For nearly 50 years, Black History Month has been observed around the United States and parts of the world during February.
In January 1961, Theotis Robinson Jr., Charles Blair, and Willie Mae Gillespie became the first Black undergraduate students admitted to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Six years later Sammye Wynn and Robert Kirk, both in the College of Education, became the university’s first Black faculty members.
Today, there are nearly 1,700 Black undergraduate and graduate students at UT. The Frieson Black Cultural Center maintains an African American Hall of Fame celebrating leaders of color who have contributed to making the university a more welcoming place for those who follow in their footsteps.
As part of this month’s celebration, six students, faculty, and staff members spoke about their experiences—from when they first learned about Black historical leaders to uncovering the importance of representation. These snapshots include stories of integration, discovery, mentorship, and courage.
The real richness and success is being part of a larger community. Working on behalf of communities and realizing without them, you wouldn’t be where you are. Then to stand up and make a place for yourself to show others: this university is as much as yours as it is anyone else’s.
Robert Bland, UT history professor
The first time I realized I was Black was in fourth grade after we had moved to Alabama. Being from a military family, you end up living all over. But in Prattville I had a lot more encounters where my race was brought up. You talk white. My parents said I can’t date a Black person. So I tried to hide my Blackness. I’d let people say things that were offensive, and I’d just brush it off. I was oftentimes the only Black person in my honors classes, and it felt weird. But I was so young. I didn’t start unraveling it until I got older. Was I a token? Was I the one who gets put in photos or videos so it looks diverse?
In history classes, we learned about Black historical figures. But the first time I really thought about Black History Month was because of an episode of That’s So Raven when they talked about it. That’s why representation is important. To kids like me—I only watched Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network—we needed to see someone who looked like us on TV.
When I was interviewing at UT, I remember Dean Shea [Dean of Students Shea Kidd Houze] coming to speak to all the prospective candidates. And I had that same thought. Look at this Black woman in upper administration at UT. I wanted to work for her, to learn from her. Then one of my first weeks on campus, I got to see Cierra Burnett [now coordinator of the Jones Center for Leadership and Service] interview, and I wrote in her evaluation, “To see a Black woman coming into a very white space—it could change the perception of that space.”
My program coordinator, Dr. McCoy [Associate Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies Dorian McCoy], he’s a Black man in leadership. In our multiculturalism class, he helped me to see the picture of my life in a larger frame—instances when something happened, when I saw bias or was treated differently. It’s why I appreciate this program so much.
And to me, that’s also what made UT feel like home. I could see people who looked like me in the same space I want to occupy. They’re doing it, now I know I can do it, too.
Holloway is a master’s student in the College Student Personnel program and a graduate assistant for outreach and initiatives in the Office of the Dean of Students. He serves as an advisor for the Student Government Association’s First Year Leadership Council.
Thura Mack (’86)
Before desegregation, there were Black-owned businesses that represented strength and hope for Black communities in my hometown of Valdosta, Georgia. When they integrated schools in the 1960s, it was a big culture shift. Our entire communities had been separate—schools, churches, neighborhoods. The doctor’s offices had separate waiting rooms for Blacks and whites. If there was a ration on food the white families were served first. During summer travels—some of my fondest memories—my father had his Green Book that told him where it was safe to stop for food or rest. If you saw the movie The Green Book, that was how we traveled.
Getting a good education was the sure way to bring about change for families and communities.
Although I came from humble beginnings, my family was rich in love and tradition. They were mostly tobacco farmers, homemakers, and educators. And the expectation of my parents for all their children was that we attend college or trade school after high school. When I was a teenager, I worked at the public library, and there was a librarian there who encouraged me to become a librarian myself. The thought of it captured my imagination.
After arriving in Knoxville, I found people who mentored me and gave me opportunities. As the first child to attend a four-year college, it was important for me to be a trailblazer and be successful.
My inspiration has been my daughter, Niyia. Through her unconditional love and beautiful eyes, my dreams were achievable and the possibilities endless. I have proudly been employed by UT for more than 30 years. Today I have the pleasure of working through outreach with STEM programs, helping other first-generation students to achieve their own academic success. My personal philosophy is “If students can imagine it, they can do it.”
Mack is a professor and coordinator for community learning services and diversity programs with UT Libraries. She leads the libraries’ outreach to Knoxville schools and teaches information literacy and library research skills to university-bound students in the College Access and Persistence Services (CAPS) program and Project GRAD. She has a bachelor’s degree in literature from Knoxville College and a master’s in library science from UT.
Aaron Dixon (’19)
My great-grandmother, she always told me stories about her mother. She was a sharecropper in Alabama. That’s where I grew up, in Avondale on the east side of Birmingham. My mom wasn’t able to go to college and my dad joined the Navy when I was two years old, so they always pushed me to get an education. I lived with my great-grandmother while my mom worked. My family, they were really my first role models.
In school, we learned about Frederick Douglass and MLK. But I was coming up in the 2000s. I didn’t really understand the deep impact they had made until I went to Alabama A&M, an HCBU* where they really focused on Black leadership. My junior year, I made the decision to go into student affairs. I was SGA president and went to my first SACSA [Southern Association of College Student Affairs] conference, and my residence hall director knew Dr. McCoy, who had been his mentor. Dorian told me, “We need more men of color of UT.”
When I showed up to start my master’s degree, he was the only Black person I knew. I think I did my best to fit in with my cohort, but I wasn’t comfortable navigating a predominantly white space yet and I needed to learn to be. It’s one of the things I learned from Dr. Tanisha Jenkins [director of Multicultural Student Life], Dr. McCoy, Dean Shea. You’ve got to stay true to yourself. You’ve got to be genuine for the students who are going to be looking to you as an example.
