"IF YOU GO THERE ... IT WILL HAPPEN AGAIN": The Historical Legacies of Racism, Law Enforcement and Educational Inequality in Covington, Kentucky.
"Where I was before I came here, that place is real. It's never going away. Even if the whole farm--every tree and grass blade of it dies. The picture is still there and what's more, if you go there--you who never was there--if you go there and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again; it will be there for you, waiting for you." --Toni Morrison, Beloved
In this article, inspired by Toni Morrison's evocative description of places that are "never going away" and events that "will happen again," I explore the historical legacies of racism, law enforcement, and educational inequality in Covington, Kentucky. I argue that these legacies can best be understood by juxtaposing and then reading across historical moments that share a geographic location. After establishing that Covington's police force, like so many in the Kentucky (Smith 2012), was likely founded to surveil and contain enslaved Black people in the Antebellum period, I demonstrate that Covington public schools were created and maintained as racially separate and deeply unequal institutions for over a century. I then examine two historical moments united by their Covington locale but separated by nearly fifty years: first, I analyze newspaper accounts of 1970 Black student protests and the white resistance these protests inspired; then, I analyze a 2014 lawsuit brought against a Covington school resource officer, who (the court found) used excessive force against an eight-year-old Latino boy and a nine-year-old Black girl.
Ultimately, I find similarities in how children and families of color were portrayed by Covington school officials and law enforcement leaders in both accounts. Their actions, their words, and their very existence, were perceived and portrayed as threatening and violent. White violence, in turn, was explained and excused as precautionary, disciplinary--a safety measure. I argue that these discursive representations, and the very real consequences these representations have had for Black and Brown students, are manifestations of Covington's long legacy of "unresolved social violence" against Black and Brown people (Gordon 1997). I conclude my paper by proposing a methodology for reading history that explicitly seeks these legacies so that they might be disrupted.
Avery Gordon (1997) suggests that we conceptualize historical legacies as ghosts that haunt our current social worlds. She acknowledges that ghosts may seem like "an unusual topic of inquiry" for sociologists who typically study the fabric of "living social reality" (1997). However, Gordon believes that the ghost is an important "social figure." The ghost is a "seething presence, acting on and often meddling in our taken-for-granted realities." It is the unpredictable announcement of the intangible into the material world, "an animated state in which a repressed or unresolved social violence" makes itself known. Christina Sharpe explores a related construct in her recent book In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. For Sharpe, Black people live in the "wake" of enslavement, continuously subjected to an "endlessly reinvigorated brutality" (2016, 15). Sharpe argues that "slavery's continued unfolding is constitutive of the contemporary conditions of spatial, legal, psychic, and material dimensions of Black non/being" (20). Finally, Eve Tuck and C. Ree theorize in "A Glossary of Haunting" that "haunting," which they define as "relentless remembering" is "the cost of subjugation" (2013, 642). The United States is "permanently haunted by... slavery, genocide, and violence" (642). Haunting wants not to right wrongs, she says, but to "wrong the wrongs" that are foundational to this country, to make visible the legacies of pain and trauma our stubbornly ahistorical nation has tried to erase in its insistence on American exceptionalism (643).
It is not a coincidence that all these scholars are inspired by Toni Morrison in their theorizing of ghostly pasts and haunted presents. Morrison's novel Beloved is a literary study of the aftermath of enslavement in the lives of former slaves and their families. With Gordon, Sharpe, and Tuck and Ree, I am drawn to Morrison's book because of its aesthetic rendering of the embodied presence of the past; at the same time, I am struck by the fact that the novel is inspired by the story of Margaret Garner, an enslaved woman who escaped briefly to Cincinnati before being recaptured by marshals from Covington. As the marshals burst into the house where Garner and her children were hiding, Garner killed one of her children. Beloved imagines a life for Garner (named Sethe in the book) in which the ghost of the murdered child returns to her mother. More than a metaphor, the book renders the material reality of the past in the lives of human beings who were subject to enslavement.
Sethe recognizes the power of the past even before the ghost of her dead child comes to haunt her. Talking to her surviving daughter Denver about the slave plantation in Kentucky, Sethe says, "if you go there and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again; it will be there for you, waiting for you" (Morrison 1988, 36). Sethe is terrified that Denver will be victimized in the way that she was, understanding that the legal abolition of slavery has not led to a social reality in which Black bodies are safe from white violence. They are instead continuously subject to what Frank X. Wilderson has called gratuitous violence, that is, violence that can and will be done without prior justification or reasoning (2017, 15). Sethe knows that the plantation "is never going away" even if the farm itself is destroyed, even though slavery is abolished (Morrison 1988, 36). If Denver goes there, it will happen again. It will happen to her.
