Celebrating 50 years of African American Achievement
In 2011, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville begins a yearlong celebration honoring the first African American undergraduate students and the rich legacy of African American achievement campus-wide.
In July 1960, Theotis Robinson, Jr. applied for admission to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. On January 4, 1961, Robinson, along with two other African American students, Charles Edgar Blair and Willie Mae Gillespie, gained admittance and began classes. The doors of UTK's Graduate School were opened for African Americans eight years earlier with the admission of Gene Gray in 1952.
This landmark celebration will honor all individuals involved in the desegregation of the university. It will also recognize the vast accomplishments of African Americans during the past fifty-plus years, chronicling both triumphs and struggles. As the university pauses to recognize this historic milestone, it also looks forward to the next fifty years of African American achievement.
Nearly 900 people gathered Friday, September 23rd, to celebrate fifty years of African American achievement at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
The event was part of UT’s year-long celebration commemorating the first black undergraduates to enroll in the university. UT Trustee Anne Holt Blackburn, a 1973 alumna and Emmy-award-winning anchor for Nashville’s WKRN-TV, served as the mistress of ceremonies.
The large crowd honored UT administrator Theotis Robinson and the families of Charles Blair and the late Willie May Gillespie with a standing ovation.
“Today’s students owe a debt of gratitude to the brave men and women who broke down the walls of segregation at the university,” Chancellor Jimmy G. Cheek told attendees. “The events of the past have brought us to where we need to stand today—a campus open to and committed to diversity.”
The celebration, organized by the fiftieth anniversary committee, featured musical and dramatic performances highlighting the challenges and accomplishments of the last five decades.
UT students, faculty, and staff, along with community members, were part of the music and dramatic production. The All Campus Theatre and Strange Fruit Productions student groups joined forces to highlight the 1980s.
The families of Gene Mitchell Gray, the first African American graduate school student, and Lincoln Anderson Blackney, the first African American law school student, were also recognized at the celebration. Many African American achievers attended, including Brenda Peel, the first UT African American undergraduate to obtain a degree; Lester McClain, the first African American scholarship athlete, who played football in 1967; and Wade Houston, the first African American basketball coach in the Southeastern Conference.
Among the many other individuals and groups celebrated for achievement was the late Fred Brown, who founded UT’s Minority Engineering Scholarship program. Cheek noted the impact of Brown’s work, and highlighted the efforts of the campus’s Love Gospel Choir and ME4UT student organizations. Cheek made note of Brown’s role in nurturing many students, including UT Trustee Spruell Driver, a 1987 engineering graduate. Driver was named a Torchbearer upon graduation and went to Duke University to earn a law degree. He also was celebrated at the event as the first African American president of the UT National Alumni Association.
Music faculty member Donald Brown, a three-time Grammy nominee and internationally renowned jazz pianist, played “Someday We Will Be Free,” accompanied by vocalist Kelle Jolly.
The program reflected on the role of sports in UT’s African American achievement. Larry Robinson is the first African American to receive a scholarship for UT’s varsity basketball team; linebacker Jackie Walker became the first African American football team captain; and Condredge Holloway was named the school’s first African American football quarterback.
UT alumna Benita Fitzgerald became the first African American to win a gold medal in the Olympic 100 meter hurdles. Fitzgerald visited the campus in February to begin this year’s celebration.
The program gave credit to the work of Rita Sanders Geier, who filed a lawsuit against the state in 1968, which led to a longstanding consent decree and dedicated funding for minority recruitment, scholarships, and faculty hiring at UT. Geier came to work at UT Knoxville in 2007 as a special assistant to the chancellor and retires this fall.
UT junior Jessica Session gave a riveting slam poetry performance, which was accompanied by vocalist Shana Ward, pianist Kristopher Tucker and cellist Jeremiah Welch, all of whom are UT undergraduates. Session first performed for the UT community in February at a ceremony after a campus march to commemorate the first undergraduate milestone.
The gala ended with the university’s Alma Mater, sung first in traditional style and then reworked into a modern arrangement for the grand finale, which showcased all the evening’s performers.
Cheek thanked celebration co-chairs, Charles and Annazette Houston, and members of the committee for an enjoyable and inspiring event.