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Celebrating 50 years of African American AchievementUTK Celebrates 50 Years of Undergraduate Desegregation

The 60’s was one era with great potential for violence as race relation tensions across the South were at the pinnacle.   Sit-ins were taking place in many cities across the South led by students from local colleges requesting service from lunch counters of retail establishments.  Word of this bold and dramatic action spread rapidly and soon black college students in towns and cities all over the South began conducting lunch counter sit-ins.

Knoxville was no exception.  In February of 1960, a group of Knoxville College students met and decided to begin sit-ins at downtown lunch counters.  A civil-rights protester is carried from the Tennessee Theatre by Knoxville Police Department Officer James Rowan on May 11, 1963. At left is Avon Rollins, who is now director of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center. Photo Courtesy of Knoxville News Sentinel Archive.The president of Knoxville College learned of these plans and quickly persuaded them to postpone their protest until he could negotiate with city leaders.  Race relations in Knoxville in the 60’s differed from those in other southern cities.  Knoxville was not a city in the “deep south” and less than 10 percent of the population was African American.  Knoxville had a long history of open communication between local black and white leaders. 

One of those who worked fervently to communicate and negotiate was Knoxville’s Mayor John Duncan, Sr.  Duncan, along with other city leaders, engaged in seemingly endless negotiations in the spring of 1960 in an effort to encourage chain executives to order their Knoxville branches to desegregate their eating facilities.  Executives refused to negotiate and although Knoxville College’s academic year had ended, and most students had departed for their respective homes, many of those who remained were joined by community supporters to begin sit-ins in June of 1960.  Mayor Duncan continued his support and directed police officers to protect the rights of the sit-in protestors. In such an atmosphere Knoxville’s sit-ins were peaceful and successful in record time.

In July of 1960 an article appeared in the Knoxville News-Sentinel “In The Great American Tradition-An Appeal For Human Rights” that listed items that Negro citizens of Knoxville, who had been involved in the lunch counter sit-ins, were not satisfied with things as they were.  Listed under the first of eight items was “We cannot attend the University of Tennessee as undergraduates students”.  An Austin High School graduate, Theotis Robinson, Jr. read this article and decided to defer his enrollment into Knoxville College and enroll at UT.  Sitting at his parents’ kitchen table, Robinson wrote a letter to UT applying for admission.  A few days later Robinson received a response from UT stating that it was not their policy to admit “negroes” to the undergraduate school and his request was denied.

Not to be denied, Robinson requested a meeting with the UT admission office which was granted.  He along with his parents met with Grady Atkinson and Bill Smyth, UT admission officers, and was told the admission of Negroes to the undergraduate program was beyond their authority.  They asked young Robinson if he and his parents wanted to meet with University President Dr. Andrew Holt.  With the Robinsons’ persistence, the issue was forwarded to Dr. Holt and a meeting was arranged.

In the meeting with President Holt, Robinson expressed his desire to attend UT and Dr. Holt affirmed that policy decisions were the prerogative of the University Board of Trustees, but he would present the matter to the board.Theotis Robinson Jr. (right) and Charles Edgar Blair (left) sign UT Knoxville Admission papers as William G. Smyth, Assistant Dean of Admissions, looks on.<br />Photo Courtesy of Knoxville News Sentinel Archive.  Robinson and his parents assured Dr. Holt that their desire and hope was that the board would act favorably on his request.  The Robinsons also assured Dr. Holt that if the trustees refused to grant their son admission to UT’s undergraduate school, a lawsuit against the University would follow. Dr. Holt forwarded this matter to the board of trustees and in a special meeting on November 18, 1960, the board acted on Robinson’s application for admission to the University of Tennessee Undergraduate  School.  He would be admitted. The policy was changed.

On January 3, 1961, Theotis Robinson, Jr. was joined by Willie Mae Gillespie and Charles Blair to register for classes.  Their enrollment began on January 4, 1961 without incident.  UT began the first day of desegregated undergraduate classes in a peaceful manner.

The University of Georgia desegregated on January 4, 1961, as well.  However, the desegregation met with resistance, including the backlash of riots and unrest.

“In the fall of 2000, the UT Board of Trustees voted to change the University’s by-laws at the request of the president and Theotis Robinson, Jr. was named Vice President for Equity and Diversity, 40 years after the Board had cleared the way for him attend the University.”