I agree with Sethe; when we return, as we all must, to "the place where it was, it will happen again," unless we actively seek to disrupt historical patterns. None of us can avoid walking into spaces that are built on legacies of African enslavement, given our country's history. But the ways in which these legacies manifest--the particular ghosts that haunt, and how--vary from place to place. In Covington, the historical legacies of racism, law enforcement, and educational inequity date back to the turn of the 19th century, when the city was founded.
THE HISTORY OF THE POLICE IN COVINGTON, KENTUCKY
The Kentucky General Assembly formally incorporated the municipality of Covington in 1815 (Walton 2010, 19). From its inception, Covington was defined by its location on the banks of the Ohio River. Cincinnati, just across the river in a free state, was an abolitionist hub. To the south, east, and west, however, Covington was flanked by slave-owning plantations. As a result, Covington was in "an ambiguous position" relative to enslavement, especially as it became home to an increasing population of German immigrants, many of whom vocally opposed slavery (Walton 2010, 14). Moreover, free Black people--some of whom purchased their freedom, others who were "gifted" their freedom by slave-owners for various reasons--lived in Covington in growing numbers throughout the first half of the 19th century (Walton 2010, 15). Covington's "ambiguous position" was thus defined by its diverse population of white slave-owners, enslaved Black people, free Black people, and white abolitionists, and by its location across the river from Cincinnati, an important station on the Underground Railroad.
According to the official website of the City of Covington, the history of the police force in Covington began in January 1817, when "Jacob Hardin [was] appointed to the position of 'Captain of Patrol' for the Town of Covington. Two 'Patrollers' were commissioned to work for the Captain. The patrol area included the Town and eight miles of surrounding territory" ("Police Department History" 2018). The "patrol" referenced in this description is almost certainly a slave patrol, that is, a group of white men hired to ensure the continued containment of enslaved Black people. As historian Gerald Smith points out, the role of the slave patrols was to
protect and serve in both rural and urban environments. Given Kentucky's geographic location, defenders of slavery relied on the work of patrols throughout the state. As the antislavery movement garnered nationwide momentum, it became necessary to closely monitor slave activities. (Smith 2012, 80)
A Kentucky law ratified in 1799 described slave patrols as companies of no more than four men, including one captain. According to the statute, it was the job of patrollers to "visit negro [sic] quarters and other suspected places of unlawful assemblies of slaves" (Brown & Morehead 1834, 1257). For any enslaved person found "at such assembly" or "strolling about from one plantation to another, without a pass from his or her master, mistress, or overseer," the patroller had the discretion to lash the enslaved person on their "bare back" (1257). Thus, the foundation of the police force in Covington, as indicated by the city's official website, was grounded in the violent regulation of Black bodies.
This official history of the Covington police contains other hints of its legacies of violence. For instance, the website prominently features City Marshal Clinton Butts, whose racist tendencies are documented in other texts. According to the police department website, in May 1856, Butts was "assaulted by members of the Turners Society," an organization of German immigrants founded on the principles of freedom and democracy. The website states that the Turners were "armed with a multitude of weapons" and marching through the streets when they "refused the Marshall's orders to stop" ("Police Department History" 2018). However, historian Paul Tenkotte refutes this version of events. He claims that Butts was a member of the Know-Nothings, an anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic political party that was powerful in Covington at the time (Burke 2015). The Know-Nothing Party despised the Turners. On Pentecost Monday in 1856, members of the Turners marched to a picnic spot in Covington, where they were harassed by boys who "mocked them for their German ancestry and threw rocks at them" (Burke 2015). Though the Turners ignored the boys, they were approached by someone else who started a fight later, and Marshall Butts was called to the scene. He was shot in the ensuring fracas, and ultimately, several Turners were arrested. However, in court, the Turners were found to be innocent of any wrong-doing. Tenkotte explains: "Since Clinton Butts was called in and he hated the Turners, he hated Germans, he hated immigrants, and he declared it a riot, so things quickly get out of hand when in fact the Germans had done nothing wrong" (Burke 2015). Although Butts is portrayed as a relatively innocent victim of Turner violence on the Covington website, in fact, his own prejudices contributed to the incident's escalation.