Being at UT was a catalyst for how I navigate the world as a Black man. Where I grew up in Birmingham, we weren’t protesting or marching in the streets about police brutality or racial injustice. Our issues were different. When I got here, I saw students protesting for the first time. I saw the issues students of color deal with and I realized there’s a need there. Navigating these environments for them isn’t easy. I had to experience that. I see how much our students go through, and I want to be here to help them.
After completing his master’s degree in college student personnel, Dixon was hired as a coordinator for the Office of Multicultural Student Life. He advises the Black Cultural Programming Committee, Brothers United for Excellence, and UT’s NAACP chapter.
*Historically Black colleges and universities
Every February, our church organist led a Black History Month segment. A lot of Memphis history dates back to the church. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated a day after preaching at Church of God in Christ headquarters in Memphis. So my learning of Black history came from the church, not from a textbook.
In middle school we visited the Lorraine Motel, back when you could go into the room where MLK was shot. You could touch things, picture yourself there. It was an eye-opening experience for me, being so young. You realize you’re growing up in a city where prominent Black figures have done so much, and that history is still present today.
My junior year of high school, I took a sneak peek trip through ME4UT [Minority Enhancement for the University of Tennessee]. That was what opened the doors for me to come to UT. Coming here forced me to own who I am, and it put me in a position where I was pushed outside of my comfort zone.
I decided to get involved with ME4UT so I could go visit high schools to talk to students who are exactly where I was five years ago. My identity has always been very important to me. And I believe part of representation is representing. I’ve got to set an example. Remind people of who I am, where I come from, and that I’m not ashamed of it. I tell students: Stand out. Be unique. It’s not just something we do for ourselves. It’s for the generation coming up behind us. Just like we look back at Black figures who inspired us, they’re going to be looking to us.
Williams is a political science major with a concentration in public administration. She is a student recruiter and communications coordinator for ME4UT, vice president of the Multicultural Mentoring Program, a Leadership Knoxville Scholar, and a student assistant in the Haslam College of Business’s Office of Community and Diversity Relations. After graduation, she plans to attend law school and eventually return to Memphis.
I was not the traditional soldier. When I joined the United States Army, I was 24 years old. At my going-away party, people took bets about how long I’d last. Someone said, “You’re not going to make it two days.”
But what the military did for me is give me confidence in myself. I grew up in rural Arkansas with a lot of strong Black women in my family. But I was extremely introverted. In the Army, I learned to lead people—to see for myself how strong I really am.
When I transitioned to the reserves from active duty, I knew I wanted to advocate for disenfranchised people. So I chose to study social work. After completing my BSW and MSW degrees, I chose the School of Social Work at Smith College for my doctoral program because of its antiracism commitment. The president, dean of social work, and several of my professors were Black women. It was the first time I had seen Black female professors in my college career. And that is when I learned about the importance of representation.
It can be incredibly lonely and isolating when you’re the only person that looks like you. I want my students to see positive representations of themselves. To experience their education and lives without limits. I want to see Black people in any space as an everyday norm, not something we only celebrate during Black History Month. So in my mind it’s now my responsibility to pay forward all that women of color who came before me poured into me—to pass on the torch to young people who will follow in our footsteps.
Hall is a professor and associate dean for equity and inclusion in the College of Social Work. She helped develop the Strategies and Tactics for Recruiting to Improve Diversity and Excellence (STRIDE) training and has served as chair of the Commission for Blacks. Last November, she retired from the US Army Reserve after 27 years of service as a clinical social work officer.
Both of my parents grew up in the Jim Crow South—my mom in Tallahassee, Florida, and my dad in the Northern Neck of Tidewater Virginia. Both of my grandfathers fought in World War II—then when they came home, they couldn’t eat at the same table as a white person. So naturally they got involved. My mom’s dad helped drive members of the Black community to work during the Tallahassee bus boycotts. They taught me to speak up for myself.
Up until my sophomore year of high school in Virginia we celebrated Lee–Jackson–King Day,* so we didn’t expect to learn Black history in school. My parents kept books in the house, and our neighbors were professors of African American history. We learned about Black figures in church. I got involved with Operation Understanding Hampton Roads, which brought together Black and Jewish high school students in Virginia. During spring break, we’d visit the Jewish communities on the Upper East Side in New York City, then we’d go on a long civil rights trip in the summer to Atlanta, Birmingham, Selma.
My first job out of college was as a high school social studies teacher on the west side of Jackson, Mississippi, where you have this very rich history of Black leadership and culture. Most of the kids knew more about Reconstruction—this period after the Civil War when there was this high tide of African American voter participation and progress—than I did. The way we teach high school history, you’ve got to get through the Civil War and to the Industrial Revolution, and you don’t get the chance to focus on it.
My experience in Mississippi gave me a greater sense about why the story about Southern memory is really important. What did the end of Reconstruction mean for African Americans growing up in the late 19th and early 20th century? You want students to have a reference. You don’t want the past frozen in amber. They’ve got struggles they’ll embrace in their own lives, whether it’s for economic justice, immigration, LGBTQ rights. It’s a reminder to me: freedom is a constant struggle.
Bland is an assistant professor of history and Africana studies. He teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on African American history and the US South. He is currently writing a book, tentatively titled Requiem for Reconstruction.
*From 1984 to 2000, Virginia combined the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday with Lee–Jackson Day, a state holiday commemorating Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Virginia separated the holidays in 2000 and eliminated Lee–Jackson Day in 2020.
Brian Canever (865-974-0937, email@example.com)