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The University of Kentucky J. David Rosenberg College of Law, in collaboration with the University of Kentucky Alumni Association’s Lyman T. Johnson Alumni Constituency Group, recently hosted a Pioneers for Progress celebration, recognizing African American alumni. This initiative strives to re-engage and celebrate African American, Black, and other graduates of color. Their experiences, sacrifices, and impact continue to pave the way and open doors for current and future generations of UK students.

This year’s Pioneers for Progress event included a lunch panel featuring law alumni who discussed their careers and experiences in law school. The evening activities included a reception and reveal of a new Pioneers for Progress wall outside of the law school’s G. Chad Perry III Grand Courtroom. Following the wall reveal, there was a panel discussion about the impact of Lyman T. Johnson’s court case, the significance of his challenge, and what it has meant for the University of Kentucky’s past, present, and future. 

Danny Murphy, the senior assistant dean of community engagement and operations, moderated the noon panel. He noted that the opportunities afforded to many law students today exist because of the sacrifices of graduates from the past. “We want you to hear their stories,” he said.

All the speakers on the lunch panel were UK Rosenberg College of Law alumni: Debra Merchant (Class of '84), John Merchant (Class of '82), and David Olinger (Class of '76).

John Merchant, a partner with the law firm of Dinsmore and Shohl, described the camaraderie among the small group of Black students in his class. “It was important for us to make sure that we all made it,” he said. “There was this sense of community.”

Debra Merchant, recently retired Vice President of Student Affairs for the University of Cincinnati, said she found a mentor while in law school who understood her as a woman, even though the mentor didn’t look like her. “The biggest change, which has opened so many doors, is that now we have a network in the profession,” she said.

David Olinger, retired Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Kentucky, recalled students in his class starting the Black Law Students Association student organization at the University of Kentucky. Later, many of the same individuals were involved in starting Lexington’s John Rowe Chapter of the National Bar Association. Offering advice to current law students, Olinger emphasized that they shouldn’t take shortcuts in their classes and jobs. “Do your work and get it done,” he said.

The evening panel discussed the 75th anniversary of Lyman T. Johnson’s successful lawsuit against UK, which resulted in him becoming the first African American student at the university. 

“This was the month that the court case was won – very significant (time period in our  history),” said Judge Brian Edwards, Circuit Court Judge, Jefferson County, and 1996 graduate of the law school, who moderated the panel.

The panelists were Judge Melissa Murphy, District Court Judge, Fayette County, a 2001 graduate of the law school, as well as UK alumnus Dr. Ricky Jones, a University of Louisville professor in the Pan-African Studies Department, and Dr. Derrick White, a UK professor of history and African American and Africana Studies.

The panelists shared experiences that resonated with many graduates in the audience, ranging from the challenges and pain of being Black students on UK’s campus to experiences that shaped their lives because of the connections made and education achieved through their time at the university. For many of the panelists, being part of a smaller community within the university led to lifelong friendships and a brotherhood/sisterhood that that spans generations and keeps them connected through the university and their careers to this day.

The attendees loudly applauded Emmett “Buzz” Burnam who was in attendance.  One common message by the panelists and UK graduates in attendance was the importance of the university having individuals who dedicated their careers to recruiting and supporting African American students to succeed at UK. Although not an exhaustive list, the names mentioned throughout the evening included Buzz Burnam, Chester Grundy, Frank X Walker, Joyce Beatty, Toni Thomas, and Jerry Stevens. 

Prior to the evening panel discussion, the college revealed a new wall outside of the Grand Courtroom that features law school graduates of color. Senior Assistant Dean Murphy said the goal when the renovated law school building opened, with the support of UK Rosenberg Law Dean Mary J. Davis, was to include a place in the building to recognize pioneers of the college.

“This will be a living wall and an evolving wall,” Dean Murphy said. “The photos that you see today, we are looking forward to adding more to the wall. We are looking forward to rotating the wall features, and we hope this becomes a piece that people will come to see.”