Butts also played a key role in re-capturing Margaret Garner, the fugitive slave who became the inspiration for Toni Morrison's Beloved. In Who Speaks for Margaret Garner?, the historian Mark Reinhardt depicts Garner's capture: "... the door was broken, and [Garner's husband] fired two or three shots at the intruder... Clinton Butts, the present well-known Marshal of Covington" (2010, 239). The historian Steven Weisenburger presents a similar narrative. He suggests that Archibald Gaines, who enslaved Garner, realized rather quickly that she and her family had escaped. He and several other men reported the escape to "Marshal Clinton Butts, who gathered two deputies" and decided to pursue the Garners. Ultimately, "an armed posse of eleven men," including the three marshals from Covington, surrounded the house in which the Garners were hiding. Two of the men--Butts and his deputy Robinson--ultimately decided to "force an entrance" (Weisenburger 1999, 65). Both Reinhardt and Weisenburger cite local newspapers, including the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Covington Journal, and the Cincinnati Gazette, as the sources they relied on to piece together their versions of Garner's capture and Butts' role in it. This man, lauded on the Covington city website as the first chief of police, was almost certainly the man responsible for Margaret Garner's violent return to enslavement.
A LONG LEGACY OF SEPARATE & UNEQUAL SCHOOLS
The long legacy of racism in Covington extends beyond the police force. Just as the Covington police force was founded on maintaining slavery, the schools were founded on denying equal educational opportunities to free Black people after the Civil War. The first common school for white students in Covington was established in 1850 (before this, various private schools also existed). Although there was never a law forbidding the education of enslaved people or free Black people in Kentucky, "it was not widely encouraged; the schools were subject to being broken up, by Whites who opposed educating Negros" (Walton 2010, 32). In Northern Kentucky, there may have been secret schools for Black people. There is also evidence that some free Black people regularly crossed the Ohio River into Cincinnati to attend school (Walton 2010, 32).
After the Civil War, the Freedman's Bureau supported local efforts by two Black churches to establish schools. However, from the inception of these two schools, city officials were reluctant to support them. In fact, although the state charter called for taxes collected from Black people to fund Black schools, in Covington the taxes collected from Black people were contributed only to the white schools (Walton 2010, 38). After years of protest, Black people were finally able to convince the Board to contribute the relatively small sum of 200 dollars per year to Black schools. The early white resistance to supporting Black education was indicative of a trend that would continue for nearly a century. However, even in the face of these considerable obstacles, Black people found ways to continually strategize for increased funding for their schools.
After Black men were granted the right to vote in 1870, for example, local Black leaders began to consider how to leverage their political power. Eventually, they made an agreement with a white man running for city council: Black men would vote for him if he promised to revise the city charter to include a formal allocation of funds to Black schools. The politician was elected, and in 1876, the city charter was amended to include provisions for Black schools (Walton 2010, 50-52). However, funding was never equal, and the curriculum offered at Black schools was much more practical and domestic than the academic curriculum offered at the white schools. Still, the efforts by Black leaders led to a strong tradition of high-quality education for Black people in Covington, even in the midst of unequal resource allocation.
Careful political maneuvering on the part of Black leaders continued to play a large role in improving the educational facilities for Black schools throughout the first half of the 20th century. For instance, by the late 1920s, the popular Seventh Street School had become overcrowded, and the building itself was old and decrepit (Walton 2010, 138). Black school leaders used the discomfort the presence of Black children caused among the white populace because of the school's location in the bustling, primarily white downtown area, to make their case for a new larger building in another location (145). Their strategy worked. Although the construction was delayed for various reasons--primarily related to the Board of Education's continued filibustering of funding allocations--ultimately, the building was completed by the middle of 1931. The Lincoln-Grant school, housing both elementary and secondary students, officially opened in 1932 (152).
For the next few decades, the Lincoln-Grant school enjoyed a reputation as one of the best Black high schools in the region, and perhaps even in the whole South (Walton 2010, 139). Its faculty, many of whom were alumni of the school, graduated from well-known Black colleges, including Fisk University and the Tuskegee Institute. Many went on to receive graduate degrees from the University of Cincinnati, Miami University of Ohio, and other local colleges (139). In the 1940s, the Lincoln Grant School was one of 17 high schools selected by the Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools for Negroes to participate in the "Secondary School Study," a study based around the Eight-Year Study completed by white high schools several years prior. The organizers of the study selected what they considered to be some of the top-performing, most innovative Black high schools in the country (Kridel 2018).
