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How Shelbyville emerged from the era of racism

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By Stephanie Dunn

Sitting at ease in his Shelbyville home, retired Shelby County High School teacher and coach Roland Dale, or "Coach Dale" as he's known to former students and athletes, shares his own history and some thoughts on the history of the county's black community; how it was, how it is now, how it ought to be, and his family's part in it all....

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Dale was born in Shelbyville in 1953 to Mose Dale Jr. and Orontes Roland Dale and was the couple's only child. He and his parents first lived at 1016 High Street in Martinsville, where his mother began one of the first black-owned businesses in the county – Dale's Beauty Shop, run right out of her own home. His mother's shop continued to do a brisk business for 50 years, Dale said.

He attended school at High Street Elementary (segregation was still firmly in place at this time), and it was there that he began to realize he and his fellow classmates might be getting the short end of the stick when it came to educational environment and materials.

"The school was built on top of the city dump in 1952," Dale said, "and I just assumed that all playgrounds had broken glass on them....The first floor would flood during heavy rain, and the building was constantly sinking because of where it was built."

Dale said that the school had limited supplies and was given the "throwaway" books from the white schools, which often had no covers. The local grocery stores had “book covers” printed on their paper bags, and he and the other students would take a day and cover all the books with brown paper.

The curriculum consisted of "health, math, reading, spelling, a little science and music," he recalled, "although the health was mostly considered to be our science."

Dale said the teachers and students at High Street Elementary were a close-knit group – he named teachers (and relatives) Daisy Dale and Juanita Dale, as well as Viola Purdy. In addition, his first male teacher came on the scene around 1960 – Mr. Marnel Moorman. Moorman went on to teach in Shelby County for decades, first black children, then black and white together, becoming one of the community's most respected and beloved educators. Moorman was killed in a car accident in 1994 but left behind an incredible educational legacy.

Dale named Moorman as one of his first major influences: "Every night, we'd all sit on the wall outside, and Mr. Moorman would tell us about college....and I realized if you see somebody up there that looks like you doing something, then maybe you can find out what it's all about, too."

 

Finding his place

Dale went on to do that, after attending Shelbyville High School during his middle and high school years – integration of the schools began when Dale was in sixth grade, he said. He played basketball, football for a year and ran track, which turned out to be his best sport (the 100- and 200-yard were his best events).

He was so good, in fact, that when he started at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, he was able to join its track team as a walk-on. It was during his years at Kentucky State that Dale said he believes he began to come into his own. "I just didn't feel that good until I went to KSU," he said.

He began as a history major but later changed to industrial arts after visiting the school's Industrial Arts Department. Dale said he thought to himself, "Why, this is stuff I've been doing all along with my uncle in his shop."

Dale's uncle Lura Roland Sr. owned Roland's This and That Shop in Shelbyville. Dale would help his uncle repair and sell furniture and appliances – "Warm Morning" stoves, for instance.

After receiving his Bachelor of Science in industrial arts, Dale went on to earn his masters in education at Georgetown College. He began teaching in 1975 at Shelby County High School, running a work/study program designed to teach students job skills.

 

Dealing with ‘raw product’

He joined the industrial arts department in 1976 and started his coaching career, as well. He started out as an assistant football coach under Tom Becherer, then became assistant track coach under Larry Wingfeld, and in 1979, Dale became head coach of SCHS’ track and cross-country teams.

He reflects on his time as a cross-country coach: “We would have students with no athletic ability come to us – raw product – and the challenge was making them athletes. But I saw a lot of raw product turn into really good runners.”

Dale likes the straightforwardness of that particular sport, explaining, “Cross country is different from other sports – every day, there’s no standing around, no timeouts..… It’s a simple strategy. You run.”

Dale retired from the school system in 2002, but he remains heavily involved in track and cross-country meets, firing the starting gun at races and serving as a referee at regional, state and college-level meets.

That’s a great ending, but the story wasn’t so pretty along the way.

 

How it was –­ really

Education was highly valued in his family, according to Dale. His grandfathers, Mose Dale Sr. and Oliver Roland Sr. both served on the board for the county’s independent black school system – in its beginning, a series of 1-room schoolhouses stationed throughout the county. Dale’s mother, Orontes, went to the Lincoln Institute in Simpsonville (black students attended there if they wanted to move beyond eighth grade), which is now named for Whitney M. Young. The Roland and Young families had close ties, and in fact, Whitney Young’s mother was Dale’s godmother.

