WKU to dedicate building in honor of first Black student to attend and graduate from the school
Western Kentucky University will honor a trailblazer this week, the first African-American student to enroll and graduate from the institution. Logan County native Margaret Munday made history in 1956 as WKU opened its doors to students of color following desegregation.
More than 60 years later, the university will dedicate a residence hall in her name on Friday.
At age ten, Munday began playing the piano at Macedonia Baptist Church in Logan County, which fostered her love of music. Now 85, she continues in that role, and recently shared one of those hymns at her home in Auburn. She sat behind her aged Melville Clark piano and belted out "Jesus Paid It All".
From an early age, Munday knew she wanted to take her passion for music and turn it into a career. The path she took to get there was anything but ordinary.
She recalls being a five-year-old little girl and driving by Western Kentucky University with her father. At the top of the campus, a bronze statue of founding president Henry Hardin Cherry captured her eye.
"I asked him what was the place and he said it was a college, and I said, 'I’m going there,'" Munday recalled in an interview with WKU Public Radio. "He said, 'You can’t go there, that’s not for us. They’re for whites.'"
Munday began her college career at Kentucky State College in Frankfort, now Kentucky State University, a historically Black school. However, she wanted to be closer to home.
“My youngest brother told me one day, 'You know what? When mama puts you on the bus to Frankfort, she cries all the way back home.’ I said, 'Maybe that will be changed one day,'" Munday remembered. "One day I read in the paper that Western was opening its door the next year as far as black students. I thought, ‘Well look at this! I’m headed for the hill next year!’”
Munday transferred to what was then Western Kentucky State College in 1956, two years after the landmark Brown versus Board of Education ruling that desegregated the nation's public schools.
As the first Black student at WKU, Munday studied music and was a member of the Western Chorus. She remembers getting a lot of support and encouragement from then-President Kelly Thompson, Librarian Margie Helm, and Professors Ivan Wilson and H.F. McChesney. Munday said she never felt intimidated or lonely on campus as one might expect to feel in her situation.
"I just didn’t think about it. I just went on about what I was supposed to do.”
About three weeks into her first semester, Munday learned she had a security guard of sorts.
"Everywhere I went, he went, but he never said a word and I didn’t either. If I went into Woolworth’s, he went too. I thought, 'This is strange.' This man is evidently trying to get me some place to kill me," she said with a laugh. "Riley’s Bakery was downtown, and I went in to get a doughnut, he went into Riley’s Bakery, but didn’t buy anything. I got to the bus station, and he comes to the bus station, and he does not leave until I leave on the bus. I told daddy and daddy said, 'Just don’t bother him,’ and I didn’t, until one Saturday we were in Bowling Green on 31-W. There was a little white house and this man comes out in a t-shirt and sits on his front porch, and I said, 'Daddy, that’s the man that follows me every day.’ He said, 'That one there? That’s the best sheriff they have up here, the best lawman here.’ I don’t know who hired him, never did find out.”
While Munday recalls her fellow students being kind toward her, she says some of her professors weren't as welcoming. She remembers one instructor assigning novels to each student, followed by an emotional show of solidarity by her classmates.
“She said, 'You’re going to read novels and report on these novels, and I gave Margaret The Black Tulip,' Munday recalled. Everybody just folded up what they had and walked out. You know, I expected students to keep to themselves. They weren’t like that. It was the instructors. My grandma had told me, 'They’re not gonna be ready for you,’ and she was right.”
With her head held high, some grit and determination, Munday graduated from WKU in 1960 with a bachelor’s degree in music and elementary education. She went on to teach at the all-Black Johnstown School in Olmstead, Kentucky, then became the first Black teacher at Auburn High School. Munday taught music in her native Logan County for more than 30 years before retiring in 1995.
WKU Dean of Students Martha Sales learned how to play the piano from Munday.
“She has a skill that no one can take from her, much like what education does," Sales told WKU Public Radio. "Once you gain it, no one can take it from you, and you utilize it to level the playing field, and to help others, and I think that’s what she’s done.”
More than six decades since becoming a student pioneer on campus, her name is now on a residence hall at WKU. President Timothy Caboni spoke at a Board of Regents meeting last year before members voted to rename Northeast Hall in her honor.
“I want our students at WKU who walk our campus to see names and symbols that reflect who they are and what they can be," Caboni said at the meeting. "Ms. Munday is a remarkable example of the life-changing experience we have for our students.”
From her home in Auburn last week, Munday expressed humility toward the upcoming dedication.
“I think it’s history being made, and to thank I’m a part of it, I think it’s great," she said. "If I had the voice of a million angels, they wouldn’t be able to show my gratitude.”
Munday was inducted into the university’s Hall of Distinguished Alumni in 2012, but she’s the first African-American to have a building on campus named in her honor. She offered some advice to the current generation of minority students.
"I would say if you’re trying to reach a goal and you run into some turbulence, climb above it. You can’t throw in the towel. I had plenty of times to do that, but I did not," Munday said. "It’s something that can’t anybody take away from you. It’s about the best thing I know, to get an education, if you can.”
During a turbulent time for race relations in America, Margaret Munday was a pioneer and paved the way for others to follow. Today, she is simply grateful for the opportunity. The renaming of Margaret Munday Hall is a sign of how the school and community are grateful for her.