When the Brown v. Board of Education decision was handed down in 1954, Covington had an established tradition of separate and successful white and Black schools. However, the schools were never equal: one former student recalled, in an emblematic example, that girls at Lincoln Grant were forced to wash the uniforms for white football players from Holmes High School as part of their "domestic sciences" class (Kridel 2018). In spite of these inequalities, Joseph M. Walton, a historian who graduated from the Lincoln Grant School in 1958, says that many of his classmates chose not to integrate when give the opportunity to do so. In the late 1950s, he explains, students at Lincoln Grant were offered "optional, voluntary attendance at Holmes or Grant," and most students chose to remain at Grant. He explains that this was primarily because of the "overwhelming racial harassment" faced by the few Black students who attempted to integrate at the high school during that time, most of whom ended up returning to Grant to finish their schooling after only a few short weeks at the high school (Walton 2010, 281).
In 1965, over a decade after Brown v. Board, the Black high school finally closed due to lack of enrollment, although the elementary school housed in the Lincoln Grant building remained open for another ten years as an integrated K-6 school (Walton 2010, 336). Thus, throughout the late 1960s, Holmes High School grappled with full integration for the first time in its history. But integration was far from a seamless process as the long legacy of racist educational policies and practices asserted itself in the newly integrated Holmes High School.
FEBRUARY 1970: BLACK PROTEST, WHITE RESISTANCE, AND HOLMES HIGH SCHOOL
In February 1970, Black students throughout the greater Cincinnati area began to stage walkouts and protests in their high schools. Many of the protests were spurred by inaugural celebrations of Black History Month; white students walked out or complained during celebrations at some schools, and Black students walked out or protested in response ("Withrow Classes Still Shut Down"). The first suggestion of any incident at Holmes High School in Covington appears in the Kentucky Post and Times-Star on Thursday, February 19, 1970. The headline reads, "Claim Blacks Start Holmes High Ruckus," and begins, "Black student unrest reached into northern Kentucky today with a disturbance at Covington's Holmes High School" (Harris 1970).
According to the article, about twenty Black students "created a disturbance in a second-floor hallway, then refused to clear it when ordered to." The principal, Richard Williams, explained that one teacher was "struck by a student"; he then added that there were no injuries sustained. This odd claim that someone was "struck" but not injured introduced a pattern that continued throughout coverage of these protests: school officials continually characterized the actions taken by Black students as violent, even when the evidence suggested no one was harmed. The school's response to the hallway disruption demonstrated its perception of the Black students: "Covington police were called and stood by in the hallways," the article in the Kentucky Times-Star and Post continued, and "unofficial word was that all known offenders would be suspended from the school indefinitely, and that assault charges may be filed against the student who struck the teacher." Clearly, the students were viewed as threatening, and their behavior was viewed as potentially criminal.
The next day, the same paper reports that the principal himself--not a teacher--was "cuffed and scratched on the face by a gang of 15 or 20 black students, mostly girls" (Byrd, "Suspend Students in Wake of Disturbance at Holmes"). Additionally, 15-year-old Susan Bennett, the daughter of the Covington superintendent Bert Bennett, was supposedly "struck in the mouth and her blouse was torn" (Byrd, "Suspend Students in Wake of Disturbance at Holmes"). The superintendent was quoted as saying, however, that "her emotional injuries were worse than her physical ones" (Byrd, "Suspend Students in Wake of Disturbance at Holmes"). At least 15 Black students were suspended, Bennett said, and police continued to circulate the hallways. Bennett claimed not to know the reason for what the news called the "disturbance."
Although Bennett said he did not know why students created a disturbance, Pam Mullins, a Black woman who was a junior at Holmes in 1970, says the incident that occurred on Thursday, February 19 was related to the rampant discrimination Black students experienced on a daily basis at Holmes High School. She participated in what she referred to as a protest, explaining:
I didn't agree with the way students were being treated, the disparities. I could see that difference in the classroom. This was at the time when Lincoln Grant shut down, and Blacks started coming to Holmes and trying to understand how to deal with this new environment ... Holmes wasn't ready for that, the administration, the staff, nobody. There was a lot of frustrations... there was a lot of discrimination. There was a lot of language, you know, folks, it was easy to say n-----this, n-----that, because that's what they were used to. So breaking that color barrier was very difficult... and Black students just got tired of what was going on. And that's when the protests happened. (Pamela Mullins, in discussion with author, November 24, 2018)
An article about a meeting between Black community members and the Superintendent corroborated the idea that Black students--and their families--were deeply frustrated by the treatment they were receiving in the school. On Saturday, February 21, 1970, the Post and Times-Star reported that "Bomb Talk Heats Holmes Meeting." The article began with the breathless announcement that "Covington educators were told to prepare for stepped up racial violence unless the school system meets demands of black patrons. More than a dozen black leaders, some avowed black power advocates, demanded" a meeting with Bennett, according to the story. However, both of the Black leaders who ostensibly threatened the superintendent actually said, as quoted later in the article, "This is not a threat," before explaining that they feared youth fighting would persist if their concerns were not taken seriously (Byrd, "Bomb Talk Heats Holmes Meeting").
