Thursday, February 28, 2013

Sesquicentennial Stories: The Promise of UK #106

By filing a federal lawsuit against the University of Kentucky in 1948, Lyman T. Johnson opened a door that thousands of African-American students have walked through. The lawsuit challenged the state's Day Law, the law that prohibited blacks and whites from attending the same schools. Mr. Johnson won the case, and he and around 30 others started classes at UK in 1949.

Lyman Johnson, right, and Kentucky State University President R. B. Atwood, leave federal district court in Lexington, after the court ruled in favor of Johnson's admission to the University of Kentucky
 Brother-in-law to Thomas F. Blue, Johnson was born in Columbia, TN, moving to Louisville in 1930 at the request of his sister, Cornelia Johnson Blue. Johnson had already earned a bachelor's degree in Greek from Virginia Union University and a master's degree from the University of Michigan when he entered UK in 1949 as a 43-year-old graduate student. Although he left UK before earning a degree, the university presented him in 1979 with an honorary doctor of letters degree.

While president of the Louisville Association of Teachers in Colored Schools from 1939 to 1941, he advocated equal pay for black and white teachers in the county's schools. Mr. Johnson also led the effort to integrate Jefferson County's neighborhoods, swimming pools and schools.

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 in Louisville. The civil rights pioneer was a member of the Jefferson County Board of Education from 1978 to 1982.

Johnson’s grandparents had been slaves in Tennessee. His paternal grandfather, a carpenter, saved enough money from extra work to buy freedom for himself and his wife.  Mr. Johnson married Juanita Morrell in 1936. She died in 1977. They had two children.

Lyman T. Johnson was a devout believer that integration was the only path to equity between the races. He is celebrated as one Kentucky's greatest fighters for integration. He died at the age of 91 in 1997.

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