Fifty years ago, race relations simmered. Amid the unrest, young African Americans took the first steps toward enrolling at UT. Knoxvillian Theotis Robinson Jr. applied for admission to UT Knoxville in 1960, but the university denied his request. Later that year, however, the Board of Trustees, on the recommendation of then-president Andrew Holt, voted to open the university to all races.
On January 3, 1961, Robinson (now UT’s vice-president for equity and diversity) and two other African American students, Willie Mae Gillespie and Charles Blair, registered for classes and enrolled the next day without incident. The first African American to earn an undergraduate degree at UT Knoxville was Brenda J. L. Peel in 1964.
Also in 1961, Alvin Crawford became the first African American to enter the UT College of Medicine in Memphis. He graduated in 1964. Crawford, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon, is professor and director of the Spine Center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, where he has spent his career. In the College of Pharmacy, the first African American to earn the doctor of pharmacy degree was James S. Hayes in 1974.
A young woman aged just sixteen was UT Martin’s first African American undergraduate. Jessie Lou Arnold enrolled in 1961. She majored in education and graduated in 1965, one year after Beverly Park, UT Martin’s first African American graduate. Arnold went on to earn a master’s degree at the University of Illinois and marry Paul Pryor, who attended UT Martin for one year.
In the early 1960s, the University of Chattanooga was not yet a part of UT. Records from a February 23, 1961, meeting of the university executive committee reported that an African American student applied for admission to the 1961 summer session, but no discussion or action on the matter was recorded. In May 1964, the executive committee unanimously recommended to the UC board that the admissions policy be amended to allow students to enroll in the graduate school “without regard to race, color, or creed.” The executive committee also urged the board to extend the same policy to undergraduates in September 1965. The document “Undergraduate Negroes Enrolled First Semester 1965–66” from the files of then–UC president Leroy Martin proves the recommendation was approved, listing the names of fifteen African American students.
Events throughout the year will commemorate fifty years of African American achievement at all the UT campuses.
In 1950, more than a decade before -African American undergraduates actually enrolled, four African American students sought admission to the law and graduate schools of UT Knoxville, but their applications were denied. Litigation ensued, and the university changed its law- and graduate-school admissions policies to admit African Americans. Gene Mitchell Gray was the first African American graduate student admitted. The first to receive a graduate degree was Lillian Jenkins, who graduated in special education in August 1954. Two years later, R.B.J. Campbelle became the first African American to receive a UT law degree, and in 1959, Harry Blanton earned the first doctoral degree awarded to an African American at UT Knoxville.