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'Behind the Blue': Arts and Sciences Alum George Wright Discusses Integration at UK

By Kody Kiser and Kayla Gales 

Portrait of an alumnus
George Wright, a UK alum and senior adviser to UK President Capilouto, reflects on Lyman T. Johnson's 1949 court victory, and the impact it's had on his personal UK experience, as well as on the cultural life of the university. Pete Comparoni | UK Photo

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Feb. 15, 2024) — This year marks the 75th anniversary of Lyman T. Johnson’s historic legal triumph against the University of Kentucky, a milestone that marked him as the first Black student to integrate the university.

A lifelong champion of education and its transformative potential, Johnson was an advocate for equality in both education and broader society, drawing inspiration from his experiences as both a student and a teacher.

Johnson's lawsuit against UK proved successful, leading to his enrollment as a graduate student in the summer of 1949. While he did not complete his degree at UK, the enduring legacy he leaves behind echoes the principles he instilled in his students — the ongoing pursuit of equality and justice, and an emphasis on the role of education and independent thinking to help people navigate the path toward progress.

UK alumnus and Lexington native George Wright is one of many who has benefitted from Johnson’s efforts. A noted African American scholar and former president of Prairie View A&M University in Texas, Wright attended UK in 1968 through a special program offered after the death of Martin Luther King Jr., earning both bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the university.

Wright earned bachelor's master's degrees in history from UK and received a Ph.D. from Duke University. He returned to UK as an assistant professor then later moved to the University of Texas at Austin and eventually Prairie View. In 2019-20, he came back to UK as a visiting professor in recognition of the 70th anniversary of integration. At the end of that year, he remained at UK and served as interim vice president for institutional diversity for 2020-21 and then took on the role of senior adviser to President Eli Capilouto. 

On this episode of "Behind the Blue," Wright talks about the personal and community significance of Black History Month and the impact Lyman T. Johnson’s victory had on his own UK experience, as well as on the cultural life of the university itself.

“The Lyman Johnson case happened in 1949. I (was) born in 1950, so this is on the verge of all of this change,” Wright says in the interview. "When I was young, virtually everyone I knew who was Black said they were going to college somewhere other than the University of Kentucky."

Wright discusses areas of the university that looked much different 50-75 years ago, and notes the "tremendous change" he has witnessed.

“I feel as if my professional career, maybe even my personal life, has come full circle,” Wright said. “Being born in Lexington, going to the University of Kentucky, and now back here at the University of Kentucky. I tell people — unashamedly, unabashedly — that I have always loved the University of Kentucky and that I'm so appreciative of the opportunities that UK gave me back when I was a scared-to-death teenager about a university.”

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Transcripts for this or other episodes of Behind the Blue can be downloaded from the show’s blog page.

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As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.   

In 2022, UK was ranked by Forbes as one of the “Best Employers for New Grads” and named a “Diversity Champion” by INSIGHT into Diversity, a testament to our commitment to advance Kentucky and create a community of belonging for everyone. While our mission looks different in many ways than it did in 1865, the vision of service to our Commonwealth and the world remains the same. We are the University for Kentucky.