The 1869 designation of East Tennessee University as Tennessee’s land-grant institution required that no citizen of the state be excluded from the privileges of the institution on the basis of color or race, requiring the trustees to make necessary provisions for the separate accommodation or instruction of any person of color who applied and was qualified for admission. The Tennessee Constitution, ratified by voters March 26, 1870 (Article XI, Section 12), prohibited schools from “receiving white and Negro children as scholars in the same school.”
When African American students were appointed to State Scholarships for the 1881–82 school year, the trustees complied by contracting with Fisk University for their instruction. UT paid Fisk the UT tuition of $30 per session. Ten State Scholarship students enrolled at Fisk in 1881. The contract was changed to Knoxville College in 1884 and expanded with the 1890 passage of the Second Morrill Act to establish the Industrial Department of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville College. In 1896 the United States Supreme Court upheld (Plessy v. Ferguson) the “separate but equal” enforced separation of races.
In 1909, by passage of the General Education bill, the Tennessee General Assembly established three normal schools for whites, and, for Negroes, the Agricultural and Industrial Normal School, which grew to become Tennessee State University. Tennessee A&I was designated as Tennessee’s land-grant college for Negroes, replacing the Industrial Department located at Knoxville College. In 1913 Chapter 18 of the Public Acts of Tennessee transferred the land-grant obligations and fund for the education of Negroes to Tennessee Agricultural and Normal School (now Tennessee State University), which had opened in Nashville in 1912.
African American William B. Redmond applied for entrance to UT’s School of Pharmacy in 1935. He was not admitted because of Tennessee’s constitutional bar of integration of schools. In 1936 the NAACP filed suit in the Chancery Court of Shelby County and sought to force the admission of Redmond to the pharmacy program. While the suit was pending, the General Assembly passed legislation (1937) to pay or help to pay the difference between attending a Tennessee university and going to one out of state for African Americans. The Chancery Court ruled that the filing of the suit was premature—that the board of trustees in its entirety had not ruled on the suit. An appeal was noted, but because the scholarship act had been passed by the legislature, the NAACP elected not to appeal.
Six African Americans applied for admission either to the UT College of Law or to the UT Graduate School in 1939 and filed suit to gain admission to the postgraduate and professional schools of the university (State v. Witham). While the case was pending, the General Assembly passed a statute (1941) providing equal training at the Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial College (now Tennessee State University) or at other segregated institutions in Tennessee and ordered the appropriation of funds for that purpose. The chancellor then ruled the suit moot, and the Tennessee Supreme Court affirmed, even though funds were not appropriated.
In fall 1950 four African Americans applied for UT admission—two (Lincoln Anderson Blakeney and Joseph Patterson) to the College of Law and two (Gene Mitchell Gray and Jack Alexander) to the Graduate School. State Attorney General Roy Beeler issued an opinion that they should be admitted, but the trustees denied admission, citing the state constitution and statutes. Local attorney Carl A. Cowan filed suit in Federal Court on behalf of the students (Gray v. Board of Trustees) asserting that the students could not obtain the law or graduate degrees they sought at any other state institution and were thus being denied equal protection under the law as required by the fourteenth amendment. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee held that the issue to be decided was a question of discrimination under the fourteenth amendment, not a question of the constitutionality of state statutes requiring race segregation in classrooms, and should be heard by a one-judge court, rather than by a panel of three judges. Federal Judge Robert L. Taylor found that Negroes did not have equal facilities as required by the 1941 act of the legislature and that the university must admit the students, but did not enter an order so that attorney Cowan could appeal the decision of United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee that the applicants’ case would be heard by a single judge (Taylor) seeking to have the case become a question of the constitutionality of state statutes.
The US Supreme Court declared the case moot in January 1952 when UT’s attorney, John Hooker, announced that the university would comply and admit the plaintiffs to graduate and professional schools. Of the four students, two entered: Gene Gray enrolled in the graduate school in January, taking only undergraduate courses; and Lincoln Blakeney enrolled in Law School in April, being enrolled for one quarter.
In May 1954 the US Supreme Court struck down the doctrine of “separate but equal” enforced separation of races, including schools, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. The Tennessee Board of Education, which controlled schools and institutions other than the University of Tennessee, adopted a “grade a year” integration policy designed to ensure admission of African Americans to all undergraduate and graduate programs by the 1959–60 school year. At its November 1955 meeting, the UT Trustees adopted a desegregation resolution which read: “That the plan of the State Board of Education relative to desegregation be adopted as a policy of The University of Tennessee, and that the matter be referred to the special committee with power to recommend modification or adjustment of such plan so as to fit the proper entrance of eligible Negro students in each college or department.” Negroes were to be allowed to enroll in the senior class in 1956 and the junior, sophomore, and freshman classes in successive years.
At its April 1956 meeting, the trustees voted to suspend any plan for integration of Negro students on the undergraduate level until its next meeting but did not bring the matter back to the agenda. The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled (Roy v. Brittain) in October 1956 that clauses in the Tennessee Constitution and other statutes requiring separation of races were subordinate to the Federal Constitution, thereby requiring the state of Tennessee to follow the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling.
In the spring and fall of 1959, pressure was exerted upon UT to admit Negro students for undergraduate work. A firm demand, backed by the threat of court action, came in late summer 1960 from Negro applicant Theotis Robinson Jr., son of a UT employee and one of the 17 plaintiffs the previous year in Josephine Goss v. Knoxville Board of Education, which sought to accelerate the desegregation process. President Holt asked that the suit not be filed until after the fall meeting of the board of trustees.
The board of trustees met on November 18, 1960, to discuss a policy on admission of African American students. State Attorney General George McCanless stated that UT was not legally permitted to deny admission on the basis of race. Upon the recommendation of President Holt, the trustees voted to open the university to all races effective winter quarter 1961, which began on January 3. Three students registered: Charles Edgar Blair, Willie Mae Gillespie, and Theotis Robinson Jr.
By mid-1961, segregation remained only in athletics. In 1961 an on-campus track meet was canceled when it was learned that the opposing team included African Americans. The Athletics Board policy appeared to compete against athletes of all colors in road contests but not at home events. When this policy was reported in the student newspaper, the Athletics Board abandoned segregation completely. In 1967 UT signed two African Americans to football scholarships: Albert Davis, who did not enroll; and wide-receiver Lester McClain, who did enroll and began playing varsity football in 1968.
In 1968, as UT was beginning construction on a central building for its new campus—the University of Tennessee at Nashville—a suit was filed in Federal Court by Rita Sanders (Geier) and others contending that the establishment of the campus in Nashville continued de facto segregation of Tennessee’s higher education opportunities. The final outcome of the case was that UT at Nashville was merged into Tennessee State University, that Tennessee State University’s facilities and programs were enhanced, and that all Tennessee higher education institutions set goals and initiated programs to increase the numbers of African American students, faculty, and staff.