In the article, which emphasized the superintendent's version of events, only white people were identified as injured or hurt by the incident on Thursday:
Bennett said the disturbance began when a group of black students lined up and blocked traffic in a hall. Two teachers who asked them to disperse were attacked, he said. Then, he said, several teachers and white students were kicked, clawed, and struck with purses and books. (Byrd, "Bomb Talk Heats Holmes Meeting")
His message was clear: he perceived the incident as one that involved innocent white students and teachers trying to make peace as Black youth "kicked" and "clawed"--animalistic terms that demonstrated the superintendent's perception of his students. However, Mrs. Alyce Knox, a local Black civil rights activist, "opened the discussion" with the superintendent "by deploring the outbreak of fighting between black and white students." This suggests that what was portrayed by white leaders as an attack was perceived by members of the Black community as a mutual altercation between Black and white students (Byrd, "Bomb Talk Heats Holmes Meeting").
The quotes from the Black community members, in fact, suggest that white adults and students played a role in instigating violence against Black students at the school. One Black person at the meeting said "a white father driving to Holmes to pick up his daughter Thursday had carried a machete" (Byrd, "Bomb Talk Heats Holmes Meeting"). LeRoy Waller, a Black father, then told the story of his son, who was "thrown against a locker" by a white male teacher (Byrd, "Bomb Talk Heats Holmes Meeting"). Thomas Ragan said his son had been "suspended... for fighting with a white youth, although the Ragan boy had been cut with a razor blade" that the white youth had brought to school (Byrd, "Bomb Talk Heats Holmes Meeting"). Mr. Ragan added that the principal had told his son "you have to learn that you're black and they're white" (Byrd, "Bomb Talk Heats Holmes Meeting"). Other community members raised concerns about the principal; Mrs. Knox said, "the youngsters say he's the most prejudiced man they've ever known." Bennett "expressed disbelief," the article continued, "'This just doesn't happen at Holmes High School'" (Byrd, "Bomb Talk Heats Holmes Meeting").
When Mrs. Knox pointed out that the student demands were not unreasonable: "black history courses, black counselors, more black teachers, a black student council and the elimination of social discrimination on racial grounds" (Byrd, "Bomb Talk Heats Holmes Meeting"), Bennett simply replied that it was difficult to employ black teachers due to Covington's low salary scale. He did not address the other concerns (Byrd, "Bomb Talk Heats Holmes Meeting").
Less than a week after this meeting between the Superintendent and Black community members, an article reported that "A hundred and fifty white patrons" (not a "gang," though, apparently; and no mention of their anger or profanity) "told the Covington Board of Education that Holmes needed more discipline, not concessions to blacks" (Byrd, "Discipline is Urged For Holmes"). The article continued:
Numerous spokesmen among the white audience, each emphasizing that he spoke as an individual, praised Principal Williams for his handling of the racial disorders. None was critical. Several offered to serve as members of a vigilance committee to keep order at Holmes and expel agitators of racial friction. A number of mothers expressed fear for the safety of their children at Holmes. (Byrd, "Discipline is Urged For Holmes")
The media's portrayal of the "hundred and fifty patrons" who attended the Board meeting stood in stark contrast to the depiction "more than a dozen [Black] leaders, some avowed black power advocates," who "demanded" a meeting with the superintendent, using "angry, sometimes profane" language (Byrd, "Bomb Talk Heats Holmes Meeting"). One of these groups was portrayed as threatening, violent, and irrational, even as it spoke about specific, school-related concerns; the other, much larger group that quite literally offered to participate in vigilante violence was portrayed as scared, reasonable, and concerned with safety.
After this article on the school board meeting, no further reporting on protests or fights at the high school occurred for several weeks.
MARCH-APRIL 1970: THE REVIVAL OF THE PROTESTS
However, this media silence most likely belied the on-going tension in the school and in the community--tensions that erupted again in late March. On Monday, March 30, the top story in the Kentucky Post and Times-Star read "Kid Rioters Stone Cops and Cruisers" (Workum 1970). The article explained that "street rioting erupted in Covington" late Sunday night/early Monday morning following a weekly dance at a Black community center. During the incident, three Covington police officers were "injured by flying rocks," and "three cruisers damaged, two of them heavily." Approximately 100 black youths were in the street, according to Police Chief Ralph Bosse; the police were called by an anonymous tipster reporting that a fight was occurring between some of them. Bosse said that when police arrived and attempted to intervene, "one of the youth resisted," and police "had to force him into the car." The crowd then "turned its wrath" on the police, throwing rocks. In a telling quote, Joseph Battaglia, who was hit on the left elbow, said, "It wasn't a rock. It felt like a boulder." However, it is unlikely a child would be able to find, let alone throw, a "boulder" in downtown Covington (Workum 1970).
