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U. of Kentucky awarding honorary degree to black veteran denied admission in 1946

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Seven decades ago, Harrison Wilson returned home from World War II with plans to take advantage of the GI Bill and attend the University of Kentucky, his first choice college.

A talented student and athlete who had served his country for four years at war, Wilson was nonetheless denied admission. In 1946, UK didn't accept black students and wouldn't for several more years, after UK lost a lawsuit filed by graduate student Lyman T. Johnson.

Johnson became UK's first black student in 1949.

Wilson went instead to Kentucky State University, later becoming a successful basketball coach, administrator and university president.

After all these years, UK will award Wilson an honorary doctorate Saturday. Wilson said it will be particularly special, as he will share the day with his grandson, Brandon Wilson, who will be getting his master's degree in history from UK.

"I consider it an honor," Wilson, 89, said in a recent interview.

Brandon Wilson, 22, said the whole idea came about after he won the Lyman T. Johnson Fellowship, which is given to encourage diversity. Brandon's research focuses on free blacks who chose to stay in border slave states, such as Kentucky, rather than go farther north.

"My grandfather had made an education possible for me that was not possible for him," Brandon said.

Last year, Brandon was talking to some of his professors about his grandfather, whose family left Kentucky for New York but then returned to their native Pendleton County. After the conversation, history department chairwoman Karen Petrone and associate chairwoman Gretchen Starr-LeBeau decided to start the nearly year-long process to nominate Harrison Wilson for an honorary degree.

Starr-LeBeau said a nominee must have widespread support throughout the university and be approved by the University Senate and the Board of Trustees.

"We could make a two-pronged case," she said. "On the one hand, this was righting a wrong. On the other, we were acknowledging his (Wilson's) accomplishments, especially what an important impact he had on higher education. It seemed especially apropos to do it so that he and Brandon could be acknowledged together."

Harrison Wilson's life and career is certainly one of accomplishment. A high school basketball and baseball star, he enlisted in the Navy, and he spent four years in the newly integrated armed forces. He returned home, graduated from Kentucky State with honors, then went to Indiana University, where he earned a doctorate.

He was then hired at Jackson State University in Mississippi as a basketball coach, where he built a powerhouse team for 17 years. He eventually decided to leave athletics for administration, moving to Tennessee State University and Fisk University. In 1975, he was hired to become president of Norfolk State University, a small, historically black school in Tidewater, Va. During his 20-year leadership, the school grew from 5,000 students to 20,000.

Looking back, Harrison Wilson said, he's glad he went to Kentucky State. "I had been to all-white schools in New York from kindergarten to high school, and I got to believing there was something better about whites than blacks," he said. "That changed when I was in the Navy, and when I went to Kentucky State, which was great."

He is most proud of the changes he brought to Norfolk State, with expanded offerings, new buildings and scholarship programs for pre-medical students.

His six children attended an array of top colleges and universities, including Mount Holyoke, Dartmouth and Harvard. (Another grandson, Russell Wilson, inherited his grandfather's athletic talent: He is the quarterback for the 2014 Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks.)

"It's been an amazing life," Harrison Wilson said.

Meanwhile, Brandon Wilson, who grew up in Maryland, is headed back to his undergraduate home, Washington University in St. Louis, to complete his doctorate in history. And then, he says, he might follow in his grandfather's footsteps.

"The administrative path isn't something I necessarily always wanted to do," he said, "but now it looks like something I would want to do some day."
 

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