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In spring 2023, the University of Kentucky J. David Rosenberg College of Law held its inaugural Pioneers for Progress event. UK Rosenberg Law Senior Assistant Dean Danny Murphy established this initiative, in part, to bring back Black alumni and graduates of color and re-engage them in the law school community.

A. Hasan Davis – an author, consultant and 1996 alumnus of UK Rosenberg Law – served as the keynote speaker at the event on April 13, 2023, in the G. Chad Perry III Grand Courtroom. After an early encounter with the law as a pre-teen and expulsion from an alternative school, Davis earned his GED and then attended Berea College. In his keynote address, Davis talked about navigating Berea College and law school with ADHD and dyslexia and struggling to get needed accommodations.

“My journey to UK law school was a journey that probably nobody could imagine, not even me,” Davis said.

He said students of color face a lot of pressures and expectations – some spoken and some unspoken, and it was hard for him to find support. However, he did find mentors and advocates in some of his professors.

“There’s not one way to get through this, but the only way we get through this is if we have supporters,” Davis said.

Davis has thrived in his career since graduating law school, overcoming many of the historical challenges that Black alumni commonly face in addition to his own disabilities. In 2008, Davis joined the executive leadership team of the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice as deputy commissioner of operations. In 2012, he became Kentucky’s fifth commissioner of juvenile justice and was instrumental in moving juvenile justice reform in Kentucky. A recognized national speaker on issues of juvenile justice and diversity, Davis has written several books and worked to inspire and motivate youth and adults for more than 30 years.

UK Rosenberg Law Dean Mary J. Davis and Whitney Stepp-Gay, UK’s assistant general counsel and a 2015 graduate of the law school, welcomed alumni and encouraged them to return and reconnect with the law school. Nealy Williams, UK’s senior associate director of gift and estate planning and a 2017 graduate of the law school, introduced the speaker.

“We have continued to build on the foundation established by the alumni in this room and many other graduates of color who could not be with us today,” said Dean Davis in her welcome.

hasan Davis and danny murphy

Stepp-Gay recalled looking at class composite photos from across the decades and seeing mostly white men in the beginning after the college was founded. “Slowly you start to see pockets of women, and then slowly you see pockets of color. And I thought to myself, ‘My goodness what must their experience have been at a time with such limited possibilities.’”

Senior Assistant Dean Murphy said the same story told by the composites is what inspired Pioneers for Progress, along with former Dean David Brennen establishing the Ollen B. Hinnant Scholarship with the help of three alumni: John McNeill, Angela Edwards, and Fitz Johnson. “There were too many names and faces of Black graduates on those composites who I do not know, or I know of them but they have never returned since graduation.  As a college, we knew we had to do better in re-engaging Black alumni and other graduates of color.”

Those students didn’t have a lot of people who looked like them in the law building, and there weren’t a lot of people who looked like them in the legal profession. Stepp-Gay said those faces inspired her as a student because they endured and made it through law school even without the mentors and support available to recent and current students.

Stepp-Gay, on behalf of The John Rowe Chapter of the National Bar Association, gave special recognition and honor to the early Black graduates in the audience representing the classes of 1955-1979.

“I want our pioneers to understand that we know success is more than titles earned and positions held,” Stepp-Gay said. “It’s the difference you make, and you all have made quite the difference.”

Alumnus William Churchill led a recent effort to reconnect some of these early graduates, some of whom identify as the “Legacy Group,” with each other and the college. Murphy said, “It is fitting to use an often-used statement that we, as Black alumni of UK Rosenberg Law, truly stand on the shoulders of these early graduates who opened doors through their difficult sacrifices, with some being often denied and others finding paths along the way, to achieve success in the legal profession.”