Set against a backdrop of racial tension and strife -- particularly in the south -- two young African-American men from Florida traveled on the Western Kentucky Parkway on their way to Dayton, OH. It was July 2, 1964; the day President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law.
Robert Donaldson and Robert Saffold were on a trip which had already taken them to Paducah to visit friends, and were now on their way to visit Donaldson’s uncle in Ohio. The two men were making the trip north after nixing the idea of driving to California, because they would have had to travel through the Deep South.
Racial harmony was practically non-existent at that time, a circumstance made more difficult by the on-going search for three missing civil rights workers in Mississippi, and the media coverage which made clear to the nation that something was terribly wrong in the south.
It was a time in American history few of us today can neither fathom nor understand.
“We left Paducah on July 2,” and as the two men drove up the Western Kentucky Parkway they “found out by way of radio that President Johnson was going to be signing the Civil Rights Act,” Robertson said. “We heard that about 15 minutes outside of Leitchfield, and when he signed it at noon we were approaching Leitchfield.”
Both men were in unknown territory, having never traveled through Kentucky before.
“We had never heard of that name, Leitchfield, we didn’t know anything about Leitchfield, but we said let’s go and test this (Civil Rights) bill; we want to test this right away,” Robertson said.
Donaldson and Saffold then exited the Western Kentucky Parkway at Leitchfield; not knowing what to expect; not knowing what fate awaited them. After sleeping in their car for the duration of the trip because there were no motels that would welcome the two as patrons, and able to eat in “Blacks Only” restaurants, the two men were anxious to discover if the Civil Rights Act would pay immediate dividends.
“We drove up (Highway 259) slowly, because we didn’t want the police stopping us,” Robertson said with a chuckle. “So we got up here to the square, the courthouse building, (and) we rode around the courthouse a couple of times, and we saw the (Alexander Hotel) restaurant.”
In 1964, a black man attempting to eat in a “Whites Only” establishment was often met with violence, sometimes with life-threatening rage by offended whites.
“We were so excited about the signing of the bill, and what was included in the bill … we saw some old men sitting around with coveralls on; we thought, ‘oh man, this is gonna be hard on us’” Robertson said. “We knew that there were demonstrations going on in other cities, but we didn’t see anything going on in Leitchfield.”
The absence of visible signs of hostility further emboldened Robertson and Saffold, and cemented their decision to test the Civil Rights Act in Leitchfield. Not knowing what to expect, the two pressed on; they parked their car next to the hotel, got out and started toward the restaurant entrance.
“So we opened the door and this lady, a very polite lady, said, ‘oh come right in,’ and we said, ‘oh, wonderful,’” Robertson said. “She asked if we would like to have a menu and we said, yes, we’d like to have a menu.”
That lady was the late Deloris Nichols, wife of then-Alexander Hotel owner Alexander Nichols.
“We ordered our food and” after a while “they gave us our food,” Robertson said. “After we ate, we took another drive around the courthouse, because we didn’t believe this, see. We didn’t know anyone here, but this lady (Deloris Nichols) was so nice.”
With no fanfare, the two men, pleasantly surprised and with full stomachs, got back on the WK Parkway and continued their journey north to Dayton. It was an experience which has stayed with Robertson for 50 years, as he has often told the story of stopping off in the tiny, rural Kentucky city Leitchfield to have lunch only minutes after President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act.
“Leitchfield stayed on my mind for a long, long time,” Robertson said enthusiastically.
So much so that Robertson contacted Leitchfield Mayor William Thomason several weeks ago and expressed an interest to come back to Leitchfield and “celebrate the signing of the Civil Rights Act.”
As the 73-year old Robertson shared his story with the media and several Leitchfield public officials and residents on Wednesday afternoon at Centre on Main, it quickly became clear that Robertson is a man of great accomplishment:
Robertson went on to become a highly successful public servant in Chicago, becoming the first African-American to be appointed to the Public Building Commission in Chicago in 1983. He earned a PhD from Western Michigan University, and in 1977 was hired as an assistant professor at Governor’s State University, retiring from that post as a full professor in 2002.
He was additionally appointed and elected to many posts during his career, including serving as Mayor of Hazel Crest, Illinois from 2005 to 2013.
Not knowing anything about Leitchfield or its racial leanings, it took tremendous courage for Robertson and Saffold to exit the WK Parkway on July 2, 1964. And men of courage oftentime find great success in life because of an inner-drive which propels an ordinary existence, to a life of achievement.
To recognize his accomplishments, as well as his willingness to share his story of acceptance with the people of Leitchfield, Mayor Thomason presented Robertson and his wife Barbara with an Honorary Citizens Award as well as a Key to the City.
It is a well-deserved honor for a man who risked his well-being to discover that Leitchfield was indeed a place where a black man, in 1964, could enjoy a meal without the threat of violence or death; at the time, a pleasantly unusual circumstance.
Mayor Thomason presenting Dr. Robert and Barbara Donaldson with Honorary Citizens Awards and Keys to the City