Paving way to inclusivity at UK


Elaine Wilson was the first African American Alumni President and Kentucky Babe, an off shoot the ROTC. She is pictured here with her Kentucky Babe teammates. 

By Lexington Souers

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UK’s first African-American graduate student arrived in 1949, but African-American undergraduate students were not allowed until 1954. 

Elaine Wilson, UK’s first African-American Alumni President, graduated from UK in the late 60s and said the university has grown over the years. 

Wilson feels good about where the university is going. UK has seen record minority enrollment, and Wilson said she sees people of all races, ethnicities and walks of life walking around campus. 

“I think those of us who struggled paved the way for that,” Wilson said. “When you walked around campus, you would see very few African-Americans walking around.”

But the lack of diversity didn’t bother Wilson.

“I was there to get an education,” Wilson said. “I was about getting to my classes and getting to work.” 

Wilson said she was not subject to much racism, but that occasionally members of the Kentucky Babes, an ROTC offshoot, would make comments like, “Why are you here?” 

“I managed to make friends with different races, so those cutting remarks didn’t bother me,” Wilson said.

When Wilson was at UK, she approached a professor about a grade in one of her classes. She said she was one point away from an A, and many of the white students who sat near her urged her to speak with her professor about bumping her grade up. The professor refused. 

“I had to work for everything I got,” Wilson said. 

Wilson was the first African-American member of the Kentucky Babes. The Kentucky Babes practiced drills, and would perform marching routines with wooden rifles at competitions. 

Wilson’s favorite part was marching, which she said had prepared her for her future career. 

“I made sure everyone did their job,” Wilson said.

Aside from on-campus employment, there were few groups for African-American students. There was a black student union called Ornega. At the time, there were no national Panhellenic council or black sororities, but the fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha had begun to colonize. 

“I would have never been able to join a sorority,” Wilson said. “It was a different world.” 

Wilson graduated with a degree in social work, and then pursued a master’s degree at Case Western Reserve University. 

“I absolutely loved getting an education at UK,” she said. 

Wilson was admitted to Kentucky State, a traditionally African-American land grant university, but one of her grandfather’s friends urged her to attend UK. 

She doesn’t remember having any black professors, but she said that Connie Wilson, a social work professor, was one of her favorites and allowed her to get hands-on experience. 

Wilson currently works in Somerset as the Cultural Diversity Coordinator at Somerset Community College. 

In 2014 she became the first African-American Alumni President. To be president, alumni must be lifetime members and hold several leadership roles. 

“I was really excited that people thought enough of me to set me on that path,”  Wilson said.