Ultimately, two black juveniles were arrested (Workum 1970). In the meantime, eight police officers were on the scene, thirty off-duty officers were called in as well as a K-9 unit (though no dogs were released), and 18 Kenton County patrol units "took up locations in Latonia and outlying areas, freeing Covington lawmen." The area remained sealed off by police until 2:30 a.m. The police chief defended this response as a necessary precaution (Workum 1970).
The next day, however, a priest and a nun (both white) who organized the dance at the community center reported their version of events (Byrd, "Police and nun claim police overreacted"). They "blamed the police" for escalating the incident. Father Robert Nienaber and Sister Rosilda said the police "overreacted." Father Nienaber explained:
In my opinion, it was very stupid for the police to come on as they did, six carloads all at once. It was only juvenile fist-fighting that would have died out if the police hadn't come at all. But when the officers came piling out of six cars with drawn clubs, the kids then overreacted, too. (Byrd, "Police and nun claim police overreacted")
Father Nienaber explained that the two youth who were arrested were actually trying to break up the fight, and so when they were detained, the crowd responded angrily to the injustice. (Byrd, "Police and nun claim police overreacted"). Excessive police response produced a chaotic, overwhelming environment that served as the justification for the arrest and containment of Black youths.
One week after the incident after the dance, racial tensions broke out at Holmes High School, and again, the police responded quickly. The Kentucky Post and Times-Star printed a story headlined, "Trouble flares twice at Holmes." According to the report, "all available police quelled fights and dispersed a crowd of 200 that had gathered" after school on Monday afternoon. The fighting began after a group of black students gathered, apparently to protest the suspension of four black students for a fight earlier in the day. When police arrived, the article states, Officer Bernie Smith was "attacked by eight black males and knocked to the ground," while Sgt. Robert Griffin was "attacked by two black girls." Without apparent irony, the story continued, "Neither officer was injured" (Fogarty 1970).
The superintendent's rhetoric, quoted in the paper the next day, mirrored the bombastic tenor of the police. Superintendent Bennett told the paper that before walking out of the school that morning, Black students "went from room to room, throwing open doors and calling on other blacks to join them--and their manner was threatening." Despite his characterization of the event as threatening, however, "no violence was reported..." (Byrd, "Behind Holmes High Trouble"). A few nights later, after rocks were thrown at some passing cars, police reported to the East Side of the city, a predominantly black neighborhood, and issued a curfew (Byrd, "Behind Holmes High Trouble"). A 24-block area was sealed off by police who arrived in full riot gear (Byrd, "Behind Holmes High Trouble").
This disproportionate response on the part of school officials and the police was echoed by white students and their parents. On Thursday morning, a group of white male students arrived at school wearing white arm bands (Byrd, "Students Form 'Protection Squads'"). They called themselves "protection squads" and escorted white girls to classes throughout the day. When black students marched home after school, a large group of white students followed them, chanting "White power!" (Byrd, "Students Form 'Protection Squads'"). Meanwhile, at a city council meeting that evening, about sixty white adults complained about racial tensions in the city, arguing that police needed to do more to quell racial violence ("Whites Carry Anger, Fear to City"). One man, Gene McCord, said, "Who, if anybody, ordered police to use restraint when dealing with lawbreakers?" ("Whites Carry Anger, Fear to City"). When McCord then called for police to use force, "the remark got enthusiastic applause" ("Whites Carry Anger, Fear to City"). Others shouted, "Instruct the police to use firearms," and "Get a shot gun and mow them all down" ("Whites Carry Anger, Fear to City"). The police response to Black protest--which involved the continued and careful surveillance of the high school, the deployment of riot gear in a Black neighborhood when children threw rocks, and multiple arrests of Black juveniles--was deemed insufficient by many members of the white community.
