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Everyday Heroes: Grundys still devoting lives to uplifting, empowering African Americans

This story is reprinted from Steve Flairty’s 2010 book, “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #2.” Chester Grundy is now senior diversity adviser to the dean, UK College of Medicine. Recently, he received the Lifetime Award from the Lexington-Fayette County Human Rights Commission and, along with wife Ann, received the Lifetime of Waging Peace Award from the Central Kentucky Council for Peace and Justice. The couple also spend time with grandchildren Gibran and Garvey.

By Steve Flairty
KyForward columnist

She grew up in the 1950s, a “daddy’s girl” of a celebrated preacher of a historic church, a place where great music and mighty oratory filled the house of worship, and where luminaries like Nobel Peace Prize-winners Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Bunche were not strangers.

Ann and Chester Grundy (Photo provided)

Ann and Chester Grundy (Photo provided)

Young Ann Beard thrived in Birmingham, Alabama’s, 16th Street Baptist Church, pastored by the Rev. Luke Beard, where she said “…people looked out for others and they helped ‘make the race proud.’” Some called the place of worship “The Silk Stocking Church” because of the many up-and-coming successful blacks who worshipped there.

Chester Grundy was raised in Louisville, son of a World War II military veteran who kept a full-time job and several other part-time ones to make ends meet. Though not highly educated, Grundy’s parents saw the need for their offspring to receive college degrees, and all three did. Chester, like Ann, was raised in an environment where all individual actions were expected to uplift and improve the conditions of African-American people.

The two were married in 1974. It seemed to be their destiny to join for a higher purpose.

Together, Ann and Chester Grundy have devoted their lives to uplifting and empowering other African Americans. Based at their home in Lexington, they educate the young about black history and culture by means of a summer educational camp they call “The Nia Project.“ The term “Nia” is taken from the fifth of seven principles that define the African-American holiday known as Kwanzaa. Nia means “purpose.”

The Grundys’s aim for the camp is to be both intentional and purposeful. The program is mobile, taking research journeys to landmarks of social and historical significance across the United States. In all their endeavors, they seek to remind the community of what they may have forgotten or perhaps never knew regarding their African-American heritage.

They have unselfishly used their individual talents to open doors of enlightenment for others.

Chester’s interest in history and cultural education moved him, in 1987, to inspire a small group of UK students to successfully establish the Martin Luther King Jr. Cultural Center at the University of Kentucky. Over the years the center has sponsored a broad array of high quality cultural and artistic programs featuring lectures, theater, dance performances, concerts as well as exhibits and film festivals. Bishop Desmond Tutu, Maya Angelou. Alex Haley and Spike Lee are but a few of the many high-profile names who have visited the UK campus under the auspices of the King Cultural Center.

As a natural spin-off of his work with the center, he became a co-founder of Lexington’s popular Roots and Heritage Festival, held since 1989. His office also served as a long-time co-sponsor of UK’s nationally renowned Spotlight Jazz Series which for 28 years presented concerts and workshops featuring world-class jazz artists to the central Kentucky audience. The performance history of this series includes a host of jazz luminaries including Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughn, Sonny Rollins, Wynton Marsalis, Dave Abrubeck, the Duke Ellington Orchestra and many more.

Each of the two has a resume of credentials that makes their leadership and message highly credible.

Ann grew up around gifted and courageous leaders in the church. You might say she was part of “living history.” Chester honed his skills by being an effective activist while in college, a time he called “a very challenging time to be a black student at UK. A lot of what I do today has its genesis during my time as a student.”

Like African-American college students across the nation, Chester was laying the groundwork for the expanding educational opportunities for hundreds of students who had historically been excluded from higher education.

The Grundys’ history and cultural-research camp developed largely from their exposure to a summer program sponsored by the Plymouth Settlement House in Louisville‘s West End, where the two worked before their marriage.

“It was called an ‘African camp’ that celebrated our black heritage and was based on traditional languages and motifs,” Ann said. “This program was more clearly defined by a co-worker, Priscilla Cooper. From that experience, we became deeply involved in reading, research and traveling to Africa. These experiences transformed our lives.”

What Chester learned in Africa influenced his relationship with students while working over 38 years in UK’s Office of Multicultural Affairs (formerly the Office of Minority Affairs).

“Chester’s love for art, history and culture has allowed him to provide an important dimension in the educational development of his students,” Ann said. “He believes that one is not truly educated without being grounded in a positive, enlightened understanding of self.”

The college paths the two followed in their youths pointed in different directions. Chester chose the University of Kentucky, but because of the severe challenges it appeared awaited his son, it surprised, and maybe even irritated his father initially. The father allowed his son to make his own decision, though, with the understanding that Chester “would not leave UK without a degree.”

Ann decided on Berea College, a smaller school that was a bit more minority friendly—though not without typical race obstacles of the 1960s. “It was not unusual for a white student to resent having a black roommate,“ she said.

It was while a student at Berea College that Ann participated in a landmark event in America’s history—the march from Selma, Alabama, to the capital at Montgomery on March 24, 1965, to protest civil rights violations and to champion the right to vote.

“We were there to support Dr. King and human rights,” said Ann, who traveled with a racially integrated group of students. When they arrived, they joined the action. Walking for miles on gravel and hard pavement was not easy. “I didn’t even have a pair of tennis shoes,” she said, “and I remember that the shoes I wore were muddy.”

