March 27, 2023
Exhibit open in HBLL through March
Until recently, most people thought of Darius Gray as the first African American student to attend BYU. However, a history student searching old BYU yearbooks for inspiration for her honors thesis rediscovered more about the university’s legacy with Black students: Norman Wilson from Louisiana graduated from BYU in 1939 — 25 years earlier.
Grace Soelberg (BA ‘21) is the history student who discovered Wilson and is now a Latter-day Saint Collections assistant at the Harold B. Lee Library. She recently curated a new exhibit for the Special Collections section of the library. The exhibit, “Go Make Great,” is inspired by her studies of Wilson.
Extensive research for her thesis allowed Soelberg to uncover more about Wilson’s life. Born in 1913, he grew up in Louisiana where his parents were sharecroppers. His cousin, Allenia Wilson, who studied under Booker T. Washington helped him learn to read. Because his parents encouraged him to get an education, Wilson attributes his success to them.
Wilson attended Leland College, an historically Black college in Baker, Louisiana. After a year, he hitchhiked to Atlanta, Georgia, and enrolled in Morehouse College where he studied rural sociology and economics to earn a bachelor’s degree. The famous American sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois was one of his mentors.
Wilson was an avid boxing fan and first heard about BYU while listening to a boxing match on the radio — during a commercial break the commentator read the score of a BYU game. After hearing this quick mention of BYU, Wilson was inspired and felt guided to go there for a master’s degree.
During his term at BYU, he studied agricultural economics. Throughout his tenure he was actively involved in many extracurricular activities and clubs, though the history also indicates that housing and food were difficult for him to find due to segregation.
Soelberg hopes students are inspired by the exhibit and by Wilson’s life and legacy. "I want them to find motivation from his immense perseverance and courage. Most importantly, however, I want students to leave the exhibit with a sense of responsibility to make BYU a better place for everyone,” says Soelberg.
She believes belonging isn't simply welcoming people in, but that “it's ensuring that no one ever has to question whether or not they would be loved and cared for in the first place."
The exhibit features pictures and personal mementos from Wilson’s life. It can be viewed in the Special Collections section on the first floor of the Harold B. Lee Library. The exhibit is open through the end of March.
Learn more about alumni achievements in our annual Connections Magazine.