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'We were a part of the transition': UK trailblazer Doris Wilkinson passes away at 88


The University of Kentucky is paying tribute to one of its own trailblazers, who left an indelible legacy for Black students.

Born in 1936, Doris Wilkinson went on to become one of the first Black undergraduate students to attend UK, earning her bachelor’s in sociology in 1958, and then becoming the first Black woman to hold a full-time faculty position at the university.

In a 1988 interview, archived at UK’s Nunn Center for Oral History, Wilkinson cited her strong ties to church and family as keys to her success at UK.

"In the South, everything was separate... and it is interesting when you asked me how did I make the transition to UK an integrated world. I don't know," she tells the interviewer. "I think it was family experiences, church experiences. Two institutions which have played a critical role in the lives of Blacks, played a critical role in my life."

She also recalls her first day at the school.

"I do remember the day my father drove down as at Euclid Ave. across from the Memorial Coliseum and parked, and I saw a sea of white people. I had never in my life seen that many white people before. And we stood by for a few minutes, you know, to just we gather our thoughts," Wilkinson says. "And I after that, I remember crossing the street entering and... everybody was all smiles to let you know you were welcome."

While Wilkinson doesn't portray herself as taking on the trailblazer mantel in the 1988 interview, her admirers aren't at all shy when it comes to the description. UK President Eli Capilouto described Wilkinson, who founded the school’s African American Studies and Research Program, as “powerful, influential, and, at times, larger than life.”

Mayor Linda Gorton wrote on X that Wilkinson was an "amazing educator, researcher, and advocate in our community."

In her own words, Wilkinson said, "We were a part of the transition, you know, we weren't estranged from it. It's hard to explain it. Even when I came to UK, there were only two incidents — and I came in 1954, just a few months after the Supreme Court decision. Otherwise I would have had to go somewhere else. There were two things that made me, two sort of incidents, that made me, you know, aware of this being a white environment."

Capilouto added in his statement Monday that "throughout her life, she faced adversity with the kind of fierce determination and unwavering grace that pushed open doors and ensured they never closed."

Wilkinson passed away in Lexington on Saturday. She was 88.

Josh James fell in love with college radio at Western Kentucky University's student station, New Rock 92 (now Revolution 91.7). After working as a DJ and program director, he knew he wanted to come home to Lexington and try his hand in public radio.