Along the way, Ann instinctively used her musical talent to lead other marchers in songs of hope for the struggle ahead. It was an exciting time, a dangerous time—and a time for the ages. The inspiration of her youth experiences at 16th Street Baptist Church emboldened her. She gave an inspirational message to her fellow activists on the bus after the march about the historical significance of what had just taken place. She continues to instill hope and encouragement today as she speaks to various groups in the community about being an agent for positive change.

Chester remembers entering UK in the fall of 1965. “I was looking for a school with ROTC because I had a family that had a strong military background. My ambition back in 1965 was to make a career as a military officer,” he said.

He felt alone and not in a hospitable situation at UK. “UK had maybe 50 black students at the time,” he recalled. Instead of leaving, Chester threw himself into making a tough situation better for both himself and others. He became a member of the fledgling Black Student Union, and his participation was definitely proactive.

“We were losing maybe 65 percent of the students in the first year,” he said. “Just atrocious. So the BSU started talking about things such as financial support, the hiring of black faculty, the importance of counseling and mentoring and the necessity of creating an environment that affirmed what we were. We ran a six-week prep course in math and English.”

Improvements at UK did come, “but it should be remembered that these changes were largely championed by a small group of visionary students,“ said Chester. “We were, in fact, doing the work of the administration without financial or other support. We did it because we were determined to improve our circumstances and the future of those who would follow us.”

The soft-spoken activist related how he grew deeper in knowledge and appreciation of the black experience during those formative years at UK.

“While a freshman, I met my first true intellectual, an older graduate student who was extremely well-read and had a knack of stimulating lively discussions while we sat together in the Student Center grill,” he remembered. “I would always just sit and listen, intrigued by his knowledge and his logic.”

The debates about the issues of the day ignited Chester, propelling him toward deeper reading of current events, history, culture and literature—and strong personal growth.

“Sometimes I would read through the night, books by people like James Baldwin and Richard Wright,” he said. “Over time, I felt more empowered, more whole. With that knowledge under my belt, it was much easier for me to deal with a very alienating environment that characterized UK in the 1960s.”

The highly successful Roots and Heritage Festival originated in the late 1980s as the result of a kitchen table conversation at the Grundy residence. Present with Ann and Chester was an activist who had seen cultural festivals thriving around the country. The talk was full of optimistic yearnings, and soon, Chester Grundy drew up a “vision paper” for the Lexington festival.

“It was presented to Mayor (Scotty) Baesler, and he earmarked $10,000 for a festival—provided the first keynote speaker be Alex Hailey, renowned author and biographer of Malcolm X,” Chester said.

With the help of many others, the first Roots and Heritage Festival happened in1989. “It started with three to four thousand people, and it created a buzz,” said Chester. “The second year, the weather was better and the attendance almost doubled.” In more recent years, the event has drawn as many as 40,000 people. Chester referred to it as a “magnificent success, a wonderful cultural celebration—peaceful with nobody ever arrested for hurting anybody.“

The Roots and Heritage Festival has served to “make the race proud“— like Chester and Ann Grundy had hoped.

The study and travel model for Nia that the Grundys champion is a very disciplined program that typically works with about 30 students. Scrapbooks and personal daily journals are maintained, providing a framework for reflective thinking. Students have to agree to tight, though reasonable rules, including not bringing items that distract from the focus of the trips. In short, the Nia Project is an agreement to learn together. It is purposeful, enjoyable, communal, memorable and life-changing.

Ann remembered a special teachable moment on a trip to Montgomery in the 1970s. “We showed them a film about Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. We timed it so that it ended as we approached the Edmund Pettus Bridge (where marchers led by Martin Luther King confronted law-enforcement officials on March 9, 1965). Students and counselors were all in tears,” said Ann. “The Nia Project brings tears every year as students stand up to read and share from their journals. They say they have never had such experiences.”

As nearly always happens when the Grundys get involved, The Nia Project was rooted in earlier, powerful experiences. The African camp at the Plymouth Settlement House gave them the idea of inviting kids to their home and doing things of lasting value on the local level.

“We documented the history of New Zion (near Lexington), a historical community of enslaved Africans,” said Ann. “The church there allowed us to interview their members. We also studied the gravestones at the church cemetery.”

Many of the participants for the project came from the Chestnut Street YMCA in Lexington’s inner city. “We focused on knowing these students’ families and earning their support. This was key,” Ann said.

Ann likes to call the mobile camp that developed from research from traveling “a university on wheels. I love the program!” she said. “On so many levels, it works. We train the adults and they are as anxious as the kids.”

“We have had boys who probably didn’t buy into it at first, but combining travel and exciting study is a powerful combination,” Chester added. “When learning is creative and relevant, all sorts of incredible things can happen.”

The Grundy household is replete with both African artifacts and personal memorabilia. These special reminders are of a precious ancestry and their fierce, noble struggles. Those reminders, and the people they touch, invigorate them daily as the two continue to do all they can to make the race proud.

1 steve flairty

Steve Flairty is a lifelong Kentuckian, teacher, member of the Kentucky Humanities Council’s Speakers Bureau and author of five books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and four in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series. All are available around the state or from the author, including his most recent, Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #3. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly and contributes weekly to KyForward. Email Steve at sflairty2001@yahoo.com. (Photo by Ernie Stamper)

To read more of Steve Flairty’s Everyday Heroes, click here.

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One Comment

  1. James Reyes says:

    Hi Ann My name is Jimmy Rogers I m hopeing this is you! If it is you we met a long time ago, I was only 15 yrs old, You was my counselor at Dale H Farabe school in Lexington KY, I would like to just say hello to you, it’s been a long time, Hope to hear back from you soon sincerely Jimmy Rogers

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