top of page

Torchbearers and Trailblazers: Recognizing Vols During Black History Month

By: Trevor Shelby, Junior Staff Writer, Junior Editor

The All Vol Call In Show wants to recognize the important figures in civil rights at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, during Black History Month. While AVCIS tends to focus on sports, this piece celebrates those who forged paths in non-athletic pursuits during their time on Rocky Top.

It started in 1939 when six black students filed a lawsuit demanding admission to UTK. The school rejected their applications on the grounds of Jim Crow laws in the Tennessee State Constitution. The group made appeals but to no avail.

Gene Mitchell Gray, a graduate student studying chemistry, integrated the University of Tennessee in 1952. It cost him and his mother their jobs at the Knoxville Hotel, but his sacrifice earned him a place in the annals of Volunteer history. Lillian D. Jenkins was the first to earn a master’s degree in special education, two years later. R.B.J. Campbelle, Jr., broke the color barrier as a graduate of the UT College of Law in 1956. Three years later, UT had its first Black doctoral graduate in Harry Blanton.

Theotis Robinson, Jr., Willie Mae Gillespie, and Charles Edgar Blair became the first Black undergraduate students to attend UT on January 4, 1961. Robinson, Jr., led lunch counter protests in Knoxville and also deferred his enrollment at Knoxville College, an HBCU across town, to apply to UTK. He later lectured in political science and worked as Vice President for Diversity and Equity from 2000 to 2014. Brenda Lewis Peel was the first Black student ever to earn an undergraduate degree in 1964. A galleria in John C. Hodges Library was dedicated to and named after her in November of 2021.

The story doesn’t end there, though. Sammye Wynn and Dr. Robert Kirk were the first Black faculty members hired at UTK in 1967. Jimmie Baxter was elected as the first Black SGA president in 1969. In that same year, Felicia Folder-Hoehne became the first Black librarian on campus. Hardy Liston was appointed associate vice chancellor for academic affairs in 1970. He was the first Black administrator in school history. In 1989, Marilyn Yarbrough became the first Black college dean on campus, presiding over the College of Law. Six years later, in 1995, Dr. Dhyana Ziegler was the first Black faculty member to be elected president of the Faculty Senate.

Although UT was reluctant to do so, it became a pioneer in desegregating institutions of higher learning in the Southeast. Other schools followed suit but in a less-than-desirable manner. For example, the University of Georgia integrated on January 9, 1961, amid the use of racial slurs and cross burnings on campus. Two days later, UGA students invited local KKK members to incite a riot, which saw up to 1,000 people hurling bricks and bottles at one of the student’s dormitories. In addition, James Meredith’s integration of Ole Miss in 1962 required the assistance of the National Guard, per John F. Kennedy’s request. Mobs attacked federal marshals and reporters alike, and two civilians were killed. There are no such recorded instances in the city of Knoxville or on campus at UTK. Despite the hotly-contested litigation and sociopolitical climate of the time, the University of Tennessee was a trailblazer in civil rights for those seeking to continue their education.

Photo above | CNN


bottom of page