Superintendent Bennett praised the police force, however, and said "they have been 100 percent cooperative with school officials" ("Whites Carry Anger, Fear to City"). School officials also ultimately admitted they would not cede to any of the student demands. Indeed, Bennett suggested that "the grievances of the black students are not sincere grievances but are simply attempts to cloak a purely destructive program in the garments of social reform" ("Whites Carry Anger, Fear to City"). Bennett said that "the articles in the black manifesto"--which called for more black faculty members, a black student group, a black history course, and an end to discriminatory practices--were "unacceptable to both the administration and the board of education" ("Whites Carry Anger, Fear to City"). Bennett explained, "We can't permit an all-black club at Holmes. That's illegal. That's segregation. neither the administration nor the board will consider pulling somebody off his job just to make room for a black" ("Whites Carry Anger, Fear to City").
Ultimately, "peace talks" occurred between Black and white representatives (Schoolmeester and Becker 1970), and the fighting and protesting ceased to make headlines in the news. However, the ways in which black students and community members were framed as violent, and white violence excused as safety or disciplinary measures, was part of a legacy of continues to haunt Covington today.
"YOU'RE NOT ALLOWED TO SWING AT ME LIKE THAT": EXCESSIVE FORCE IN 2014
On November 13, 2014, a resource officer (1) in the Covington Independent Public Schools was called to Latonia Elementary School by staff who were struggling to de-escalate an encounter with S.R., an eight-year-old Latino boy who weighed 52 pounds (S.R., ET AL. V KENTON COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE, ET AL. 2017).
According to the lawsuit that was later filed (S.R., ET AL. V. KENTON COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE, ET AL. 2017), when white Officer Kevin Sumner arrived, he "handcuffed S.R. behind his back, placing the cuffs on S.R.'s biceps above the elbow. S.R. remained handcuffed for approximately fifteen minutes, crying and squirming." A video (2) of the incident shows the handcuffed student sobbing and moaning, "It hurts," to which Sumner replies, "You're not allowed to swing at me like that," referring to S.R.'s earlier attempt to elbow him. "Now you can either behave the way you know you're supposed to," Sumner adds, "or you can suffer the consequences... If you want the handcuffs off, you're gonna have to behave or ask me nicely" (S.R., ET AL. V KENTON COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE, ET AL. 2017).
This was not the first time Sumner had handcuffed a child on their biceps. On October 3, 2014, and October 23, 2014, he handcuffed L.G., a nine-year-old Black girl at John G. Carlisle Elementary School, also within Covington Independent Public Schools (S.R., ET AL. V. KENTON COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE, ET AL. 2017). When L.G.'s mother arrived at school on October 23, "she saw L.G. crying and screaming and witnessed Sumner holding L.G.'s hands over her head." (S.R., ET AL. V. KENTON COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE, ET AL. 2017). Sumner reported later that he handcuffed L.G. because the 56-pound girl was "attempting to assault him" (S.R., ET AL. V. KENTON COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE, ET AL. 2017).
L.G. and S.R. and their families worked with the Children's Law Center of Covington, the law firm Dinsmore & Shohl, and the ACLU to bring a lawsuit against the Kenton County Sheriff's Department, arguing that Sumner, an employee of the Department, used unreasonable seizure and excessive force (S.R., ET AL. V KENTON COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE, ET AL. 2017). The school district was not named in the lawsuit but was investigated by the Department of Justice to determine "whether the District's disciplinary policies and practices (including its use of exclusionary discipline, restraint, seclusion, and the circumstances under which the District involves law enforcement in response to student conduct) discriminate on the basis of race, national origin, or disability" (Settlement Between the United States of America and Covington Independent Public Schools, U.S. Department of Justice, 2017).
Ultimately, the parties involved reached settlements: Covington Independent Public Schools agreed to revise its policies to ensure that students were not being subjected to unreasonable, discriminatory disciplinary exclusion or restraint. However, the district was careful in public statements to distance itself from the lawsuit and from any culpability for what occurred. In a letter sent home to parents in the district, Superintendent Alvin Garrison (a Black male) wrote:
After a thorough review of this matter, including numerous interviews with witnesses and other research, the investigator concluded that Deputy Sumner and Covington school personnel complied with school district's restraint policies, which are designed to ensure that students do not injure themselves or others. ("School District Stands Behind Officer Who Cuffed Students")
The Kenton County Sheriff's Department also settled by paying $337,000 in federal court, where it was determined that Sumner used unconstitutionally excessive force; however, Sheriff Chuck Korzenborn (a white male) later insisted that the agreement came "without any admission of liability" on behalf of the Sheriff's office (Reinert, "Children Handcuffed by Kenton Deputy See Sizeable Settlement"). When the suit was first announced, he made a similar statement: "Covington Schools' personnel requested assistance from the police during school hours after school administrators' efforts to de-escalate and defuse a threat to others had proven unsuccessful. I steadfastly stand behind Deputy Sumner who responded to the school's request for help" (Monks 2015), As in 1970, when Superintendent Bennet commended the police for cooperating with school officials, the Sheriff's Department and Superintendent Garrison are clearly on the same page: no one acted improperly. No wrong was done.
