Seven decades ago, Harrison Wilson returned home from World War II with plans to take advantage of the GI Bill and attend the University of Kentucky.
A talented student and athlete who had served his country for four years, Wilson was nonetheless denied admission. In 1946, Kentucky didn’t accept black students and wouldn’t for several more years, until it lost a lawsuit filed by graduate student Lyman T. Johnson.
Johnson became Kentucky’s first black student in 1949.
Wilson, the grandfather of former N.C. State quarterback and Super Bowl champion Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks, went instead to Kentucky State University, later becoming a successful basketball coach, administrator and university president.
After all these years, UK will award Harrison Wilson an honorary doctorate Saturday. Wilson said it will be particularly special, as he will share the day with another grandson, Brandon Wilson, who will be getting his master’s degree in history from UK.
“I consider it an honor,” Harrison Wilson, 89, said in a recent interview.
Efforts to reach Russell Wilson were unsuccessful.
Brandon Wilson, 22, said the whole idea came about after he won the Lyman T. Johnson Fellowship, which is given to encourage diversity. Brandon’s research focuses on free blacks who chose to stay in border slave states, such as Kentucky, rather than go farther north.
“My grandfather had made an education possible for me that was not possible for him,” Brandon said.
Last year, Brandon was talking to some of his professors about his grandfather, whose family left Kentucky for New York but then returned to their native Pendleton County. After the conversation, history department chairwoman Karen Petrone and associate chairwoman Gretchen Starr-LeBeau decided to start the nearly year-long process to nominate Harrison Wilson for an honorary degree.
Starr-LeBeau said a nominee must have widespread support throughout the university and be approved by the University Senate and the Board of Trustees.
“We could make a two-pronged case,” she said. “On the one hand, this was righting a wrong. On the other, we were acknowledging (Wilson’s) accomplishments, especially what an important impact he had on higher education. It seemed especially apropos to do it so that he and Brandon could be acknowledged together.”
A high school basketball and baseball star, Harrison Wilson enlisted in the Navy, and he spent four years in the newly integrated armed forces. He returned home, graduated from Kentucky State with honors, then went to Indiana University, where he earned a doctorate.
He was then hired at Jackson State University in Mississippi as a basketball coach, where he built powerhouse teams for 17 years. He eventually decided to leave athletics for administration, moving to Tennessee State University and Fisk University. In 1975, he became president of Norfolk State University, a small, historically black school in Norfolk, Va. During his 20-year leadership, the school grew from 5,000 students to 20,000.
Looking back, Harrison Wilson said, he’s glad he went to Kentucky State. “I had been to all-white schools in New York from kindergarten to high school, and I got to believing there was something better about whites than blacks,” he said. “That changed when I was in the Navy, and when I went to Kentucky State, which was great.”
He is most proud of the changes he brought to Norfolk State, with expanded offerings, new buildings and scholarship programs for pre-medical students.
His six children attended an array of top colleges and universities, including Mount Holyoke, Dartmouth and Harvard.
Grandson Russell Wilson, who became the first ACC quarterback to win a Super Bowl in February, started for the Wolfpack for three seasons from 2008 to 2010. A three-time All-ACC quarterback and ACC freshman of the year in ’08, Wilson threw for 8,545 yards and 76 touchdowns in his Wolfpack career. As a fourth-year junior, he led N.C. State to a 9-4 record and a No. 25 ranking in the final AP top 25 in 2010.
His jersey was honored by the university last month.