Nashville, Tn. September 27, 2012 – Prior to the Civil War, higher education for African-Americans was virtually nonexistent. In fact, in some southern states it was against the law to educate black people. Most educated black people often studied in informal settings and many were self-taught. Some schools for elementary and secondary training existed as early as the 1830s. A college education was also available to a limited number of students at schools like Oberlin College in Ohio and Berea College in Kentucky.
In the years following the Civil War changes took place. In 1862, U.S. Senator Justin Morrill led a movement to improve the state of public higher education throughout the United States. The Morrill Land-Grant Act gave federal lands to the states for the purpose of opening colleges and universities to educate farmers, scientists, and teachers. Although many such institutions were created, only Alcorn State University in Mississippi was created explicitly as a black land-grant college. The second Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1890 rectified the problem. That Act specified that states using federal land-grant funds must either make their schools open to both blacks and whites or allocate money for segregated black colleges to serve as an alternative to white schools. Sixteen exclusively black institutions received 1890 land-grant funds.
Most of these public schools including TSU were founded by state legislatures during this time.
TSU’s history began when the Tennessee State General Assembly passed an act creating the Agricultural and Industrial State Normal School in 1909.
According to retired history professor at Tennessee State University Dr. Bobby Lovett, “Henry Allen Boyd, Preston Taylor, Benjamin Carr, James Carroll Napier and other Negro businessmen raised money and convinced the state to build the Negro school in the rural northwest section of Nashville-Davidson County about a mile down the road from Fisk University. In January 1911, the state superintendent of education selected William J. Hale, a normal school product of Maryville College and a principal of a Chattanooga Negro school, to preside over Tennessee A.& I. State Normal School for Negroes.” In May 1911 the state purchased 33 acres and with $86,000 Hale supervised the completion of the first four buildings and hired the faculty and bought equipment. The school began serving a student body of 247 in June of 1912.
Lovett said the barriers placed before the school were formidable, “This Negro institution struggled for 100 years to realize its human destiny. This freedom and the freedom of the people who depended on Tennessee State was externally constrained. The leadership, curriculum, facilities and resources were intentionally manipulated to slow TSU progress. Ni doubt, Jim Crow and race discrimination stayed on TSU’s back for 100 years.”
Despite the challenges Lovett said Hale, “Navigated the A.& I. ship through those turbulent waters. With private and federal funding, Hale kept pace with the three state normal schools for whites and in 1922 when these institutions were ready to convert from two-year colleges to full four-year baccalaureate colleges, Tennessee A. & I. State Normal School also received approval.”
The first bachelors degrees were awarded in 1924, the same year that the school changed its name to the Agricultural and Industrial State Normal College. Three years later the word “Normal” was dropped from the name.
In February 1941, the state General Assembly voted to make an education at Tennessee A. & I. State College for Negroes “equivalent to University of Tennessee for white students.”The legislature also directed the Board of Education to upgrade the educational program of the college. This included the introduction of the school’s first graduate program, in education.
The school only had five buildings none of them fit for a college says Lovett. “All of these leaky facilities were torn down in the 1940s, and today, TSU stands as the only university in the state without one original building.”
The first masters degrees were awarded in 1944. Accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools was received in 1946, and in 1951 the state Board of Education granted the school university status. In August 1958 Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State University was elevated to full land grant university status.
In 1968 the University of Tennessee (UT) announced plans for a Nashville campus which prompted Rita Sanders Geier, an instructor at TSU to file a lawsuit against the United States, the Governor of Tennessee, UT, and others to enjoin UT from expanding its facility and curricular offerings in Nashville claiming a full-fledged UT campus would divert state resources from Tennessee State University in Nashville and force it to remain “a second-rate college designed to service only African-Americans despite the end of legal segregation in higher education. After the original filing many parties joined her as plaintiffs, including TSU faculty colleagues Raymond Richardson and Coleman McGinnis and the U.S. Department of Justice.
The Court refused to enjoin the expansion of UT Nashville but ordered the State to develop a plan to dismantle its dual system of higher education. In 1972 the Court found it could not be said that the Defendants had dismantled the dual system or were “in any realistic sense on their way toward doing so.” The Court then ordered the Defendants to submit a desegregation plan that would speed the desegregation of higher education. TSU was placed under the auspices of the
Tennessee Board of Regents that same year.
After the continued slow progress in desegregating TSU, the Plaintiffs proposed the merger of TSU and UT Nashville, with TSU as the surviving institution and later after eight years of litigation the Court ordered the merger of UT Nashville into TSU. The UT Nashville building was renamed the Avon Williams Campus.
The parties reached a Stipulation of Settlement in 1984 which enhanced TSU to speed its desegregation efforts, and required the establishment of programs to further the recruitment and retention of African-American faculty and students on the campuses of the predominately white institutions. In 2001, the Parties agreed to the entry of a consent decree which included a plan and a mechanism to revitalize the TSU Avon Williams Campus and also focused efforts on continuing to enhance other-race employment and student enrollment throughout the system of public higher education.
On September 21, 2006, 38 years after the lawsuit was filed the federal court dismissed the case and declared that the state of Tennessee no longer maintained a dual system of higher education.
“What I did 38 years ago was not special or heroic: it was opportunistic,” Geier told the graduates at the Fall 2006 commencement at UT Knoxville. “I was in the right place at the right time to do what needed to be done, and I did it. There was no lofty moralizing. It was simply the choice to do the right thing or to acquiesce to a status quo that was unjust. It was not so popular in many parts of the community, and I was seen by many as a troublemaker.”
