Editor’s Note: This article is the third and final of a three-part series — “Growing Up Black in Hopkins County” — The Messenger is running to look at the issue of racial injustice and discrimination in America from the perspective of four black Hopkins County residents.
With national protests spurring an important conversation about race and privilege, some local leaders in the black community of Hopkins County have reflected back on challenging experiences in their pasts, while discussing their hopes for a brighter future.
A Look Back
“I grew up in a time when there were separate water fountains. There were businesses I couldn’t go in,” Rev. Marvin Hightower, a pastor at the Word of Faith Christian Center Church, said. “Or we could go in and order, but we had to leave. We couldn’t sit down and eat.”
Hightower’s early years were set in the 1950s when racial segregation was still the status quo across America. For the first four years of schooling, he attended Branch Street School, an all-black elementary school in Madisonville at the time. When integration was implemented in Hopkins County, Hightower attended Waddill Elementary.
The transition was pretty smooth, according to Hightower. Children didn’t typically care about skin color the way their parents might have, he said.
“When we did integrate, there was apprehension. But we mostly got along with the white kids,” Hightower said.
Though he was no longer separated from the white population, Hightower said he still struggled to receive fair treatment because of his race.
As a young adult in the 1970s, he earned a position at a local phone company. It was considered a favorable position at the time and several of his white coworkers targeted him because of his advancement.
“They let it be known that they felt like I got the job because of Affirmative Action, that I really didn’t deserve it,” Hightower said.
Racial slurs were used in casual conversation behind his back at the workplace, even by coworkers he had considered friends.
But instances of racism committed by his peers never shocked him. For Hightower, the surprise came when that behavior wasn’t blatant.
According to Hightower, he — like many people of color — came to expect “certain attitudes and certain behavior.” They could only hope that such biased language or behavior wasn’t so overt that it would hinder their career or worse.
“We just knew that there was unwritten things of how you acted,” Hightower said. “How you had to be careful around certain situations.”
For Hopkins County Circuit Court Clerk Tayna Bowman, growing up in Mortons Gap afforded her the opportunity to be friends with both black and white kids.
Bowman briefly attended South Hopkins before her family moved to Owensboro. Her time at Apollo High School was one of her first experiences of explicit racism.
Bowman said she experienced racism in the form of slurs, mockery of her facial features, and intruding demands to touch her hair.
“This was torment every day, which made me really, really bitter,” she said.
Moving back to Madisonville helped Bowman heal. She said God was the most significant factor in alleviating her bitterness when she became involved in her church and working at the Door of Hope.
“I was surrounded by Christian people. Then I started serving on Great Banquets, and the Chrysalis, and all of my friends started coming from there,” she said. “I have been surrounded by a lot of great white people who I sincerely believe, love me.”
Leonard White grew up in Earlington around a lot of black people, and racial issues weren’t discussed in his home. His first encounters with racism happened during high school. While White had attended South Hopkins to play football, his brothers attended West Hopkins.
“I remember when my brothers came home on the first day of school, they found letters and stuff in their lockers and pictures of black people being gunned down by whites for stealing watermelon and that kind of stuff,” he said. “When that happened we were like, ‘What is this?’ and we started asking questions — ‘Why are they doing this?’ ”
After such incidents, White’s parents talked with their kids about racism. According to White, this opened his eyes, and he started noticing that white people at his school would rather deal with black people with fairer skin tones than his own.
“I could always feel tension. I’ve always been big for my age — plus I had dark skin — so I can see where I was a stereotype,” he said.
His first fight in high school was because of racial tension. White’s brother had earned the interest of a white girl, who was dating a popular white student at the time. Because of the fight, White and the other student were suspended.
“I was smart enough to know that if you don’t fight back, then people are going to keep picking on you,” he said.
According to White, the school would only let them come back if he and the other student would apologize. White said he felt pressured by the school to say the fight wasn’t racially motivated, but he now wishes he’d been honest about its origin.
Eighteen-year-old Jeriah Hightower said he experienced a sense of under-representation of African Americans in Madisonville during his youth.
“Growing up, I’ve only had two African American teachers my whole life,” Hightower said.
As he’s gotten older, he’s noticed more black people assuming administrative and community roles, but there’s still room for improvement.
“There’s not many people of color in leadership roles,” Hightower said.
Hopes For A Better Tomorrow
When Bowman was elected circuit court clerk in Hopkins County in 2019, Jeriah Hightower expressed great excitement and admiration.
“It was a huge deal to us,” Hightower said. “It was like a win for the black community. You don’t get to see people doing better for themselves like you do in other communities.”
Even before running for office, Bowman believed in the power of voting. Earlier in her life, she dedicated herself to learning about American and black history, such as what her ancestors went through to give her the right to vote.
“I’ve always exercised my right to vote, and I think it’s so important that everybody else exercises their right to vote,” she said. “Too many people died so I could have the right to vote — and not just African Americans. I think it’s important for everybody to have a voice. Our country depends on it.”
Jeriah Hightower plans to vote for the first time this year. He said he considers voting an innate civic duty of all citizens.
“I think voting is important because so many people fought for the right to vote,” Hightower said. “People don’t understand the significance of voting. Nowadays, people don’t go and vote.”
He said it’s essential to be an informed voter. If one does decide to vote, they should vote for the candidate that matches their values — not one with the most name recognition.
Representation can be achieved through voting in local elections, he said.
“Every vote counts,” he said. “It opens people’s minds to your perspective either through your own voice or through your leaders’ voices.”
According to White, voting is your voice, and without it, you can’t be heard.
“That’s a peaceful voice, and that’s a voice that nobody can deny,” he said. “If you really want change, then voting is your right. If you don’t vote, you don’t have a voice.”
Bowman said it’s hard to believe that modern society is still in a place where racism is alive and well.
“I think it’s a lot of underlying racism. I think there’s even racism in people, and they don’t realize it or biases in people that they really don’t realize,” she said. “I was thinking this morning that I would much rather deal with the likes of a Klansman in their white robes because you know what you’re dealing with.
“But what’s been more hurtful to me is some of the things that have been said on Facebook from people that I would have never suspected. That’s the most hurtful thing.”
White encourages people to take a moment of self-reflection during this time in America.
“I would like people to search themselves and be honest with themselves, and if there is something they realize they have that causes them to think of a person differently because of a skin color, they should ask themselves, ‘What can I do?’ ” said White.
Marvin Hightower expressed gratitude for advancement in technology that acts of racism can be recorded and shared to the public. Transparency of the problem can compel the solution, Hightower said.
He uses the example of melting raw gold material. At a certain melting point, the impurities separate from the gold into a concentrated layer above.
“I think the purifying fire of the Spirit of God is allowing these things to come to the surface — all the ugliness, all the hatred, all the bitterness, and all this stuff — is coming to the surface,” Hightower said. “And people think, ‘Oh, this is so ugly’, but it comes to the surface so that you can see it. You have to deal with it. You can skim it off and leave the pure gold.”