Margaret Munday is a woman who is both a pioneer, and an eyewitness to an amazing time in Kentucky history. Ms. Munday helped change the course of higher education in south-central Kentucky, and Western Kentucky University in particular. In 1956, she became the first African-American undergraduate student to enroll in what was then called Western Kentucky State College.
She graduated four years later and returned to her native Logan County, where she began teaching music in public schools for over three decades.
Ms. Munday was kind enough to meet with WKU Public Radio at her Logan County church, where she has been playing the piano since she was 10. She shared with us the story of how she broke the color barrier at the school that later became WKU.
Ms. Munday came from a family that valued education. Her mother was a college graduate and a teacher. Her father had several college graduates in his family. For young Margaret, it wasn’t a question of “if” she was going to college, but simply a matter of “where.”
The closest college was Western Kentucky State College in nearby Bowling Green. Ms. Munday says as a young girl, she was drawn to the school because of a bronze statue of WKU icon Henry Hardin Cherry that stands at the top of College Street.
“I had always pictured that bronze statue up there as a kid,” she said. “There was something about that that impressed me to want to go to school there. I was a kid standing in my dad’s car, looking out the back. And I’d ask my dad to take me by that statue, and he did. My grandfather lived near there, and we were going to see him.”
“Every time we went, I had dad take me by that statue. And one day I told him, ‘Dad, I want to go to school there.’ And he said, ‘No, baby, you can’t go to school there.’ So I dropped it for right then.”
In 1955, Ms. Munday graduated as the 16-year-old valedictorian from the all-black Knob City High School in Russellville. The two closest black colleges to her were Kentucky State College in Frankfort, and Fisk in Nashville.
Kentucky State College had the advantage of in-state tuition levels, and one other thing.
“I received a $50 scholarship from a sorority,” said Ms. Munday. “So it was going to be cheaper for me to go to Kentucky State than Fisk.”
Ms. Munday excelled while at Kentucky State College, and she thought everything was going fine. Then one day her freshman year she had a conversation with one of her younger siblings.
“My youngest brother told me one day, “you know, Mom sure does cry when she puts you on the bus to go to Frankfort.’ And I thought to myself that I was going to have to do something about that because she’s crying like that.”
“And I was sitting in Kentucky Hall, the freshman dormitory at Kentucky State, and I saw in the paper that Western Kentucky State College in Bowling Green was going to open its doors to black students the next year. And I made up my mind that that was for me, because I’d be closer to home,” said Ms. Munday.
So after talking it over with her family, and getting support from then-Western Kentucky State College President Kelly Thompson, Ms. Munday showed up on the first day of registration for the fall semester of 1956.
But the other black students she thought she’d see weren’t there.
“So I thought myself, ‘so what?’. I thought they’d end up coming the last day of registration, but they didn’t. But that didn’t bother me one bit.”
Ms. Munday enrolled at Western Kentucky State College and began to pursue classes towards her degree in music. She says she didn’t face overt hostility from the rest of the student body, which was all white. She says she assumed she would have problems with those who were from the deep south, but that wasn’t the case.
Instead, the problems came from some of the older people at the school.
“Western’s motto is “The Spirit Makes the Master.’ Some of those professors tried to break my spirit. But I’m not that kind of person.”
Ms. Munday says an encounter with one professor stands out in her mind.
“He stood up and said he couldn’t stand Negros with gold teeth. And he said he couldn’t stand music majors.”
“Well, I was the only one if that class that fit that description. I had never said anything in that class before, but I had made straight A’s in that class.”
“And he looked at me and said, ‘Do you have a gold tooth?’ And I said ‘Well, have you seen one?’".
“Then he asked me, ‘Do you belong to the NAACP?’, and I told him I did not.”
Then he told us how he was going to grade our papers. He had winding staircase at his house, and he said he was going to label each level with a grade of “A”, “B”, “C”, “D”, and “F.” And he said wherever our papers fell on his staircase would be the grade we would get.”
“And I told him—I called him by name and said respectfully that I couldn’t go that way. I told him I had straight A’s in that class, and that I didn’t know where my paper was going to fall on his staircase, but let’s hope it’s on the ‘A’ step.”
Laughing as she recounts the story now, Ms. Munday says the professor looked shocked at her response. She admits she was also shocked at her spontaneous reaction, as she had kept to herself in class up to that point.
Despite that particular incident, Ms. Munday is quick to credit several individuals who were administrators and professors for supporting her during her three years at Western Kentucky State College: President Kelly Thompson, Librarian Margie Helms, Professor Ivan Wilson, and foreign language professor H.F. McChesney.
Ms. Munday sang in the Western Chorus and completed her degree in music in 1960. Shortly after, she took a job teaching at the all-black Johnstown School in the Logan County town of Olmstead.
She continued to break down color barriers. In 1964, she became the first African-American teacher at Auburn High School. Throughout her 35 year teaching career, Ms. Munday taught in every school in the Logan County school system.
When you teach that long in one place, you end up teaching the children of students you taught years before. And, says, Ms. Munday, you get to experience the joy of watching your students—black and white—go on to great things.
“I watch Western’s graduation every year, and I’m looking to see whose kid that I had coming across that stage,” said Ms. Munday. “I know those kids, and they know me. And I love those kids.”
Throughout her life, there have been at least two constants for Margaret Munday: one is her willingness to tear down racial barriers. The other is playing the piano at the Macedonia Baptist Church in Auburn—something she has done since she was 10.
We were curious: how much longer will she play the piano there?
“Well, as long as I’m able and not turned off,” she says with a laugh. “I’m not worried about that, though. As long as they fingers aren’t getting stiff, and as long as memory remembers.”
WKU Public Radio would like to sincerely thank Margaret Munday for speaking to us about her groundbreaking life, and the impact she has had on the history of WKU.
Margaret Munday is one of three individuals who will be inducted this fall into the WKU Hall of Distinguished Alumni. She is joined by Russ Faxon, one of the nation's top sculptors, and the late Brigadier General Victor Strahm, Kentucky's first World War I flying ace. A ceremony honoring the three is being held at the Sloan Convention Center in Bowling Green October 19 at 11:30am.