Lighting the Way

Ebony magazine historian and Kappa member Lerone Bennett Jr. with UT Knoxville Kappas

Pictured above: Ebony magazine historian and Kappa member Lerone Bennett Jr. with UT Knoxville Kappas (Photo submitted online by G.K. Rich)

Fifty years later, Theotis Robinson still isn’t sure how the University of Tennessee knew he was black just from reading his application letter; all he knows is that they did.

Robinson had been accepted to Knoxville College with a scholarship, but he wanted to attend UT, at least partly because he wanted to major in political science, which was possible at UT but not Knoxville College. He also had a true affinity for UT, where his father had worked with athletics and where Robinson had seen many football games as a child. And as a lifetime Tennessee resident whose parents paid taxes to the state, Robinson felt he had a right to attend the state’s flagship public institution.

However, Robinson knew that if admitted, he would not be the first black student to attend UT, which had admitted four African Americans to its graduate and law programs in 1952. In 1955, the Board of Trustees voted to adopt a plan by the state Board of Education that would have desegregated all UT undergraduate and graduate programs, but this move was met with a backlash by segregationists. In 1956 the state Supreme Court ruled that all state laws on segregation were invalid, but UT still made no move to integrate all of its programs, and the undergraduate student body remained all white in 1960.

Robinson wrote a letter in July 1960 to the school requesting admission, carefully avoiding any mention of race, his segregated high school, or other indicators that might reveal him to be African American. His return address was on the envelope, but he lived in an area that had white and black residents.

“I got a letter back from UT saying it was sorry, but the university would not accept ‘Negroes’ to the undergraduate school,” Robinson says. “I don’t know exactly how they did their checking, but they obviously ran a check and determined who I was.”

Robinson and his parents met with two deans and later with President Andy Holt to discuss his application. All of the administrators said they could not admit Robinson unless the Board of Trustees allowed it. Holt agreed to take the matter to the board; Robinson and his parents said they understood the position Holt was in, but if the board did not change its policy, the family would sue the university. After learning from the state attorney general that the university was likely to lose such a lawsuit, the board voted in November 1960 to change its policy and admit African American undergraduates.

Time for a Change

On January 4, 1961, Robinson and two other African Americans—Charles Edgar Blair and Willie Mae Gillespie—arrived on campus as UT students.

Jim Hall (’67), currently a member of the university’s Board of Trustees, was already a UT student when Robinson, Blair, and Gillespie were admitted. He explains that the UT administration was very “hands-on” in taking the proper measures to guarantee a peaceful entry for the three students. And Robinson says that although he didn’t see a police presence on campus, he knew there was some sort of law enforcement on hand to keep an eye on the situation.

“President Holt, the administration, and the governor were very active in trying to ensure that the university and the state complied with the law of the land regarding segregation and did so in a peaceful fashion,” Hall says.

Although the transition was peaceful, racist attitudes persisted on campus, occasionally flaring up long after Robinson’s arrival. Charles Huddleston (’73; LAW ’76), an Atlanta-based attorney, attended UT from 1968 to 1976 and was active in the civil rights movement on campus during that time. He recalls one eerie incident involving a young African American woman who was a fellow Student Government Association representative.

“One time she walked out into the student quad in front of Massey Hall, and all of a sudden, riding down on horses were a bunch of students in full Confederate uniforms with swords doing the rebel yell,” Huddleston says. “It was offensive to her, as you can imagine.”

Life on Campus

As a married commuter student, Robinson was typically on campus only in the morning; after school he went to work at his parents’ restaurant, and then he returned home to study.

Robinson reflects that his early days at UT were, on the whole, what he expected. There were racist students and professors, and there were friendly ones. There were incidents that made him feel unwelcome, and there were some that gave him a sense of camaraderie with his fellow students.

Robinson’s social life largely existed outside the university, but Hall and other students were busy trying to include black students in student groups. Hall was especially active in making sure fraternities and sororities were open to African Americans.

At UT, Robinson did become involved in civil rights demonstrations both on campus and in the Knoxville community. He also became involved in campus politics, planning the elections of black students for Student Government Association (SGA) offices. None of them got very far in 1962, he says, but it wouldn’t be long before Jimmy Baxter, a 25-year-old former Air Force serviceman, would achieve the highest student office at the university: president of the SGA.

Presidential Success

Baxter’s story actually begins only a few months after Robinson’s entry to UT. Baxter enrolled in fall 1961 but left after one year to join the Air Force, in which he served for four years.

“After that year—and that was a very unpleasant year—I decided I would not come back,” Baxter says. He explains that he felt a great deal of student and faculty hostility during his first year at UT. But after serving four years in the military, he did return, enrolling as a student in 1967. He says the climate at UT was far better.

“The change was very noticeable. There had been a significant civil rights movement during those years, and I think the student body attitudes had changed,” he says. “Also, agitation against the war was involving more young students. And the university administration had changed.”

Improvements made by the university around that time included hiring its first full-time African American professor in 1967; starting its first African American football player in 1968; and integrating dormitories and married housing by 1970. In the larger Knoxville community, the 1960s also saw the integration of the city’s restaurants, theaters, and hospitals. The practice of segregation so prevalent in Robinson’s era was fading. Student attitudes reflected this shift in favor of civil rights.

