In 1951, Patricia Lauderdale was set to leave a lasting mark on Spalding University by becoming one of its first two African-American graduates.
But she cared very little about her individual role in history, so long as somehow the societal change she believed in and hoped for was on its way.
“That’s all we were thinking about was how we were going to make things different,” said Lauderdale, who later married and took the last name Bell. “You didn’t have time to think about if you were first or second. It was just part of the way things are supposed to be. … It was just part of the experience of learning.”
As Spalding celebrates Black History Month in February, Bell, who’s now 87, reflected back fondly on what she viewed as a fun, rewarding year in 1950-51 when she transferred to Spalding – then called Nazareth College – and was among the first group of black students to integrate higher-education institutions in Louisville.
She said the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, who ran the college, showed a welcoming and supportive spirit that she has never forgotten.
Bell, who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and the other 1951 Nazareth graduate, Barbara Miller, were honored two years ago as Spalding’s first black graduates with the creation of the Lauderdale Miller Endowed Scholarship. It goes to an African-American female student majoring in education, communications or social work.
“It was important to me (to create the scholarship) because a lot of people don’t realize that African-Americans couldn’t go to Spalding before the Day Law was dismissed,” said 1953 Spalding graduate Elmer Lucille Allen, who led the effort to create the Lauderdale Miller Scholarship. “I think it was important to have something to recognize them as the first two African-Americans to come out of there.”
Under the Day Law of 1904, it was illegal for whites and blacks in Kentucky to attend the same school, but the law was amended after a successful legal challenge by Lyman T. Johnson, a Central High School teacher who became the first black student at the University of Kentucky in 1949.
In 1950, the Catholic colleges in Louisville – Nazareth, Ursuline and Bellarmine – began admitting black students.
At the time, Bell, a graduate of Central High School, had been attending Louisville Municipal College – an all-black institution overseen by the University of Louisville. She was set to be a college senior when she was among the first group of black students who started at Nazareth in the fall of 1950. That’s why she and Miller, who was a nontraditional student seeking a second bachelor’s degree, were positioned to become the college’s first graduates the following spring.
Miller, who died in 2000 at the age of 90, came to Nazareth to study library science, specializing in children’s services. She was 21 years older than Bell and already held a degree from the University of Michigan.
Miller became Kentucky’s first African-American to earn a library science degree and went on to an accomplished career with the Louisville Free Public Library. She was known as the “Storytelling Lady” on the local children’s television show “T-Bar-V Ranch.”
As for Bell, she first became familiar with Nazareth College after the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth invited Louisville Municipal College students to join an integrated club called Youth in Action.
“They really wanted to see a change,” Bell said of the Sisters. “They were helping us to try to organize to get rid of the Day Law.”
Bell said that she remembers the club members hoping at the time that colleges and universities would become integrated by 1970. She said it was a “complete shock to us” when it ended up happening 20 years sooner.
At the time, “I was just a person who knew things were going to be different,” she said, “whether it be when I got married or had children. It wasn’t going to be the same, and if I stayed where I was and didn’t try to learn new things, I’d be doing not only myself a disservice but the next generation of my family a disservice.”
Bell said that Sister Mary Ransom, who was the dean of Nazareth, and the Sisters who organized Youth in Action were huge influences on her life.
Bell recalls experiencing no backlash whatsoever on campus while being one of the only black students, and she credits the Sisters for creating a culture of acceptance and friendship. Bell said that if there were any white classmates who had negative feelings about her, they never showed it.
In the summer of 1950, Bell said, many of the white seniors at the college came to her home to get to know her and her family before she started at Nazareth.
“We were all friends, and we were all equal,” she said. “I was wanted, and those Sisters wanted us women to be leaders.”
Bell holds her alma mater near and dear.
After her wedding in 1953, she and her bridal party visited the nuns and took pictures at the famous Thompkins-Buchanan-Rankin Mansion.
When she had her three children, she brought the babies by for visits.
Bell went on to earn multiple other degrees, including a doctorate from Michigan State, and have a career that included working for the Internal Revenue Service and in various roles in education.
She said she remained in touch all her life with Sister Mary Ransom, who died in 2006.
To help support Spalding’s Lauderdale Miller Endowed Scholarship for African-American women, go online to spalding.edu/donate. For more information on it and all endowed scholarships, contact Loren Carlson, manager of development, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 502-873-4317.