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‘With fierce determination, unwavering grace’: Honoring the life, contributions of Doris Wilkinson

By Lindsey Piercy

Doris Wilkinson
As one of the first Black undergraduate students to graduate from UK in 1958, Doris Wilkinson helped uniquely define and shape the history of the university.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (June 25, 2024) — Doris Yvonne Wilkinson, Ph.D., a Lexington native and one of the University of Kentucky’s first undergraduate African American graduates, died at the age of 88.

Today, UK celebrates Wilkinson’s inspiring legacy and honors her memory by recognizing the virtues and values that distinguished her life, which also speak to the community UK aspires to be.  

A nationally honored professor of sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences, Wilkinson’s influence spans beyond the boundaries of UK’s campus and beyond the borders of the Commonwealth.

As one of the first Black undergraduate students to graduate from UK in 1958, Wilkinson helped define and shape the history of the university.

“Dr. Doris Wilkinson was powerful, influential and, at times, larger than life. It is with deep sadness that I learn of her passing, but I am comforted in knowing that her legacy continues to run deep across the foundation of our community,” said UK President Eli Capilouto. “Throughout her life, she faced adversity with the kind of fierce determination and unwavering grace that pushed open doors and ensured they never closed. We are grateful to be beneficiaries of her goodness and intellect, her perseverance and drive, her passion for education and devotion to progress. We are proud to count her as an indelible part of the UK family.”

Early life and education

Born in 1936 in Lexington, Wilkinson grew up in a segregated society, which shaped her perspectives and fueled her passion for equality.

During a time of deep discrimination throughout our nation, in 1954, the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School graduate arrived on UK’s campus, embarking on a journey for the education she and others desired and deserved.

Following her graduation from UK, Wilkinson continued her educational journey, earning her master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University and master’s and doctoral degrees from Case Western Reserve University.

In honor of UK’s 70 years of integration, in 2019, Wilkinson was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters — a testament to her lifelong commitment to academia and social justice.

An academic pioneer

In 1969, shortly after returning to UK, Wilkinson became the first Black woman to secure a full-time faculty position, joining the Department of Sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences and championing diversity and inclusion.

“We are deeply saddened by the passing of Doris Yvonne Wilkinson, a trailblazer and pioneer who paved the way for generations,” Dean Ana Franco-Watkins said. “Her unwavering determination and resilience broke barriers and created opportunities for many. As we mourn her loss, we celebrate her extraordinary life and lasting impact.”

Throughout her career, Wilkinson was dedicated to innovative teaching methods. She emphasized experiential learning and community engagement — encouraging students to apply sociological theories to real-world problems.

Wilkinson’s approach not only educated but also empowered students to become active participants in societal change.

In a 2001 Kentucky Kernel article profiling her teaching career, Wilkinson said, “Dedicated teachers are so important to the learning process and student growth,” she continued. “Chance, as well as being a good student, brought me here and compelled me to become a college professor.”

As the visionary founder and first director of UK’s African American Studies and Research Program (now the Program in African American and Africana Studies), Wilkinson also played a pivotal role in creating the African American Heritage Trail in Lexington.

Doris Wilkinson receiving Honorary Doctorate of Letters
In 2019, Wilkinson was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters — a testament to her lifelong commitment to academia and social justice.

Distinguished author, researcher, advocate

Beyond academia, Wilkinson was deeply involved in community initiatives, working with various organizations to promote educational opportunities and social justice.

Wilkinson’s contributions and initiatives, which included the Forum for Black Faculty, the Carter G. Woodson Lecture Series and the Black Women’s Conference, have significantly influenced the fields of sociology, social theory, race, class and gender.

Throughout her illustrious career, Wilkinson also received numerous professional honors and awards, in addition to authoring, publishing and reviewing many scholarly articles and books.

In 1972, Wilkinson was appointed to the Department of Interior task force on the national parks system. She was listed in the “World’s Who’s Who of American Women” in 1975 and served on various prestigious panels, including the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation's Women in Science program.

Initiated into Phi Beta Kappa in 1978, Wilkinson also received a prestigious grant from the National Institute of Education to establish a research skills institute for women.

From 1980-1984, Wilkinson served on the board of scientific counselors of the National Cancer Institute, and in 1982, she was awarded a contract to study Black colleges and universities.

Wilkinson’s leadership roles included vice president of the Eastern Sociological Society and president of the Society for the Study of Social Problems. She also served on the board at Case Western Reserve.

In 1988, Wilkinson received a grant from Kentucky Humanities to study and plan a community-wide exhibit on early African American physicians from 1890-1950. That same year, she was honored with the American Sociological Association's national DuBois-Johnson-Frazier award for her exemplary contributions to research on race relations.

As a visiting Ford Foundation Fellow at Harvard University from 1989-1990, Wilkinson continued to push the boundaries of her field.

Lasting impact

Wilkinson's legacy is enduring.

In 1989, Wilkinson also became the first African American elected to the UK Hall of Distinguished Alumni, and later, the first to receive UK's Great Teacher Award.

She broke racial and gender barriers in academia and contributed to vital sociological research.

Wilkinson's legacy as a respected scholar and tireless advocate will continue to inspire and guide future generations — reminding us of the profound impact one individual can have in the fight for a more equitable society.


Tributes from friends, colleagues, peers and mentees

"Dr. Doris Wilkinson was more than just the first African American professor I had as an undergraduate or a graduate student.  She was more to me than just someone who taught me how to write and speak as a sociologist. She was more than a friend, role-model, mentor, co-author and colleague. She was and is a standard for me and many others who carry statuses as sociologists, African Americans, academics and humans. She will be missed but her legacy will live on.”

~Aaron Thompson, Ph.D., '90, '92
President, Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education

"I was a colleague of Doris Wilkinson in the sociology department. Doris was a pioneer in many ways at the University of Kentucky and nationally in the American Sociological Association. She was a force to be reckoned with intellectually and politically. She did not suffer fools gladly. She organized a one-day conference on the '60s, and I participated along with the chair of political science at the time, Ernie Yanarella. She talked about the civil rights movement, Yanarella talked about the antiwar movement, and I talked about the counter-culture and hallucinogens (the last item was not Doris’ or Ernies’ favorite topic). After she retired, I proposed and helped establish the Doris Wilkinson Best Paper Award in the department focused on her main areas of research: race, medicine and work. The award was for the best paper in those three areas of sociology. Doris was also a gifted piano player, and she often played for the 'international coffee hour' which also had pastries. She was quite the musician playing classical and jazz equally well. It saddens my heart that such a colossal sociologist and friend is no longer with us."

~Thomas Janoski, Emeritus Professor
Department of Sociology

"Based on my interactions with her, Doris was very much committed to teaching. She was very supportive of junior female faculty, giving me advice and words of praise and encouragements."

~Keiko Tanaka, Professor
Department of Sociology


As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.   

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