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In 1955, Ollen B. Hinnant II became the first African American graduate of the University of Kentucky College of Law, overcoming various forms of discrimination while in law school. Hinnant, who died in 2016 at age 85, went on to become the first African American lawyer for State Farm Insurance in Montclair, New Jersey.

“My dad’s spirit was infectious, formidable, and fearless,” said one of his daughters, Love Hinnant. “Even though he grew up during the Jim Crow era, he was a limitless visionary – nothing scared or deterred him from his path.”

A Lexington, Kentucky, native and a 1952 graduate of Kentucky State University, Ollen Hinnant helped change the course of the law school at UK and the Commonwealth.

“The harsh reality of an all-white law school made him brave and courageous. He confronted a racist system and succeeded. He believed in economic sustainability. He was a strong advocate for Black business ownership, owning land, and other appreciable assets,” Love Hinnant said. “My father gave me the spirit of an entrepreneur, and a compassionate heart.”

Love Hinnant has helped people find jobs that offer free housing for about 20 years. “He taught me not to chase money but acts of kindness.”

Love Hinnant said family, friends and colleagues knew her father as someone who traveled the world “with erudition and laughter,” loved telling good jokes, played bridge and chess, and had an “innocent, childlike curiosity.” He was happy around interesting people who made the world better, she said.

“He loved mentoring young law students. He helped many young, Black lawyers secure jobs at Prudential while they built a side business,” Love Hinnant said.

Ollen Hinnant served as a member of the National Bar Association Hall of Fame, assistant general counsel in the International Law Department at Prudential Insurance Co., and the special assistant to the chairman of the board for Prudential. Eventually, he returned to private practice in Lexington.

In 1997, Ollen Hinnant became the first African American inducted into the UK College of Law, now the J. David Rosenberg College of Law, Alumni Hall of Fame.

Following the 60th anniversary of Ollen Hinnant’s graduation from law school, a group of alumni established a scholarship bearing his name to honor what Hinnant lived for—providing support and opportunity to underrepresented applicants who aspire to pursue legal careers. The fund helps deserving students, those who contribute to the diversity of the law school, get the opportunity to attain a legal education.

Ollen Hinnant held many roles over his lifetime – husband, father, friend, lawyer, civil rights activist.

“While attending college and law school, my father met and married the love of his life—Ella Lilly. UK law school gave my father and mother 30-plus years of marital bliss while making the world better through his civil rights and educational activism,” Love Hinnant said.

Following Ollen Hinnant’s death on Aug. 4, 2016, UK President Eli Capilouto praised Hinnant as a trailblazer.

"The history of the University of Kentucky is marked by pioneers in teaching, research, care, and—in important ways—by individuals whose intellectual achievement and actions cast open our doors so that many who share similar goals can follow," Capilouto said. "Even in the periods of our history where we fell short in our promise, there were champions who taught us and made this institution a better place. Ollen Hinnant was one of those people on the way to a transformative legal career. The beneficiaries of Ollen Hinnant's legacy will continue in that important work as lawyers and lawmakers."

Chester Grundy (UK College of Law ’69), a longtime friend of Ollen Hinnant’s who served alongside him as an active member of the University of Kentucky Lyman T. Johnson Alumni group, said his friend was a familiar figure on the university’s campus.

“Like Lyman T. Johnson before him, he was willing to challenge the racial status quo, persevere, and ultimately champion the desegregation of the UK College of Law,” Grundy said. “He was a transitional figure in the history of this university and his legacy is a shining one. We are a better, more democratic institution because of the contribution of Ollen Hinnant.

“I was always impressed with Mr. Hinnant's desire to contribute, to be of service and value, and to support our efforts to recruit and successfully graduate students of color in any way he could.”

By Shawntaye Hopkins

Feb. 16, 2021