Baxter initially was not interested in student government. As a 25-year-old commuter student, he mainly wanted to “get a degree and move on.” But 18 days before the SGA presidential election, he changed his mind.

“I was sitting around talking to other students about how the SGA was basically irrelevant, because it had no power to do anything,” he says. “At some point, one of the students said, ‘Why don’t you run?’ I really had no good answer to that, so I said, ‘Well, okay, then.’”

Baxter’s opponents, John R. Long and James Hager, were both white, but Baxter says race wasn’t a big issue in the election.

“But there were a few times,” Baxter says. “Someone suggested that all I wanted to do was represent the 100 or 200 black students on campus. And I said, ‘Yeah, that’s right; that’s exactly why I’m running: If I’m elected, I will only represent the 200 black students on campus.’ But other than trying to get me to say something that would be useful to them, neither Long nor Hager were, in my opinion, in any way racist.”

Once elected, Baxter proved to be a capable leader, steering students away from staging violent demonstrations and protests. In the wake of the Kent State shootings, he led a peaceful strike. He also asked President Richard Nixon not to visit the campus during Billy Graham’s Knoxville Crusade because he feared Nixon’s appearance might provoke violent student protests. (Nixon came, and students and faculty members—minus Baxter, who was not present at the event—protested, but they did so nonviolently, according to Huddleston.)

Baxter went on to earn bachelor’s and law degrees from UT, becoming assistant U.S. attorney in 1978 and chief assistant U.S. attorney in 1983. Meanwhile, Robinson worked in local politics, serving on the Knoxville City Council for eight years; he returned to UT about 20 years ago and now serves as vice president of equity and diversity.

The UT of today cuts a very different figure than it did in the 1960s. Students from more than 100 countries currently attend the university, and the school has created several scholarship programs designed to attract a more diverse student body to campus.

Robinson commends the school’s efforts to increase diversity but says there is more work needed.

“We’re not there yet,” he says. “It’s a constant striving toward an elusive goal, but you have to recognize that. You can’t sit on your laurels.”

—Meredith McGroarty

Timeline: UT Knoxville’s Road to Integration

 

1870

Tennessee flagTennessee’s state constitution prohibits the coeducation of separate races.

1939

UT denies admission to six African American applicants who were represented by the NAACP.
Gavel

1951

District Court rules that UT’s actions denying admission to graduate and professional programs are a violation of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, thereby ruling in favor of the African American applicants.

January 1952

UT’s first African American students, Gene Gray and Lincoln Blackney, enroll at the UT Graduate School and Law School, respectively.

March 1952

US Supreme Court building
U.S. Supreme Court suspends hearing on constitutionality of UT’s actions after UT agrees to admit African American students to graduate and professional programs.

August 1954

Mortar boardLilly Jenkins becomes the first African American to receive a graduate degree at UT when she is awarded a master’s degree in special education.

April 1956

UT Board of Trustees refuses to adopt the state Board of Education’s “step-by-step” undergraduate and graduate desegregation policy.

1959

Harry Blanton becomes the first African American to receive a UT doctoral degree.

January 1961

Theotis RobinsonTheotis Robinson Jr., Charles Edgar Blair, and Willie Mae Gillespie register as undergraduates at UT.

June 1964

Brenda J. L. Peel becomes the first African American student to receive an undergraduate degree at UT.
Diploma

May 1967

Lester McClain
UT signs Lester McClain—its first enrolled African American athlete—to play football for UT.

1968

Rita Geier files a lawsuit against the State of Tennessee to halt the construction of a UT Nashville campus and force the UT system to fully integrate.

1969

Jimmy Baxter posterJimmy Baxter is elected as the first African American president of the UT Student Government Association, and Felicia Felder-Hoehne is hired as the first African American librarian at UT.

2001

The State of Tennessee settles Rita Geier’s lawsuit by agreeing to allocate $77 million in state funds for diversity initiatives at Tennessee institutions of higher education.

2011

African American celebration logo
UT Knoxville celebrates the 50th anniversary of the admission of African American undergraduates.

3 Comments on “Lighting the Way

  1. What a great story. Because of you, my stay at “The Hill” from 1975- 1977 School of Social Work was enjoyable.
    My hats off to you and your courage and to UT for doing the right thing.
    This is the first time I have been afforded the opportunity the read their story.
    Thank you so much. “GO VOLS”.

  2. One sad memory for me from the era was when my dad and Dr. Bolling came to me in the mid-sixties while I was serving a church in East Nashville. They were looking for a location for UT’s Nashville Center. My suggestion was that UT seek to incorporate Tennessee State University into itself. I was ignored. The new building was built. TSU now owns it. APSU and MTSU benefitted greatly from the decision. TSU still struggles, even with the building UT built for it. I still think I was right, but no one was ready to hear it.

  3. I lived in Melrose Hass Addtiion, later renamed Hess Hall, in the fall quarter of 1965. I was friends with two black male students who lived m my section (H2) of the dormitory. The dormitories obviousl had been integrated by then.

    also, I know memory plays tricks, but remember that I and friends thoutht that arress were made of some people who were protesting during Nixon’s visit during Billy Graham’s crusade. The crusade and the protests wre peaceful. Rumor had it that protestors were idendified via photographs taken during the event, and subsequently arrested.