[Audio] MSU's First African American Graduate Speaks on Human and Civil Rights Accomplishments

Aug 14, 2015

Credit Murray State University 1961 Shield Yearbook, Courtesy of Wesley Bolin at Pogue Library

A group of six college students walked from Murray State University across the street to a small restaurant, about to quietly protest its “white-only” policy. Entering the establishment, the five white boys from New York ordered meals for the group. When the food was ready, Nancy Tyler Demartra, the first African American to attend MSU full-time and eventually graduate, stood up to pay. When the cashiers refused her money, the entire group said “no, thanks,” and walked out. It took about three months of visits like these, but with the help of others on campus the group finally pushed the restaurant to adopt an “open” serving policy. That was 1961. Fifty-four years later, Nancy speaks with Kate on Sounds Good about her experiences at MSU and her accomplishments in the Human and Civil Rights arenas.

Elected to the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights Hall of Fame in 2010, Nancy says that despite all the trials she’s been through, her life hasn’t been necessarily tough.

“I come from a family that believes in challenging things that are wrong,” Nancy said. “A family that works on righting wrongs.”

At ten years old, Nancy’s grandfather brought her along with him as he decided to go vote, without paying the poll tax he was historically forced to pay.

“I was in the back seat,” she laughs, “with his 44-gage shotgun. When we got there, the people told him that they were not going to charge poll taxes anymore.”

Nancy’s father was a clay-miner, her mother a teacher who believed in the power of education. Not attending college was not an option for Nancy. She took graduate courses simultaneously with her undergraduate program, attending four full years, including summers. Her senior year she was 21 years-old and set to graduate with both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. Until one of her professors found out.

While Nancy had been making all A’s and B’s in this particular course, the professor told her that he “received his Master’s at 26 and she was too young to be receiving hers at 21.” He gave her a C as her final grade, preventing her from obtaining the two degrees at once. The next semester, however, Nancy re-enrolled in two courses and received her Master’s degree despite the hurdles.

After graduation, she taught in Paducah for three years and then in Louisville until 1975 when the school district merged with Jefferson County. She remained a teacher in the Jefferson County school system until her retirement.

Nancy has always been involved in the Human and Civil Rights movements in some form. In the wake of the recent church shootings in South Carolina, Nancy believes that the movements are needed just as much now as they have been in the past.

“We have a lot of people who hate, and we’ve always had people who hate,” Nancy said. “And we live in a system where people who do wrong have been protected, and definitely folks who have done wrong to African Americans, Indians and immigrants.”

In moving forward, Nancy believes there are many things the Human and Civil Rights groups must tackle. She sees the recently emerging Black Lives Matter movement as essential to furthering awareness.

“I believe that the Black Lives Matter movement is important because there has constantly been times when our lives have not been considered important, in the courts, in the streets and everywhere else,” she said. “I think these people will bring some bearing upon what needs to change.”