50 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed by President Lyndon Johnson, the City of Leitchfield welcomed a man whose experience with the Civil Rights Act holds a special connection to the city.
Dr. Robert Donaldson, 73, and an African American originally from Sebring, FL, was a young man the first time he visited Leitchfield on July 2, 1964.
Donaldson and his friend Robert Saffold were traveling from Florida to Dayton, OH when news broke over the radio of Saffold’s 1964 F-85 Oldsmobile that Johnson had signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Donaldson and Saffold had originally intended to drive to California, but news of the civil rights-related killings taking place in states between Florida and California led them to detour to Ohio.
Curious to see how they might be treated following the signing of the Act, Donaldson and Saffold, who were at that point travelling from Paducah, KY, decided to exit the Bluegrass Expressway to visit a town they’d never heard of called Leitchfield.
“We were so excited about the signing of the bill and what was going to be included in that bill,” Donaldson said. “…That 1964 Civil Rights Act opened the door for a lot of us.”
Nervous about how they would be treated and whether they would be stopped, the two young African Americans made a number of passes around Leitchfield’s Public Square before parking to eat a meal at the Alexander Hotel restaurant.
“We were brave [getting off the parkway],” Donaldson said.
Donaldson said his fears were quickly abated when he and Saffold were welcomed by Dolores Nichols, who, at the time, owned the restaurant with her husband, Alexander Nichols.
“The people were so nice there,” said Saffold, now 82 and living in Sebring, who spoke via Donaldson’s cell phone. “…It was very hospitable. Everyone was nice and laughing and eager to wait on us. [We got that] warm, southern feeling.
Saffold said that, while he couldn’t remember what the two ate in the Alexander Hotel restaurant, “It was good, and we ate it all.”
Donaldson and Saffold were bothered by no one during their stay in Leitchfield, and, as they were leaving, they felt that things were going to get better, said Donaldson.
After his trip to Leitchfield, Donaldson, who had already earned a Bachelor’s Degree from A & M University, would further his education at Roosevelt University and Western Michigan University.
In 1969, Donaldson moved to Illinois, first to Chicago then, in 1977 to Hazel Crest at which time he took a full-time Associate Professor’s position at Governor’s State University where he would stay until his retirement 35 years later.
It was also around this time that Donaldson became involved in politics and public service. He would serve on numerous boards, commissions, and administrations throughout the next three decades before being elected Mayor of Hazel Crest in 2005.
Donaldson served as Mayor of Hazel Crest from 2005 to 2013 and ended his term with a surplus in the budget and a balanced budget with no debt throughout his entire term.
Throughout all of his accomplishments and work, Donaldson - who credits the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for opening up all the opportunities he had in his life - never forgot about his day in Leitchfield.
Donaldson said he was so surprised by how cordially he and Saffold were treated by the people of Leitchfield that, on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act, he chose to return to tell his story.
“What brought me here today…was the fact that Leitchfield stayed on my mind,” said Donaldson. “I just took to how cordial people are here.
“We tell this story all the time and will continue to tell it. I’m back now and can see the good hospitality again…I wanted to make sure that everybody understood you have a nice community here.”
Following Donaldson’s story, Leitchfield Mayor William Thomason presented Honorary Citizens Awards and Keys to the City of Leitchfield to Donaldson and Donaldson’s wife, Barbara.