LEXINGTON, Ky. — Imar Hutchins imagines his grandfather in swathes of bright color, in photographs of Muhammad Ali reading to children and in snippets of death threats he received throughout his long life, including one from the Louisville KKK: "NO GOOD N----- YOU SHOULD BE SHOT FOR WHAT YOU STAND FOR."
Those images swirl into a collage of Lyman T. Johnson, who sued the University of Kentucky to become the first black student there 70 years ago. In honor of that anniversary, Hutchins, 49, created the portrait "I Lived Half Of My Life in the Darkness and Half of My Life in Light." It was unveiled Oct. 11 and will eventually hang in the Lyman T. Johnson residence hall on campus.
The portrait explores the contradictions of Johnson's own life and the often erratic, convulsive progress of civil rights on UK's campus and in the United States more generally, Hutchins said.
"He lived long enough to see buildings and schools named after him, whereas 17 crosses burned on campus when he was at UK," Hutchins said from his Washington, D.C. art studio. "He lived with death threats for years. The portrait is made up of death threats and hate mail — from a distance, hopefully, you'll say that's beautiful, and when you get up close, it's all about the hatred he dealt with, how he transformed hate into love."
Like the rest of the country, UK's journey in integration since Johnson arrived has been rocky. UK has constantly tried to increase enrollment of students of color with mixed results, and has always competed with the University of Louisville, an urban school that is seen as more welcoming. Just last year, black students at UK occupied the Main Building in an attempt to get their demands met on faculty hiring, financial aid and the Memorial Hall mural.
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But UK has always been assiduous about celebrating Johnson's historic lawsuit, and the 70th anniversary seemed like a good chance to look backwards and to the future.
The anniversary celebration kicked off in August when Trevor Noah, the South African comedian and author spoke on campus, and has already included a celebration of 50 years of Black Studies on campus. This fall also marks the first time that UK has offered a major in African American and Africana studies. That major will be bolstered by six new black faculty, who will teach in their fields of English, history, women's and gender studies geography and anthropology with classes in the new major.
Anastasia Curwood, director of African American and Africana Studies said last month that the hirings signal a commitment to the program and "creates a sense of possibility and energy for colleagues who are already here. The fact that we have added a number of exciting scholars to our roster is an infusion of intellectual energy within the program."
Other events include the Council on Postsecondary Education's Higher EDquity Symposium at UK. Topics will include the status of race and ethnicity in higher education, issues of diversity on Kentucky's campuses and implementing inclusive teaching practices in the classroom. Featured keynote speakers include Shaun Harper, scholar and racial equity expert; Aaron Thompson, CPE president; and Samuel D. Museus, diversity scholar and founding director of the National Institute for Transformation and Equity.
Another facet of the anniversary is the return of George Wright, Lexington native, UK graduate and history professor who went on to become the president of Prairie View A&M University in Texas. He's teaching a seminar on slavery in the Americas, and speaking at schools and churches around the state about issues such as reparations. He retired from Prairie View in 2017 and now teaches at Texas A&M University in College Station.
Wright, 69, describes his career as circular, both because he keeps coming back to UK, and because his early work on racial violence in Kentucky is now being discussed in full at places like the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., which honors lynching victims from every state.
"I left UK in 1980, but there has never been a semester where I didn't come back to do something," Wright said. "This year seemed perfect to me. The issues I've always been concerned about have finally caught up."
Wright says he might not have even attended college if it had not been for a summer program set up by UK the summer after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated that brought black high school seniors to campus. They took classes, went on field trips and got comfortable with the idea of going to college.
"I appreciate the University of Kentucky," he said. "I'm not naive, I know all the hiccups here ... But that summer, the black students couples with white faculty were enthusiastic about us coming here. They wanted us to succeed."
Wright's most recent research focuses on race, marginalization and history in other countries, like Germany, Australia, South Africa and Brazil.
Wright said his main goal this year is to get out around Kentucky and talk to people about the issues he's always studied. When his book on lynchings in Kentucky first came out, he said, people accused him of exaggerating. Today, people are more willing to listen ... a bit.
"I want to have a dialogue, where we really listen to each other," he said. "The worst time to try to have a dialogue is during a crisis. A lot of these issues are gray. If you read Nelson Mandela, you have to sit down and talk to the people who oppress you. Even if you are right, you still have to sit down and talk to the other side."