Whitesburg KY

Governors and others lied as Letcher lost its college 50 years ago this week

This map shows the current home campuses of schools belonging to the Kentucky Community and Technical College System. The schools began as part of the University of Kentucky’s community college system, which was started in the 1960s after an idea that originated in Letcher County. This week marks 50 years since what is now Hazard Community and Technical College was taken from Letcher County despite years of promises by politicians.

This map shows the current home campuses of schools belonging to the Kentucky Community and Technical College System. The schools began as part of the University of Kentucky’s community college system, which was started in the 1960s after an idea that originated in Letcher County. This week marks 50 years since what is now Hazard Community and Technical College was taken from Letcher County despite years of promises by politicians.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Fifty years ago this week, in May 1966, Letcher County suffered a serious blow to its civic pride when a plum it had long been promised — a community college operated by the University of Kentucky — was taken away and given to Hazard and Perry County.

The unexpected decision by the UK Board of Trustees to locate the new college in Hazard instead of at Blackey or Whitesburg came after two Kentucky governors — Bert T. Combs and Edward “Ned” Breathitt — had promised the school would indeed be located somewhere in Letcher County, where the whole idea of the community college system was born in the first place.

That loss of what is now Hazard Community and Technical College was the third major promise to Letcher County that was broken by Kentucky’s leadership between 1960 and 1966. Kentucky governors had also promised Letcher County that it would get a state park and lodge near High Rock on Pine Mountain and a four-lane highway to Hazard, neither of which came to be.

“The University Board of Trustees turned its back on a solemn commitment to the people of Letcher County that a community college would be established in this county and voted instead to put the college at Hazard,” The Mountain Eagle said in an editorial. “The people of Letcher County, who were sincerely motivated in their work to obtain a college, have been slapped in the face because of their aspirations for their children.”

Following are other portions of The Mountain’s Eagle’s coverage of the broken college commitment, which appeared in the May 5, 1966 edition of the paper.


(This story appeared on the front page of the May 5, 1966 edition.)

The University of Kentucky Board of Trustees voted unanimously this week to put Letcher County’s longawaited UK community college in Perry County, at Hazard.

The trustees acted on the recommendation of a site selection committee, which reported In favor of Hazard after inspecting both Letcher and Perry counties.

The trustees rescinded a 1962 motion that would have put the school at the Letcher County community of Blackey, on the old Stuart Robinson School campus.

The trustees’ action dashed hopes which had remained for more than four years that the school would he located in the county, probably at Whitesburg.

The action also ended 10 years of hard effort on the part of many residents of Letcher County to obtain a community college here.

There were no votes for locating the college in Whitesburg, even from Gov. Edward T. Breathitt, who had repeatedly said he would vote to have a college here. Breathitt said again that he would make such a vote if someone on the board would offer a motion, but none was made and he voted for Hazard.

Before the vote was taken, Breathitt read to the board a statement from former Governor Bert T. Combs, now of Lexington, who said that he had promised Letcher County a college only to obtain the vote of then Senator Archie Craft of Whitesburg for a bill setting up community colleges at Prestonsburg, Combs’s former home, and several other towns. Craft was ready to introduce a bill to direct only that a college be set up at Blackey and had the votes to pass it, Combs said, so the governor promised support of a school here in order to get Craft to expand his bill to take in Prestonsburg and the other locations.

The site selection committee urged the governor to provide strong representation from Perry and Letcher counties and Whitesburg and Hazard on the board of citizens, which will be formed to advise the college.

The school may open in September 1967, or it may not open until September 1968.



(Following are excerpts of an editorial that appeared on Page 2 of the May 5, 1966 edition and gives the full history of the 10-year effort to bring a community college to Letcher County.)

It is necessary to know some of the history of the community college movement in Kentucky to know just what has been done to the people of Letcher County.

It all started, basically, in 1958, when the Board of Church Extension of the Presbyterian Church US decided to discontinue operation of its private, boarding high school at Blackey known as Stuart Robinson.

At that time, a number of citizens of Whitesburg, Blackey and Hazard got together and formed a committee to assure continued use of the large Stuart Robinson campus as an educational institution. Many possibilities were explored, including a private high school, a private college, or a church-supported college. Things moved along, and after numerous trips to Atlanta for conferences with church officials, the church declared it would make the Blackey campus available as a gift for the site of a publicly supported college. The church said it already had Presbyterian colleges at Jackson and Pikeville and felt it should not undertake a third institution.

