition from Berea College and others, the legislation passed the Kentucky House of Representatives. The State Senate then passed the legislation on March 11, 1904. The bill was signed into law by Governor J.C.W. Beckham the next day.
Berea College was criminally convicted of violating the Day Law and was fined $1,000. Berea’s Board of Trustees decided to immediately challenge the Day Law in court. However, the law was upheld at the circuit court level and then by the Kentucky Court of Appeals, which agreed with the General Assembly’s argument that the law would “prevent racial violence and interracial marriage.”
Berea College appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in 1908 the Court handed down an 8-1 decision against the College. Ironically, only Justice John Marshall Harlan (who was from Kentucky) dissented. Harlan believed that the law was unconstitutional under the “Due Process” clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and was a governmental intrusion into the private lives of citizens.
Nonetheless, the decision affirmed the legitimacy of the Commonwealth of Kentucky’s right to prohibit individuals and corporations from operating integrated schools. The decision in Berea College v. Commonwealth of Kentucky also expanded the Supreme Court’s 1896 opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson (with which Harlan also disagreed). The Plessy v. Ferguson decision upheld the constitutionality of state laws requiring racial segregation in public facilities under the “separate but equal” doctrine.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Berea College v. Commonwealth of Kentucky meant that states were able to prohibit integrated schooling in private institutions as well as in public schools. The Kentucky General Assembly amended the Day Law in 1950 to allow voluntary integration above the high school level, and William Ballew and Elizabeth Denney were the first African-American students to enroll at Berea College since the Day Law went into effect more than 45 years earlier. However, it was not until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1954 – the landmark Brown v. (Topeka, Kansas) Board of Education case – that racial segregation in schools was overturned. That same year, Jessie Reasor (Zander) became the first African-American graduate of Berea College in 50 years.
It should also be noted that in 1906 – even before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Berea in 1908 – the College sought ways to help African-American students seeking higher education. Matching a challenge grant of $200,000 from industrialist/philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, the College’s Board of Trustees purchased over 400 acres of land in Shelby County, Kentucky to build a college for African-American students disenfranchised by the Day Law. By the fall of 1912, the Lincoln Institute (named for President Abraham Lincoln) began to educate its first students.