UK to award honorary degree to African American rejected in the - WDRB 41 Louisville News

UK to award honorary degree to African American rejected in the 1940s

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Wilson Harrison, pictured with family Wilson Harrison, pictured with family
LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) -- When the University of Kentucky holds its graduation ceremony on Saturday, one man will be receiving a degree more than 60 years late.

Harrison Wilson should have received a degree from the University of Kentucky more than six decades ago, but he was denied admission because of the color of his skin. Now UK is righting that old wrong.

Wilson was a star athlete and academic, and when he returned from World War II in 1946, he had planned to use the GI Bill to attend UK.

But at that time, racial diversity was, to say the least, not celebrated.

"Obviously he wanted the best education possible for himself. And also wanted the opportunity to play sports for one of the better sports teams in the state," said Brandon Wilson, Harrison's grandson and a graduate student at UK.

"He was well aware of the racial climate at the time and ended up going to Kentucky State instead," Wilson said.

Wilson went on to earn a PhD from Indiana, building both a successful family and career, eventually serving as president of Norfolk State University in Virginia.

"Obviously opportunities came about despite the racial climate, which is a testament to his abilities," said Brandon.

Dr. Karen Petrone, the chair of UK's history department learned of Harrison Wilson's story through an article Brandon wrote.

"I realized that we had an opportunity here to go back and try to make recognition that what was done in 1946 was wrong," she said.

Petrone spearheaded the effort to award Wilson an honorary degree.

"It's a symbol of the new openness that, over the course of time, the University of Kentucky has developed and embraced," she said.

Not only will Wilson receive a degree at age 90 from the school that rejected him, he'll do so as his grandson receives a master's degree in history.

"He was not the only one, and we're not the only family who deserves some sort of recognition tomorrow. It's really something we should all share as a society as we try to go towards more equality," said Brandon.

Brandon Wilson is attending UK on a Lyman T. Johnson fellowship -- a fellowship named for the man who broke the color barrier at UK in 1949.

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