With of the church property in hand, Letcher County citizens set about buildmg support for use of the site as a state college. They went to Hazard and made speeches before various Hazard civic groups and met with Hazard civic and business leaders. The Hazard residents agreed that this section of eastern Kentucky should have a college and they further agreed that the Blackey site, located midway between Hazard and Whitesburg, would be a logical location both because of existing facilities and because students from both Perry and Letcher counties could commute to the school.

Things moved along. Scarcely an “outsider” came to town but what he was put in a car and taken to Blackey, where his support for the community college was requested. Governor Combs came to town, not once but several times, and each time he said, quite publicly and without reservations of any sort, that he would see that a community college was established at Blackey.

Soon other Kentucky towns began to ask for community colleges. Prestonsburg wanted one, and Somerset wanted one. So did Hopkinsville, and Maysville, and Louisville, and Paducah, and Ashland.

The state legislature met in 1962 and State Senator Archie Craft of Whitesburg introduced a bill to set up the college at Blackey. According to Combs’s statement this week, Craft had the votes to get the bill passed. But, says Combs, to prevent the legislature from passing bills creating a dozen or more new community colleges, Combs persuaded Craft to go along with establishment of a commission to study the college situation and come up with findings and recommendations. But it was clearly and unmistakably understood by everyone concerned that the Letcher County college was to be built.

About this time Hazard began to display the greed that often characterizes that city. Letcher County had done all the work to obtain the college. But the plum was too big to pass up. One by one Hazard people backed out of their agreement with Letcher County. They cried that Letcher County had been guilty of politics and argued that the college should go to Perry County, where all is lily-white and no politicians ever lived.

Hazard cried “politics” long and loud. Soon the cry was picked up and echoed by the Louisville Courier-Journal and Lexington Herald-Leader and the University of Kentucky faculty, most of whom have never been this far east and don’t know what they’re talking about when they mention either Perry or Letcher county.

The college site commission was appointed. Soon, a college was being built in Prestonsburg, former of home of Governor Combs. A college was built in Hopkinsville, the home of Governor Breathitt, who had stood on the courthouse steps in Whitesburg during his campaign and said that he would see that a college was built in Letcher County. Former Speaker of the House of Representatives Mitchell Denham was a member of the site selection committee, and a college was slated for his hometown of Maysville. Democrats in Pulaski County, who have a hard time handling Republican John Sherman Cooper, figured a college at Somerset would strengthen their hand, and so Somerset got a college. Louisville, home of the Courier-Journal, wanted a college and got one.

In no instance was a cry of “politics” raised. It obviously was just pure coincidence that Maysville and Hopkinsville and Prestonsburg and other towns with political influence got colleges.

In the course of the extensive negotiations concerning the college, UK made it clear that Blackey was just too far from civilization for any faculty members to live there and suggested that Whitesburg be considered as an alternate Letcher County site. Members of the negotiating committee then obtained city and tentative federal approval of a $500,000 urban renewal project to provide a college site and marshaled figures showing that Whitesburg High School alone graduates more students than Hazard High School plus two other Perry County high schools, and that a Whitesburg site would be more centrally located for students, in view of the large Letcher County population in the Jenkins area. The argument was that Hazard would be too far for the hundreds of Jenkins and Neon area students to travel, while on the other hand Perry County’s major population concentration is upriver from Hazard toward Whitesburg. The word Blackey, however, continued in use as a synonym for Whitesburg-Letcher County in the matter of college negotiations.

The present community college movement in Kentucky began here in Whitesburg. Arguments developed here in support of the community college idea have been used to justify and to construct community colleges in several other Kentucky cities.

Last year the delays had become so frequent that some local people started a letter campaign pushing for the college. Immediately the calls came from Lexington and Frankfort — don’t rock the boat, just sit tight and don’t embarrass us or pressure us, and your college will come through. Letcher County people played the game by the rules and politely quieted down and waited for the college to come through.

There were those who warned that hopes were false. As long as a year ago, we were told that Whitesburg didn’t have a chance because it had no country club and no La Citadelle [hilltop hotel/lounge] with a bar and no social life. UK’s reasoning, we heard, was that no faculty member would want to live in a place that had none of those things. Bosh, we replied. The University is not coming here to find Bluegrass society, it’s coming to teach children who need a college education. And anyway, we added, the faculty members would create their own social life and would not be dependent on what was already here. They would be a broadening influence, we said, and would welcome the opportunity to come into Letcher County and help out. Who, we asked, would want to live in a place as dirty as Hazard, even if it does have whiskey? This week we found out who. …

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