Geier said the run-down condition of the TSU campus; its stagnant curriculum, unequal funding, and poor faculty support played a large role in her decision. “I was deeply affected by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in April of that year and felt a real sense of despair for the country. I simply felt a great sense of urgency to do what I could do to bring about the social justice to which he had given his life
“Tennessee State University has endured a journey in higher education history watered in tears but studded with triumphs; and as TSU track Coach Edward Temple has said ñ with “the will to win.” TSU is poised for another 100 years, and one day will inherit that illusive freedom ñ the one that Leo Tolstoy wrote about. The same freedom that Alexander Pushkin, the great poet has written about. This tough institution, Tennessee State University, will continue to move forward with “A Touch of Greatness.”"
–Dr. Bobby Lovett
“TSU has meant so much to so many of us that grew out of the dark days of separate but equal. TSU’s journey to greatest derived from a need of Blacks that knew and felt a self-worth to contribute to our race as well as America as a whole. In this great episode there were those defining attributes that set great achievers apart from other contenders. TSU was distinguished because of its rise to National prominence in sports. On the contrary, when the writers came to write they found much more than sports, they found brilliant minds in the field of Engineering, Agriculture, Government, Space, Education, Math, Science and the list goes on. At TSU it was never whether you Won or Lost but how you played the game, At TSU we played the Game Right!”
–Sam Coleman ’78
“When we look at our history we see accomplishments that include Olympic champions, scientists, inventors, artists and businesspeople who have left their footprints on the national and international scenes. Tennessee State University’s future, no doubt, looks very bright. With strong alumni base and individuals who continue to shine the light of hope through giving and other generous endeavors, we can be sure that the dreams of many more for a quality education will be realized. This is our dream; that is our legacy.”
–TSU Interim President Dr. Portia Shields
“TSU is known for serving the Nashville community and the nation. TSU has done it all in the last 100 years, from legendary athletes, musicians and public servants to leading agriculture, engineering and even astronomy programs. TSU alumni have made our city and country a better place to live and work. For a century now, TSU has provided a high-quality education to those who need it most. I’m also glad to see that this year’s football season is off to a good start against Florida A&M with the goal line victory at Titans Stadium, but also that games at The Hole are back!”
–U.S. Representative Jim Cooper (TN-05)
“Tennessee State University has indeed faced its share of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. However, it has never lost faith and will continue to thrive as a beacon of light to our nation.”
–State Senator Thelma Harper
“I am so proud of the legacy that TSU leaves to its students and the community over the past 100 years. The instructors and staff at TSU really and truly care about each one of its students, and it is through this care that each student always strived to do their very best while at TSU and once they leave the walls of TSU. TSU students are expected to excel in their chosen careers and to give back to the community. And, you can always distinguish a TSU graduate because they carry the banner to work and serve as a banner of honor. I am so glad that I went to TSU!!!!”
–State Representative Brenda Gilmore ’84
“TSU plays a vital role in our community, and its centennial year is a fitting time to reflect on the university’s academic achievements and its athletic accomplishments. It is also a fitting time to look at the university’s next 100 years. As it sets new goals, I am sure the administration, faculty, staff, students and alumni will strive to reach great new successes. Additionally, as we push to increase the percentage of Nashvillians with college degrees, TSU will play an integral role in achieving this goal. I thank TSU for joining in those efforts and congratulate the university on its history of civic engagement and community support.”
–Nashville Mayor Karl Dean
“The Tennessee Board of Regents is proud to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Tennessee State University, one of its premier institutions.
“Tennessee State University is Nashville’s only public, land-grant university, and thus plays a critical role in the education of our citizens, the training of a highly skilled workforce, and the economic development of our communities and state. The TBR recognizes TSU’s unique mission of research and service and the outstanding opportunities it provides for students from across Tennessee, throughout the nation, and around the world. TSU has a rich history, a proud past, and an enduring legacy as the state’s only public HBCU. It also has a bright future that will bring much success and continued honor for its students and alumni.
“We have been fortunate to have many strong, effective and positive faculty, staff and campus leaders throughout the years and most recently with Interim President Portia Shields at the helm of TSU. The campus has a renewed focus on engagement with students, faculty and the broader community. TSU’s historic and prestigious legacy highlights many international accomplishments and famous alumni through the years. Along with numerous grants and academic accolades for the institution, TSU has earned some significant national recognition recently:
– The Tennessee Board of Regents
Congratulations to 5 great African-American Male Presidents of Tennessee State University who stood their ground and survived after years of demeaning insults to their character, pride and intellectual being. However, as we celebrate 100 years and read about their struggles in this issue of the Tennessee Tribune let us remove the shackles that have impeded the growth and education of African-American students at Tennessee State University. If it wasn’t for racism, perhaps TSU would have at least 38,000 students like most Universities situated in major downtown cities. How did MTSU, situated away from our Capital outgrow TSU? If racism permitted disrespect to our black male presidents of Tennessee State University it gave carte blanche to others whose educational experiences are inconsequential to a major university. It does not matter whether these shackles were put there by the Board of Regents, state legislators or bully’s of color but in the long run it effects African-American students to the point that they may well become part of the “47%” after they graduate or even for a lifetime. Just as African-Americans are again in a fight to vote in this country on an equal basis with conservative whites, recently Tennessee State University has also reverted back to the days of harsh, cruel discrimination and disrespect for blacks but this time we allege by African-Americans. After 100 years does the state continue to deny equal funding for TSU while demanding a 50 percent white employment ratio for TSU yet no serious black employment ratio for UT? Where is the justice that Dr. William J. Hale, Dr. Walter S. Davis, Dr. Andrew P. Torrence, Dr. Frederick S. Humphries and Dr. James A. Hefner spent almost a century fighting for? What we need is equal justice after 86 years of racism by the Tennessee Board of Regions and the state legislators.
Rosetta Miller Perry, alumni, and publisher of the Tennessee Tribune Newspaper.