Skip to main content

March for the 50th Anniversary of African-American AchievementMore than 500 University of Tennessee, Knoxville, alumni, students, trustees, faculty and staff marched through campus and filled the Carolyn P. Brown Memorial University Center auditorium on Tuesday for a program celebrating 50 years of African-American achievement.

On Jan. 4, 1961, three African-American undergraduates walked the long staircase to the iconic Ayres Hall to attend their first class. To commemorate that historic event, UT will have special programs throughout the year to honor the rich legacy of African-American achievement.

“Today marks an important milestone in our university’s history when our culture was changed forever. This year, as we recognize our first three undergraduate students, we also celebrate the achievements of all African-Americans in the University of Tennessee’s history,” said Chancellor Jimmy G. Cheek as he opened the program.

During the program, student Jessica Session received a standing ovation for her rousing performance of a poem she wrote for the occasion. UT Vice President for Equity and Diversity Theotis Robinson Jr, who was one of the first three undergraduates to attend UT Knoxville, reminisced about the day he and fellow African-American classmates Charles Edgar Blair and Willie Mae Gillespie started classes.

“To give you a sense of how long ago that was,” Robinson said, “for in state students, not living in a dorm and not on any kind of meal plan the tuition for the year was $225.”

Then, paraphrasing Robert Frost with a Rocky Top spin, Robinson said, “Rocky Top is lovely, dark and deep, but we have promises to keep and miles to go before we sleep.”

Keynote speaker Benita Fitzgerald Mosley, UT alumna and the first African-American woman to win a gold medal in the Olympics for 100-meter hurdles, commended those who have blazed the trail so others can enjoy successes.

“We should all feel a sense of gratitude for those who paved the way and work to develop a new attitude, a new sense of belonging and acceptance and renewed sense of confidence that truly anything is possible.”

Cheek told the crowd that a diverse campus is a benefit for all and, although many gains have been made, there is still work to do.

“This campus is open and committed to diversity for our faculty, staff and student body. We are striving to be a more inclusive campus and one that is welcoming to all and hostile to none. We all stand together to celebrate this historic event and are excited about the other events coming up this year,” he said.

The cornerstone event of the year-long celebration of African-American achievement will be a grand gala at the Knoxville Convention Center in September. For more information about other events, visit A webcast of Tuesday’s celebration can be found here.