There was a law in effect at the time called the “Day Law,” which decreed that black and white students couldn’t be in the same building, which was why the institute was established by Berea College in 1912, according to Dale.

“’Separate but equal’ was a fallacy,” Dale said wryly, as he recalled this piece of history. “And segregation touched everything you did.”

His mother did something else Dale is proud of – in 1942, she had a Rosa Parks-type experience right here in Shelby County.

Dale said Orontes was told to give up her seat on a public bus in town, and she refused. The bus driver held the bus up for an hour, but Orantes stood her ground and kept her seat. The bus eventually started moving again, and she was not forced to leave the bus – a small, local victory for Civil Rights at the time, but important just the same to those it affected.

 

‘A terrible place’

“Shelbyville was a terrible place to grow up in during the era of segregation,” Dale said.

He said he remembers walking past a drugstore in town when he was a little boy: “I always wanted to go in there, and sit down and have a hamburger, and I couldn’t.

“We couldn’t go into a store and try on clothes, have a drink at the fountain, swim at the city pool, or get a loan,” he recalled. “My father once tried to get a loan from the bank, and was told that all the money had been loaned out to the tobacco farmers.”

There was another experience that bothered Dale greatly, he said.

“Dad would go in to get us an ice cream at the creamery on 2nd Street, and we’d wait outside for an hour or so, while he waited to be served,” he said. “It bothered me so much to see my parents told to ‘stay in their place’.

“In later years, people would come up to me and say, ‘I think a lot of your father,’ and I would think, ‘Really?’” Dale said with a shake of his head. “And yet he couldn’t sit down to eat with you.”

 

Those who made a difference

Dale names some “movers and shakers” who, in the early days of Civil Rights, worked to make Shelby County a better place for African-Americans: “Mr. Willie Fleming, Ms. Brenda Jackson, Mr. Bob Andriot… ..Mr. Andriot was the first store owner to let us come in and try on clothes in his store.”

Dale asks a challenging question: “Where would the United States be today if it weren’t for racism and sexism? What kind of country would it be if they hadn’t spent all that time trying to hold people back?”

A rhetorical question, but one can’t help but think that Dale and his family, then and now, have overcome and succeeded in spite of racism, and in a way that makes Shelby County’s black community the strong, proud institution it is today.

Dale’s grandfather Oliver Roland was the first black barber in Shelbyville, opening up a shop on Clay Street after years of barbering at what was then the Old Mason’s Home; his grandmother Mary Roland worked at the old Kings Daughters’ Hospital; his grandfather Mose Dale, Sr. operated the first trash collection business in town; and Dale’s father, Mose Dale, Jr., served in the Pacific during World War II, ran Blue Gables Motel in the 1950s, and retired from Shelby Rural Electric around 1984.

 

‘You’ve done so well’

Roland Dale’s wife of 34 years, Minnie, taught for 34 years at Southside and then Clear Creek Elementary; his daughter Bridget went to Hampton University in Virginia on a full golf scholarship and is now clinical consultant for Humana, and his daughter Ashley graduated from University of Louisville and works there now as a career counselor for the education and music departments.

Roland and Minnie Dale are enjoying retirement in Shelby County, and often can be seen at the 6th and Main Coffeehouse or driving around in Dale’s antique red pickup truck – a replica of the black truck Mose Dale Sr. had when Dale was young.

Recently, Dale attended a recent event celebrating Black History Month, an exhibit called “Shelbyville's Black Tapestry,” organized by the Shelby County Historical Society and held at the Stratton Center on Washington Street.

He recalls looking around at those gathered, among them black citizens he had admired while he was growing up, such as Fleming, the first black to graduate from University of Louisville’s School of Law; Jackson, a Shelby County school board member; Mattie Bray – “Looked up to her since I was born,” Dale said – Maureen Ashby; and more recent Civil Rights champions, such as Etta Coleman, widow of Louis Coleman.

With a bit of wonder and pride in his voice, Dale said: “They all lived at a time when racism was as bad as it could get, and I thought to myself, ‘You’ve been able to endure..… and you’ve all done so well’.”