From NKAA, Notable Kentucky African Americans Database (main entry)

Wilson, Atwood S.

(born: 1895  -  died: 1967) 

Atwood Wilson was a chemist, educator, civil rights leader, and community leader in Louisville, KY. He was born in the California neighborhood of Louisville to Allen and Mary Wilson.

A 1910 graduate of Central High School in Louisville, Wilson graduated magna cum laude from Fisk University in 1915 with a major in science and mathematics. He went on to earn a B.S. in chemistry in 1920 and a M.S. in education in 1934 from the University of Chicago. He first taught in 1915 at State Street High School, located in the Shake Rag District of Bowling Green, KY, then left the school in 1917 to serve as a chemistry researcher in Washington, D. C. at the American University Experiment Station during World War I.

After the war, Wilson returned to Louisville and served as secretary-treasurer of the Kentucky Negro Educational Association (KNEA) from 1922-1942. He also chaired the organization's Merger Committee, which led in the integration of Kentucky's educational organizations, the KNEA and KEA.

In 1928, Wilson was named the first principal of Madison Junior High [later named Russell Junior High]. In 1934, Wilson became principal of Central High School and led the planning and building of the new Central High School, which opened in 1952; it was the first comprehensive high school in Kentucky. Wilson was also principal of the Central High Adult Night School, grades 1-12, from which he retired in 1963.

During his tenure, he also held a number of appointments, including membership on the executive committee of the National Youth Administration in Kentucky. In 1944, Wilson was appointed a trustee on the Board of the Louisville Free Public Library, and in 1948 he presented the resolution that abolished segregation at the main library building. Wilson was the first African American in the South to be recognized with a citation for his service on a library board. 

Wilson received many other awards, including the Silver Beaver Award for his distinguished service to the Boy Scouts of America, presented to him in person by President Hoover in 1933. Wilson also received an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree from Simmons University [Kentucky] in 1954. In recognition of his contributions, in 1974 the Kentucky Education Association co-named an award in his honor: "The Lucy Harth Smith-Atwood S. Wilson Award for Civil and Human Rights in Education."

Atwood Wilson is mentioned in several biographies on the life of Muhammad Ali; Wilson encouraged Ali [then known as Cassius Clay] to finish high school even though he was at the bottom of his class. Wilson was impressed by Ali's dedication and work ethic toward becoming a world boxing champion.

In 2000, Wilson was inducted into the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights' Hall of Fame and in 2005 was among the first inductees to the Central High School Distinguished Hall of Fame. He was the grandfather of Kentucky Appeals Court Judge Denise Clayton.

Information for this entry was submitted by Mrs. Susie M. Guess, daughter of Atwood S. Wilson. See also pp.  20-21 in Muhammad Ali, by A. O. Edmonds.

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“Wilson, Atwood S.,” Notable Kentucky African Americans Database, accessed July 20, 2024,

Last modified: 2022-06-17 19:33:44