Theotis Robinson Jr., retired vice president of equity and diversity of the University of Tennessee system, will speak about his experience as the first African American undergraduate student and the historical struggles of African American students on campus.
Robinson’s life has featured one major milestone after the next, from civil rights to city government to serving the community. In 1961, he and two other students became the first African American undergraduates admitted to UT.
Admission to UT
In July of 1960 an article appeared in the Knoxville News Sentinel “In The Great American Tradition-An Appeal For Human Rights” that listed items that negro citizens of Knoxville, who had been involved in the lunch counter sit-ins, were not satisfied with things as they were. Listed under the first of eight items was “We cannot attend the University of Tennessee as undergraduates students.” An Austin High School graduate, Robinson read this article and decided to defer his enrollment into Knoxville College and enroll at UT. Sitting at his parents’ kitchen table, Robinson wrote a letter to UT applying for admission. A few days later Robinson received a response from UT stating that it was not their policy to admit “negroes” to the undergraduate school and his request was denied.
Not to be denied, Robinson requested a meeting with the UT admissions office, which was granted. He along with his parents met with Grady Atkinson and Bill Smyth, UT admission officers, and was told the admission of negroes to the undergraduate program was beyond their authority. They asked young Robinson if he and his parents wanted to meet with the university president, Andrew Holt. With the Robinsons’ persistence, the issue was forwarded to Holt and a meeting was arranged.
In the meeting with President Holt, Robinson expressed his desire to attend UT and Holt affirmed that policy decisions were the prerogative of the university Board of Trustees, but he would present the matter to the board.
Robinson and his parents assured Holt that their desire and hope was that the board would act favorably on his request. The Robinsons also assured Holt that if the trustees refused to grant their son admission to UT’s undergraduate school, a lawsuit against the university would follow. Holt forwarded this matter to the board, and in a special meeting on November 18, 1960, the board acted on Robinson’s application for admission. He would be admitted. The policy was changed.
On January 3, 1961, Robinson was joined by Willie Mae Gillespie and Charles Blair to register for classes. Their enrollment began on January 4, 1961, without incident. UT began the first day of desegregated undergraduate classes in a peaceful manner.
The University of Georgia desegregated on January 4, 1961, as well; however, the desegregation met with resistance, including the backlash of riots and unrest.
In fall 2000, the UT Board of Trustees voted to change the university’s by-laws at the request of the president, and Robinson was named vice president for equity and diversity, forty years after the board had cleared the way for him attend the university.”
Robinson was vice president of economic development for the 1982 Knoxville World’s Fair and served on Knoxville City Council from 1970 to 1977. He was the first African American elected to that office in more than a half century. In 1994, he was a charter inductee into the UT African American Hall of Fame. Knoxville’s Metro Pulse newspaper named him one of the 100 most influential Knoxvillians of the twentieth century.
Robinson began his career at UT in 1989 as a lecturer in political science and later joined the staff of the purchasing department. In 1992, he became an administrative aide in the Office of Federal Affairs where he remained until 1999, when he transitioned into the same post within the Office of the Senior Vice President. He was named a vice president in 2000.
After twenty-five years of service to the University of Tennessee, the last fourteen as a vice president and member of the UT system administration executive team, Robinson retired from the university on February 1, 2014.
A special thanks to the UT System Office of the President for their sponsorship.