Lauded for Her Efforts and Pledges To Continue

By Reginald Stuart

KNOXVILLE, TN — Tennesseans across the state were able this month to pay formal tribute to a historical Tennessee icon in higher education—Rita Sanders Geier.

“I consider this honor a symbol of progress and commitment to the future,” said Ms. Geier, thanking the audience of several hundred people gathered at the Geier Hall residence center for a ribbon cutting to mark the center’s official opening. 

Ms. Geier, a Memphis Melrose High School graduate, who graduated from Fisk University then spent a small stint teaching at Tennessee State University and Fisk, before finishing Vanderbilt University Law School.  While in law school, she began a pursuit to change the state’s “dual” system of higher education that lasted more than 40 years.

Her battle, which was noted nationally, helped set the stage for eliminating racial segregation in the South, a fight she says remains unfinished.

Geier says her late father was a big believer in justice and she grew up in that atmosphere before he passed.  That sense of justice has stuck with her through the years, she said. “I just grew up with that.”  On the higher education level she noted there was so much racial discrimination in place that she felt she had to try and change it.

Inside Geier Hall, Rita Geier welcomes visitors and residents to the hall named in her honor.

After going to law school, she got a job as a law clerk with the late George Barrett, a feisty Nashville attorney known for agitating, who shared and inspired her interest in challenging the state’s “dual” system of education. Their legal research spanned several decades and she found there were different funding paths for Tennessee State and UT.  

As the state began to expand its higher education system, part of that plan included converting the University of Tennessee Nashville Campus into a Law School with other academic programs.  Ms. Geier felt that was not a good decision and began challenging the state in federal courts to block the UT Nashville expansion plan and demand any additional funding for higher education in Nashville go to Tennessee State University.   That battle went through seven governors and ended with the state abandoning the UT expansion program, turning over the programs and the land to TSU.

University of Tennessee Knoxville Chancellor, Donde Plowman joins Rita Geier in front of the residence hall named in Geier’s honor.

“My Tennessee journey of 50 years is not the end of this journey, but a continuation of it,” said Ms. Geier, promising to continue to champion for change in the state’s higher educational system.

“The legacy is not in these buildings, but in the change,” said UT Knoxville Chancellor Donde Plowman, when she spoke at the ceremony, lauding Ms. Geier and her work.

The campus grounds ceremony included a number of guests from around the state including family and friends of Ms. Geier, the first black UT undergrad student, Theotis Robinson, Jr. and Maria Urias, a Brazilian native who grew up in Lenoir, TN.  Ms. Urias earned a B.A. in Sociology from UTK and spearheaded the effort to get the dormitories named for Ms. Geier and Mr. Robinson.

Rita Geier, flanked by her brother Rev. Edwin Sanders, noted Nashville minister and his wife, Billye Sanders, a Nashville attorney. Photos by Daryl Thomas Stuart

“This means the world to me…,” said Ms. Urais about the gesture made by the University toward Ms. Geier and Mr. Robinson.