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About Lyman T. Johnson

Celebrating 75 Years of Desegregation

This year, we mark the 75th anniversary of Lyman T. Johnson’s successful lawsuit against the University of Kentucky, resulting in him becoming the first African American student at the university. Johnson was born in Columbia, Tennessee in 1906 and went on to become known for this role in challenging — and successfully dismantling — racial segregation at the University of Kentucky in 1949.

Johnson was a lifelong advocate of education and its power to transform lives, and his fight for equality in education — and all facets of society — began with his own roots in education.

He earned his bachelor’s degree from Virginia Union University and his master’s degree from the University of Michigan. Through his experiences at both institutions, Johnson maintained his inquisitive and questioning mindset — a trait he inherited from his father and uncle, both “master teachers,” as he describes them in his biography, “The Rest of the Dream,” by Wade Hall.

After leaving Michigan and relocating to Louisville, Johnson turned to teaching. As an educator in history and mathematics in the then all-Black Central High School, Johnson repeatedly challenged historical texts, and he taught his students to begin the process of questioning and forming their own conclusions. He emphasized both the good and the bad of history, and he urged students to investigate given facts instead of unquestioningly accepting them at face value.

These skills were key in his decision to join the lawsuit against UK. After years of teaching, Johnson felt compelled to fight for equal opportunity after seeing the effects of uneven levels of funding on Kentucky State College (now Kentucky State University) and the effects of Kentucky’s Day Law, which segregated all levels of education from kindergarten through graduate school.

Johnson’s lawsuit against UK was ultimately successful, and in the summer of 1949, he was permitted to enroll as a graduate student. Though he did not finish his degree at UK, the legacy he leaves behind is reminiscent of the lessons he once imparted upon his students: the fight for equality and fairness is an ongoing one, and the path forward is through education that enables students to learn how to think for themselves.

For his profound impact on education, Johnson received an honorary Doctorate of Letters from UK in 1979.

At UK, Johnson’s legacy is cemented with the naming of Lyman T. Johnson Hall in his honor. A portrait of Johnson, created by his own grandson, Imar Lyman Hutchins, is permanently housed in the residence hall. The University of Kentucky Alumni Association’s Lyman T. Johnson African American Alumni Constituency Group, in partnership with the Office for Institutional Diversity, carries on his legacy with campuswide awards to honor outstanding and accomplished African American alumni and students from each college through the Lyman T. Johnson Torch of Excellence and Torch Bearer awards. The partnership also awards the Lyman T. Johnson Scholarship Fund, which provides financial assistance to students of color pursuing higher education. By opening these doors for future students, his impact on the institution ensures we remain a university committed to putting students first.

After a lifetime of fighting for equality and fairness, Johnson died in Louisville in 1997 at the age of 91.