Skip to Main Content

The University of Tennessee

Frequently Used Tools:

  Tmail  |  Online@UT  |  A-Z Index

Celebrating 50 years of African American AchievementUT Desegregation Timeline


  • 1794

    Blount College founded and would later become the University of Tennessee.


  • 1869

    University of Tennessee established as a “land-grant” institution.
  • 1870

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


  • 1937

    UT Memphis denies admission to an African American applicant to its pharmacy school.
  • Sept. 26, 1939

    UT denies admission to six African American applicants who were represented by the NAACP.
  • September 1950

    “Gene Mitchell Gray and Jack Alexander applied to UT Graduate School; Lincoln Anderson Blackney and Josephy Hatch Patterson applied to UT Law College. All 4 [were] residents of Knoxville…Since State statute prohibits coeducation of whites and blacks, Trustees felt [they] didn’t have authority to decide on applications—[a] matter for courts to decide or legislature. Board felt [they] had no discretion save to conform to state statues. Therefore, applications denied.”
  • April 1951

    District Court rules that UT’s actions denying admission to Graduate and Professional programs are a violation of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution—thereby ruling in favor of the African American applicants. “Curiously, Judge Robert L. Taylor, in upholding the students’ right to admission to the University, declined to issue such an order…”
  • January 1952

    Gene Gray enrolls at the University of Tennessee Graduate School.
  • March 1952

    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.
  • May 1952

    Two African American women denied admission to college of Home Economics at UT Chattanooga on basis that 1951 Federal Court ruling did not apply to undergraduates.
  • May 17, 1954

    U.S. Supreme Court issues Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which strikes down concept of “separate but equal” facilities, including schools.
  • August 1954

    Lilly Jenkins becomes the first African American to receive a graduate degree at UT when she is awarded a masters degree in special education.
  • June 1954

    UT denies admission to an African American applicant to Graduate School in Memphis on grounds that the student would be “mingling” with white students in violation of the Tennessee Constitution’s prohibition of the coeducation of races.
  • June 1955

    The Tennessee Board of Education, which controlled the public higher education institutions outside of the University of Tennessee system, adopted a step-by-step desegregation policy that would result in admission of blacks to all undergraduate and graduate programs by the 1959-60 academic year.”
  • December 1955

    Board of Trustees refuses request from local African American attorneys to open UT to “all qualified black students.”
  • 1956

    Roy B.J. Campbell becomes first African American to receive a UT law degree.
  • April 24, 1956

    UT Board of Trustees refuses to adopt the “step-by-step” desegregation policy of the Tennessee Board of Education.
  • October 1956

    Tennessee Supreme Court rules in Roy v. Brittain that clauses in the Tennessee Constitution and other laws that require separation of races are subordinate to the Federal Constitution—thereby requiring the State of Tennessee to follow the Brown (1954) decision of the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • 1959

    Harry Blanton becomes first African American to receive UT doctoral degree.
  • July 1960

    Theotis Robinson, Jr., applies for undergraduate admission to UT. His application is initially denied.
  • July 17, 1960

    “Seven merchants on Gay Street announced they would voluntarily desegregate their lunch counters”
  • Nov. 18, 1960

    UT Board of Trustees meets to discuss UT policy on the admission of African American students. The Board receives testimony from State Attorney General George McCanless that UT is not legally permitted to deny admission based on race. Board of Trustees issues a policy that “there shall be no racial discrimination in the admission of qualified students to The University of Tennessee.”
  • Jan. 3, 1961

    “Three [African American] undergraduates were registered at UT—eighteen-year-old Theotis Robinson, Jr. and Charles Edgar Blair; and a forty-one-year-old housewife, Mrs. Willie Mae Gillespie. The registration went smoothly and without incident.”
  • Jan. 4, 1961

    First desegregated undergraduate classes begin at UTK.
  • 1962-1964

    Marion Barry, a graduate student in the UT Chemistry Department, forms and serves as co-chairman of the Students for Equal Treatment (SET) group at UT. The group was influential in seeking the desegregation of the Knoxville community.
  • Brenda J. L. Peel

    June 1964

    Brenda J. L. Peel becomes the first African American student to receive an undergraduate degree at UT.
  • July 1965

    UT Hospital is desegregated after a white patient files a lawsuit and the U.S. Justice Department notifies UT that federal funds to the hospital will be rescinded if it does not desegregate.
  • Robert KirkSammye Wynn
  • 1967

    Dr. Robert Kirk becomes the first full-time African American professor at UT and Sammye Wynn becomes the first African American instructor hired in the College of Education.
  • April 24, 1967

    University of Tennessee signs its first African American athlete, Albert Davis, as a prospective football recruit. After signing, Davis chooses not to attend the University of Tennessee.
  • Lester McClain
  • May 1967

    University of Tennessee signs Lester McClain to play football for UT.
  • Fall 1967

    Lester McClain becomes the first African American athlete at UT, but he is redshirted for a year.

  • James CraigAudry Hardy
  • 1967-1968

    James Craig and Audry Hardy become the first African American male athletes to compete for UT in Track and Field.
  • Fall 1968

    First African American male athlete, Lester McClain, plays his first season of football for UT after being redshirted for one year.
  • 1968

    Rita Geier files 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 is elected as the first African American President of the student body and Felicia Felder-Hoehne is hired as the first African American librarian.
  • Hardy Liston
  • 1970

    Hardy Liston hired as Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs to become the first African American administrator at UT.
  • Larry RobinsonWilbert Cherry


    Wilbert Cherry and Larry Robinson become first African American basketball players at UT. Larry Robinson was the first African American athlete to play varsity basketball and receive a scholarship.

  • Condredge Holloway


    Condredge Holloway becomes the first African American football quarterback at UT.
  • 1976

    First Black Cultural Center opens.

  • Wade HoustonMarilyn Yarborough

  • 1989

    Wade Houston hired as the first African American head basketball coach and Dr. Marilyn Yarborough becomes the first African American Dean of a UT college when she is appointed as the Dean of the College of Law.

  • Dhyana Ziegler
  • 1995

    Dr. Dhyana Ziegler becomes the first African American to serve as president of the Faculty Senate.


  • 2001

    State of Tennessee settles Rita Geier’s lawsuit by agreeing to allocate $77 million of state funds for diversity initiatives at Tennessee institutions of higher educations.
  • 2002

    Current Black Cultural Center opens.
  • January 2011

    50th Anniversary of African American Undergraduate Enrollment.
  • April 2011

    Civility and Community Initiative Kick-off.
  • May 2011

    Jayanni Webster, a junior at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, is selected to be part of the 2011 Student Freedom Ride which retraces the 1961 civil rights bus rides.