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Lyman T. Johnson, Educator and Civil Rights Leader

"Louisville Life" pauses to pay tribute to an extraordinary individual in this Et Cetera, educator and civil rights leader Lyman T. Johnson.

Although not a native Kentuckian, Lyman T. Johnson lived most of his life in Louisville - more than 65 years – and made an indelible mark on his Kentucky home.

Lyman T. Johnson taught at Central High School in Louisville for 33 years, was as an assistant principal in several other schools, and ended his career as an educator by serving on the Jefferson County School Board.

Johnson was also very active in the community. He was at the center of the fight to integrate Louisville neighborhoods, schools and other public places and won the battle to equalize pay for white and black teachers in our public schools.

Lyman Johnson was the head of the Louisville NAACP for six years and worked for organizations such as the Urban League and the Kentucky Civil Liberties Union.

But Lyman T. Johnson is best known as the plaintiff who successfully challenged the University of Kentucky (UK) to admit African American students. The federal suit, which took place in 1948, occurred five years before Brown vs. Board of Education.

At age 43, Johnson became the first Black graduate student at UK. However, he left the university before earning a degree. He later stated that it was never his intent to do so but rather to establish the opportunity for others to obtain their degrees.

UK presented an honorary doctorate of letters degree to Lyman Johnson in 1979, and in 1988 the Graduate School's multicultural fellowship program was named after him.

Other honors he received in his lifetime included the Governor’s Distinguished Service Medallion for Volunteerism and the City of Louisville’s first Freedom Award. In addition, Lyman T. Johnson Middle School (now Johnson Traditional Middle School) was named in his honor in 1980.

Lyman T. Johnson died in Louisville in 1997. He was 91.

Etc.:

  • Lyman Tefft Johnson was born in 1906, in Columbia, Tenn. He as the eighth of nine children.
  • Johnson earned a bachelor's degree in Greek from Virginia Union University (1930) and a master's degree from the University of Michigan (1931).
  • Johnson was a Navy veteran of WWII.
  • He taught history, economics and math at Central High School.
  • Lyman T. Johnson was related to another notable African American in Louisville. Johnson's brother-in-law was Thomas Fountain Blue, the first formally-trained African American librarian in Kentucky. Blue also managed the country's first library training program for African Americans in Louisville's Western Branch Library.
  • An interview with Lyman T. Johnson can be found in the University of Kentucky Oral History Collection; a historical marker honors Johnson on the UK campus, located by Frazee Hall, which is near the Student Center.
  • The personal papers of Lyman T. Johnson are housed at the University of Louisville Library.

KET's biography "Great Leaders: The Black Odyssey of Lyman Johnson", produced a year before his death, features Johnson's story in his own words.

Program 415
Louisville Life gets to know singer/songwriter Brigid Kaelin, honors civil rights trailblazer Lyman Johnson, celebrates the grand re-opening of the popular Louisville restaurant La Bodega and more. (#415)