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Kentucky by Heart: Highlighting some of Kentucky’s female heroes during Women’s History Month

By Steve Flairty
KyForward Columnist

It’s Women’s History Month in the United States, and I’m excited to highlight some of the special Kentucky women I’ve written about in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes book series since it was launched in 2008.

For sure, these individuals have touched the state of Kentucky; they’ve also had influences outside the state. Their contributions to foster a better world are powerful, sending out ripples of inspiration for now and going forward.

Let’s start off with three African American women who overcame racism in their lives to do great things: Bettie Johnson, Della Jones, and Ann Grundy.

Della Johnson

Bettie L. Johnson, who passed in 2012 at age 95, grew up poor in the West End of Louisville in the early 1900s. She became a successful educator and civil rights advocate despite being refused admittance to the University of Louisville (U of L) because of the Kentucky-legislated “Day Law,” also known as “An Act to Prohibit White and Colored Persons from Attending the Same School.” Nevertheless, years later Johnson made U of L the beneficiary of much of her financial resources. It was and amazing act of forgiveness for a terrible injustice. To Bettie’s surprise, the university named a beautiful campus dormitory in honor of her late in her life, calling it Bettie Johnson Hall.

Della Jones died at age 106 in 2009 after serving as an educator in the Owen County Schools from 1943 until 1974 after first teaching in Wayne and Boone counties starting in 1923. She persevered through many instances of the racism of the times. Amazingly, she received her bachelor’s degree from Kentucky State College in 1957 after attending classes for seventeen summers and cleaning dorm rooms to pay for her tuition.

Ann Grundy, along with her husband, Chester Grundy, led in establishing the Roots and Heritage Festival in the late 1980s. The festival is billed “a pinnacle of regional diversity providing entertainment and education for all ages.” You can learn more about the popular event by visiting rootsfestky.com.

While a student at Berea College, 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. Along the way, she used her musical talent to encourage the marchers. She later led, along with Chester, an educational venture called “The Nia Project” to inform young African Americans about their heritage.

Jane Stephenson

In 1987, Jane Stephenson founded an outreach in Berea called the New Opportunity School for Women(NOSW). Its mission was, and is, “to improve the educational, financial, and personal circumstances of low-income women in the South-Central Appalachian region.”

The program has served 925 women, and has sites, along with Berea, in North Carolina and Virginia (also serving West Virginia). An illuminating book describing the work of NOSW is called I Am Not Nobody. Jane’s program won an Oprah Show’s “Use Your Life Award.”

From the book, here is a testimonial of Jane’s work from a woman named Elizabeth: “Just know you are alive for a reason… you’re not a nobody. You do matter, and you are important. I really don’t think I would be where I am today, if not for the New Opportunity School.”

steve-flairtySteve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

Hopkinsville native Ruth Lature helped establish and directed the Dyslexic Association for the Pennyrile, now over 40 years in existence. Her memoir, Dyslexia: A Teacher’s Journey, tells of the program started in her garage that has given thousands of individuals, through the gift of improving their reading skills, a new lease on life.

Lovesome Stables Equitherapy has, for well over a decade, “provided a therapeutic equestrian environment where individuals with life challenges/disabilities can develop critical life skills, self-respect and reach their highest potential.” Jody Keeley, a special educator, started the program in Jonesville, in Grant County, and later moved the huge success story to Dry Ridge

“We like to think of Lovesome as an oasis from the world, a positive place where we are all valued and accepted the way we are,” she said.

Sandy Tucker, along with her husband, Jerry, founded the Galilean Children’s Home in Liberty in 1984. Sandy died in 2007, but the twenty acres at the site brings love and support to a multitude of individuals, “from one day old to children in their 50s and beyond, with love, care, medical attention, education, employment, and recreation.”

Since a little while after becoming a member of the Sisters of Charity 20 years ago, Sister Juana Mendez, Diocese of Covington, has worked tenaciously and with compassionate understanding for Hispanic immigrants seeking direction. She does so out of her office in the Cristo Rey Parish, in Florence, and on a mobile basis.

Her days are usually long and stressful, and often require trips to court in Louisville, and sometimes trips to Mexico to interview those connected to her clients. She listens to stories of frustration from mostly undocumented individuals who hope to someday receive their “green cards” as American citizens. Using her hard-earned training background, she works through the process with her clients, leading many to reach the goal—and to secure a much better life.

May all mentioned above serve as models for all Kentuckians to follow.

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