A look back at black history at the University of Kentucky

Pictured above is Zirl A. Palmer, the first African American to be named to the UK Board of Directors.

Pictured above is Zirl A. Palmer, the first black member of the UK Board of Trustees.

In honor of Black History Month, the UK Alumni Association would like to recognize influential black alumni and employees. While this list does not encompass all great black leaders from the university, it does highlight many of those who helped pave the way for future generations.

Carey L. Anderson Jr. earned a B.A. in architecture at the University of Kentucky in 1973. In 1977, he became the first African-American architect licensed in Kentucky and by 1980 was the first in the state to establish an architectural firm, Anderson Associate Architects.

Tyrone Beason is a graduate of Bowling Green High School. In 1993, while attending UK, he became the first black editor-in-chief of The Kentucky Kernel. In 2010, Beason won the Darrell Sifford Memorial Prize in Journalism. He is currently a reporter with the Seattle Times.

David A. Brennen was named dean of the UK College of Law in 2009, making him the first black law school dean in the state. He has served as the assistant general counsel in Florida’s Department of Revenue and as deputy director of the Association of American Law Schools.

Lauretta Byers and Nathan Sullivan were the first African-American graduates of the College of Social Work graduate program.

Dermontti F. Dawson is a seven-time NFL Pro-Bowler and received two bachelor’s degrees from UK in 1988 and 1995 from the College of Education. He was a lineman for the UK football team and later was with the Pittsburgh Steelers for 12 seasons. Dawson was inducted into the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame in 2003, is a member of the UK College of Education Alumni Hall of Fame and the UK Alumni Association Hall of Distinguished.

Holloway Fields Jr. received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1951 from the College of Engineering. This made him the first African American to receive a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kentucky. He became a test program engineer with General Electric Co. and throughout his years there, held positions of increasing technical and managerial responsibility. He is in the College of Engineering Hall of Distinction.

James “Jimmy” H. Glenn III became the first black president of the UK Student Government Association in 1999. He is also a recipient of the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government Distinguished Citizen Award. He earned a degree in engineering, having graduated in 2004.

Angelo Henderson, Pulitzer Prize-winning Detroit journalist in 1999 for feature writing, radio talk show host and co-founder of a prominent community patrol group, earned a journalism degree in 1985 from the University of Kentucky. He was the only African-American reporter to win the Pulitzer Prize at The Wall Street Journal. Henderson was inducted into the UK Alumni Association Hall of Distinguished Alumni.

Ollen B. Hinnant Jr. was the first African American to graduate from the UK College of Law, receiving his degree in 1955. In 1997 he was the first to be inducted into the school’s Alumni Hall of Fame. He practices law in Lexington.

Keisha Schumacher Houston was the first African American to graduate from the College of Public Health, earning a master’s of public health in 2002.

Marsha Hughes-Rease is the first African American to graduate from the College of Nursing, receiving a BSN in 1972. She served as a Navy Nurse Corps officer almost 30 years and was aboard the USNS Comfort during Desert Shield and Storm War. Hughes-Rease received the Legion of Merit medal, two Meritorious Service medals, two Commendation medals, and the Combat Action ribbon. She later started her current career as an executive coach and organization development consultant, Quo Vadis Coaching and Consulting.

Keith L. Jackson graduated from the UK College of Communication and Information in 1987. In 2012, he became the first black fire chief in Lexington. He is a 21-year veteran of the department and a member of the UK Alumni Association.

Lyman T. Johnson played an integral role in integrating Kentucky higher education in 1949, when he won a lawsuit against the university and became the first African-American student at UK. The lawsuit challenged the state’s Day Law, the law that prohibited blacks and whites from attending the same schools. Johnson and around 30 others started classes at UK that year, with Johnson entering UK as a graduate student in the History Department. Although Johnson left UK before earning a degree, in 1979 the university presented him with an honorary doctor of letters degree. Johnson taught history, economics and math for 33 years at Louisville’s Central High School. He spent his last seven years in the school system as an assistant principal at Parkland Junior High, Manley Junior High and Flaget High School, all former schools in Louisville. The civil rights pioneer was a member of the Jefferson County Board of Education from 1978 to 1982.

Owen Johnson was the first African American to receive a doctorate from the College of Public Health in 2005.

William Jones Jr. was the first African American to graduate from the College of Arts & Sciences, earning a degree in sociology in 1958. He became a minister and civil-rights leader and had a 5,000-member church in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Jones also hosted a syndicated weekly radio program called Bethany Hour. In 1979, he published a book entitled God in the Ghetto.

Dr. Benjamin W. Nero was the first African-American graduate of the UK College of Dentistry in 1967. He has been practicing dentistry for more than 40 years as an orthodontist and is now semi-retired. Nero has served as the second president of the New Era Dental Society of Philadelphia, traveled to Haiti to provide dental care to island residents and has mentored many dental students and young dentists.

Zirl A. Palmer was the first black pharmacist in Lexington and also the first black member of the University of Kentucky Board of Trustees. He was appointed by Gov. Wendell Ford.

