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Victor Brown never claimed to be a great athlete. “I was the only boy from Lawrenceburg that didn't play basketball,” smiles Brown, who graduated from Lincoln Institute in 1959. “Those teams were just so good.”
But Brown was a huge fan of the Tigers in those days, just as he is one of the Anderson County Lady Bearcats' biggest supporters today. His daughter, Sydney, is the starting center for the Lady Cats, who are gunning for their second consecutive Eighth Region championship.
If Victor Brown is not at a game, something is wrong.
But over 50 years ago, something was wrong with a society that determined where a child could go to school simply because of the color of his skin. Even though the Supreme Court had ruled in Brown vs. the Board of Education, living with the designations “colored” and “white” was still the order of the day.
Even in schools. Even in Kentucky. Even in Anderson County.
“You just accepted it,” Brown says. “Unless you have been raised in that system, you can't really understand it.” Victor Brown took the rigorous education he had under teachers like William Coleman at Lincoln Street School in Lawrenceburg, built on it at Lincoln Institute and eventually graduated from Transylvania University.
He is now retired from IBM and lives in Lawrenceburg. And he could be one of the faces of how basketball, and society, has changed over the last 50 years. He was denied the chance to attend a public high school in Anderson County, but his daughter will probably have a substantial portion of her college tuition, if not all, paid for largely because of her ability to play basketball. It is a gift honed at the same school that was off limits to black people in the 1950s.
“I only thought about that once,” Brown says. “The first time I went to Lincoln Institute, I met the school bus at Lincoln Street (school).”
With the 127 Bypass still more than a decade away, the bus turned right on Main Street, then went north through Lawrenceburg, right past Anderson High School, located where the Early Childhood Center is today.
“They were already at school and the kids were happy-go-lucky,” Brown says. “It hit me then, 'Why do they get to stay home and I am shipped off to school?'”
Brown, and most other Anderson County residents, stayed at Lincoln during the school year and came home every other weekend. But Brown says he and other Lincoln students would never trade their experiences at the school started by Berea College.
“I don't know if this has ever been out or not, but I can remember that in 1956-57, Whitney Young (who was principal at Lincoln Institute) told us that Mrs. (Emma B.) Ward, who was the superintendent of schools in Anderson County, had offered to give us a choice of continuing to go to Lincoln or attend school in Anderson County. Once you went to Lincoln, there was no way you would have gone anywhere else.” Brown smiled. “If they had asked me before I went I would have probably stayed home, but not after I had been there.”
Brown's older brother, Andrew, was a great football player at Lincoln and he saw some of the great Tiger teams, including the 1955 team that won the Kentucky High School Athletic League and the 1960 Sweet 16 team. “I was there when we joined the KHSAA (for the 1957-58 school year) and it was like the clouds had parted. I remember that 1960 team getting to the Sweet 16. That was like the school had gotten to the mountain top.”
But that was the last athletic hurrah for Lincoln Institute. More and more blacks were attending school in their hometowns and by the fall of 1963, it was happening in Anderson County. Three years later, Lincoln Institute ceased to exist as a school for black children. “That was inevitable,” Brown said. “I was sad to see Lincoln Institute decline, but it had fulfilled its purpose.”
The campus is now the home of the Whitney Young Job Center near Simpsonville.
Brown and his family quickly became ardent supporters of the Anderson County Bearcats. “It didn't bother me to support Anderson County,” he says. “When Jimmy Dan Conner's team went to the state tournament, we were there every game.”
The world is still not perfect and there are still foolish souls that judge people by the color of their skin rather than the content of their character. Yet things have changed dramatically over 50 years.
“Sydney has a lot more opportunities,” he says. “At Lincoln, the athletes had a chance to play at smaller colleges like Kentucky State or Tennessee State.” A junior, Sydney Brown has already made some recruiting visits to mid-major Division I schools.
Brown has talked to younger people about his experiences at times, but says, “You can't understand it if you didn't live through it. I think it would be detrimental if you understand too much. I want them to be informed, but not all of the details. That can be a handicap. “My family does not talk race. We just use names.”
Color? The only ones that matter to Victor Brown when his daughter takes the court are the navy blue, red and white on her Anderson County uniform.
“It is a new world today,” he smiles.
E-mail John Herndon at firstname.lastname@example.org.