University of Kentucky College of Agriculture Agriculture Image
the magazine
spring 2000
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What a Difference a Generation Makes

by Randy Weckman

Thirty years after Lyman T. Johnson challenged the "whites only" policy of the University of Kentucky and prevailed in court, Merion Haskins, a talented black UK basketball player from Campbellsville, enrolled as an agricultural economics major. As an agricultural student, he seldom saw another black face, unless it was his own reflection in the glass.

(Picture - Zelia W. Holloway)

The fact that UK Coach Joe B. Hall recruited Merion to play basketball signaled a radical change from just ten years before. Then, his brother Clem, who electrified high school basketball in Western Kentucky just as Merion would later do, was ignored by UK Coach Adolph Rupp. Until 1969, UK 's basketball teams had been exclusively white. (Clem became a star player at Western Kentucky , a professional for the Washington Bullets and coached at Western Kentucky University and University of Minnesota .)

Merion Haskins was honored with the Lyman T. Johnson Outstanding College of Agriculture graduate award at the University's celebration of the integration of the University of Kentucky .

Haskins, who graduated in 1977, serves as leaf procurement officer with Philip Morris USA. He is responsible for negotiating prices, strategic procurement planning, and monitoring the processing of green leaf.

Haskins was not only recruited as a basketball player by Coach Hall, he also was recruited to the College of Agriculture by agricultural economics department chair Milton Shuffett and Extension animal scientist Mac Whiteker. Both Shuffett and Whiteker knew Haskins' family through their own family ties to west Kentucky .

George Duncan, professor of biosystems and agricultural engineering, whose program includes tobacco production, said that Haskins continues to be a star two decades after he left UK 's basketball court.

"I cheered Merion in the days when he was a star athlete and now have the frequent pleasure to share common business interests in an industry that's so vital to the agricultural producers of the Commonwealth. Merion has excelled in many areas of his life and career but has always been down to earth, with a friendly greeting and smile wherever he may be-- in the corporate meeting or on the farm."

Haskins commented on his college days on the court and in agriculture:

"I knew by the end of my sophomore year that I would need to find a career other than basketball. At that point, my grades went up as I grew up," he said with a twinkle in his eye and a big smile.

Now, some half century after Lyman T. Johnson's successful court challenge and two decades after Merion Haskins' days in the College of Agriculture , the University of Kentucky has many more minority faces among its student body. The College of Agriculture has a record minority enrollment of 32 undergraduate students and 13 graduate students.

(Picture - Merion Haskins)

According to Zelia W. Holloway, the College's minority recruitment and retention coordinator since 1996, the greater number of minority faces in the College's teaching programs is the result of a strategic plan to let minority students and their parents know about opportunities in agriculture.

"A great deal of my job involves simply letting minority high school students know that the College of Agriculture has opportunities they need to explore. Many of them-- just like most high school students everywhere-- think that a degree in agriculture will mean they will work in farming," she said. "My job is to let them know that agriculture includes much, much more."

Robert Stewart, a graduate student in agricultural education and recipient of the Lyman T. Johnson Graduate Fellowship, echoes Holloway's message.

"Within the College of Agriculture , you can have about any degree you want from engineering to biotechnology to education-- all with an agricultural orientation. I enrolled in the University of Kentucky because of my interest in golf; I wanted to study turf grass management. I changed to agricultural education because it allowed me to take courses in turf grass management and also gain my teacher's certification," he said.

Zelia W. Holloway also serves as advisor to the UK chapter of Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences (MANRRS), which seeks to help minority students network with each other and make the transition from high school to college.

"Family is always important and at UK , MANRRS can serve as your away-from-home family. You need that," Haskins said.

Stewart, who is a charter member of UK MANRRS, was recruited for an internship with Dow Chemical while he attended the national meeting of MANRRS, where he was also presented the Dow AgroSciences national scholarship.

Kevin Coleman came to UK on a football scholarship, but admits his real scholarship as a student didn't come until his junior year, when he knew what he wanted to do and changed his major to Agricultural Public Service and Leadership. He will graduate in May 2000.

Coleman, from Niceville , Florida , says that many African Americans don't understand the opportunities in agriculture. "They need to explore agriculture as it really is, not just what they think it is. Until I got to UK , I thought agriculture was just working in the fields," he said.

Coleman, whose career goal is to work in pharmaceutical sales, is getting experiences he needs to be successful when he graduates in May.

"The public service and leadership program is preparing me well. Through a practicum class, I've been shadowing a pharmaceutical representative, gaining a better understanding of how to become successful in pharmaceutical sales."

Cinnamon Butler , a sophomore in animal sciences from Hopkinsville , followed in her father's footsteps when she enrolled in the College.

"My dad finished his degree from the College in the early 1990s and he had such a great experience, he persuaded me to come here," Butler said.

Butler , whose career plans are to work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said that MANRRS helps minorities understand the issues confronting agriculture and how they can be part of the agricultural industry.

MANRRS students at UK display awards they won at the national meeting which the co-hosted with Kentucky Sate university March 31. Their chapter won the "Outstanding New Chapter Award"

When Merion Haskins came back to campus 23 years after he graduated to receive the Lyman T. Johnson award, he didn't have to look for his own reflection in the glass to see another face like his. And he's glad about that.