Joker Phillips, a native Kentuckian and former Wildcat player, became the first African-American head football coach at UK in 2010 and only the second in the history of the Southeastern Conference. Phillips, who earned a journalism degree at UK in 1988, played at UK from 1981-84 and was on the football staff from 1988-96. He played with the Washington Redskins of the National Football League (1985, 1987) and Toronto in the Canadian Football League (1986). Phillips returned to UK from South Carolina, where he coached wide receivers in 2002. He also has coached at Cincinnati (1997-98), Minnesota (1999-2000) and Notre Dame (2001). Phillips was on the staff of Coach Rich Brooks from 2003-09, including the last five seasons as offensive coordinator.

Sharon Porter Robinson is a three-time graduate of UK. She is the former president and CEO of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, and was the first black woman to serve in the position. Robinson was also appointed the assistant secretary of education with the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, becoming the first black person to serve in the position. She is a member of the UK Alumni Association.

John T. Smith was the first black student to receive a doctorate from UK, doing so in 1961. He also earned a master’s degree from UK in 1958. His career as an educator included teaching in junior-senior high school, in two community colleges, Ashland and Jefferson, and in graduate courses at UK. He was the first African-American to serve as the chief administrator of Jefferson Community College, and the first African American to serve as a member of the president’s administrative staff in the position of vice president for minority affairs. His title changed to vice chancellor for minority affairs in 1982. Smith was inducted into the UK Alumni Association Hall of Distinguished Alumni in 1995.

Mary L. Smith was the 11th and first female president of Kentucky State University, serving as president for seven years (1991-1998). Smith has a long record of achievement in academia including scholarship, teaching and professional activity in education at various levels. She received a master’s degree in 1964 and a doctorate in 1980 from the College of Education. Smith is a member of the College of Education Hall of Fame and the UK Alumni Association Hall of Distinguished Alumni.

Orlando “Tubby” Smith became the first African-American men’s basketball coach at UK in 1997. In 1998 the team won the NCAA Basketball Championship. He has also coached at Texas Tech, the University of Minnesota, the University of Tulsa and the University of Georgia. Smith also served as an assistant coach on the 2000 U.S. Olympic Team. His 10 years at the University of Kentucky ended with a record of 263 wins and 83 losses; four NCAA Elite Eights; five SEC tournament titles; five SEC regular season titles; 2003 AP Coach of the Year; and 10 selections to the NCAA Tournament.

Arthur B. Still was a National Football League All-Star and graduated from UK in 1980 with a bachelor’s degree from the College of Arts & Sciences. An All-American at UK, Still became just as formidable in the National Football League as a defensive end with the Kansas City Chiefs. Not only was he a four-time Pro Bowl selection, he was named the Chiefs’ Most Valuable Player twice and in 1997 he was inducted into the Chiefs’ Hall of Fame. He has also worked as a physical education instructor and provided counseling and supervision to juvenile delinquents between the ages of 12 and 18. Still was inducted into the UK Alumni Association Hall of Distinguished Alumni.

Vertner Taylor was the first African American to graduate from the College of Pharmacy, receiving his degree in 1960. He has been the director of health services and also the commissioner of corrections at the State Corrections Cabinet.

Frank X Walker graduated from UK in 1996. He joined the UK Department of English as a faculty member in 2010 and was named director of both the African American Studies and Research and Africana Studies programs. In 2013, he was named the first black poet laureate of Kentucky, and is also the youngest recipient in the state’s history. He is a member of the UK Alumni Association.

Dr. Carl Watson was the first African American to graduate from the College of Medicine, with the first class of graduates in 1964. He has practiced as an obstetrician-gynecologist for 45 years and lives in the San Francisco, Calif., area.

Doris Wilkinson was the first African-American woman appointed to the full-time faculty in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Kentucky. She also was the first director of the African-American Studies and Research Program at UK. She received a bachelor’s degree in social work in 1958 from UK. Wilkinson established the Forum for Black Faculty, the Carter G. Woodson Lecture Series and the Black Women’s Conference.

Elaine A. Wilson is the first African American to become president-elect of the UK Alumni Association and will assume the presidency in July 2014. She received a bachelor’s degree from the College of Social Work in 1968 and is the cultural diversity director for Somerset Community College. She has also been a member of the UK Board of Trustees.

George C. Wright is a noted African-American scholar and the seventh president of Prairie View A&M University, the second oldest institution of higher education in Texas. He previously was executive vice-president for academic affairs and provost at the University of Texas at Arlington, and has been with Duke University as vice provost for university programs and director of the Afro-American studies program. Wright received a bachelor’s degree in 1972, a master’s degree in 1974 and an honorary doctorate in 2004 from UK. Wright was inducted into the UK Alumni Association Hall of Distinguished Alumni.

Information was compiled from several resources, including the UK Alumni Association database, UK Libraries Notable African Americans Database and information supplied from individual UK colleges.

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