Covington, Kentucky is haunted by a legacy that weaponizes Black and Brown bodies as justification for their continued containment by white officials. I argue for a historical method in which we juxtapose and read across distinct historical moments to locate patterns and identify legacies. It is often easy, for instance, to assume that a racist incident in 1970--a white teacher throwing a Black student against a locker--is a relic of the past, until it is juxtaposed with the image of school resource officer looming over a handcuffed child in 2014. By the same token, it may be easy to dismiss a present-day overreaction as an isolated incident, as when Officer Sumner said, "You don't get to swing at me like that" to an eight-year-old boy. But when this statement is examined in the context of statements made in 1970--when the superintendent says Black students "kicked" and "clawed," when the principal describes a student walkout as "threatening," when a white adult shouts "mow them all down" at a community meeting, when a rock becomes a "boulder" in the hands of a Black child--it begins to look less like an isolated incident and more like a tradition.
Read together, the 1970 and 2014 incidents reveal a pattern of Coving-ton school administrators and police officials working together and openly supporting each other's efforts to violently contain and control Black and Brown students. Covington's recent history of racist disciplinary measures must be understood as the continuation of a legacy that began in 1815, where the first police force was founded as a slave patrol tasked with surveilling and imprisoning Black human beings. In reading for patterns across history, as with Tuck and Ree, to "wrong the wrongs" that happened and continue to happen--a practice I argue cannot be done without understanding "wrongs" as historically situated. It is not enough to recognize isolated moments of brutality; we must recognize that these moments are in some ways the same moment, "endlessly reinvigorated" (Sharpe 2016, 15).
Only then, perhaps, can we begin to disrupt the legacies in which so many of us unknowingly participate. For instance, Pamela Mullins, who was a student at Holmes during the protests, describes one such form of disruption as she recalled the action she eventually took on behalf of the expelled protesters when she was elected as the first Black member of the Covington School Board in the 1990s. She said she had always been "haunted" by the fact that some of her peers had been denied a high school diploma. Mullins recognized that the protesters' life trajectories--their educational and economic opportunities--had been irreversibly impacted by their 1970 expulsion. While she could not undo the past, she wanted to do what she could to restore to these adults that which had been denied to them as students: their high school diplomas. At least one of them was eventually awarded the diploma, over 20 years after their intended graduation date. Mullins was able to address the wrongs committed against her classmates because she acknowledged the ways in which she was haunted by the past. She knew the school system's ghosts--its racist legacies--and allowed her knowledge of these ghosts to inform her work on the Board of Education.
In seeking racist legacies as they manifest in particular locations across time, we begin to understand the lesson that Beloved's Sethe teaches her daughter Denver as she discusses the plantation on which she was enslaved:
"Because even though it's all over--over and done with--it's going to always be there waiting for you. That's how come I had to get all my children out. No matter what." Denver picked at her fingernails. "If it's still there, waiting, that must mean that nothing ever dies." Sethe looked right in Denver's face. "Nothing ever does,"she said.
We must acknowledge that which is not dead in our schools and communities. We must recognize the places into which we step, again and again--the places that never go away--and the power we have to enact or disrupt the moments that never die.
(1.) It is important to note that the deputy was employed by the Kenton County Sheriff Department, not the Covington Police. Therefore, technically, the history of the Covington Police that I provided earlier in this article is not the history of the Kenton County Sheriff Department. My interest in exploring the history of police in Covington, however, is less about a direct linkage between past and present forces and more about the continued role various police outfits play in containing and controlling people of color.
Brown, Mason, and Charles S. Morehead, A Digest of the Statute Laws of Kentucky, of a Public and Permanent Nature: From the Commencement of the Government to the Session of the Legislature, Ending on the 24th February, 1834: With References to Judicial Decisions, 1834.
Burke, Bryan. "Turners in Northern Kentucky History," River City News, May 31, 2015.
Byrd, Sigman. "Behind Holmes High Trouble," Kentucky Post and Times-Star, April 8, 1970.
Byrd, Sigman. "Bomb Talk Heats Holmes Meeting," Kentucky Post and Times-Star, February 21, 1970.
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Karen Zaino City University of New York
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|Title Annotation:||ARTICLE 2|
|Publication:||American Educational History Journal|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2019|
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