Theotis Robinson, Jr. lives downtown with his wife of 30 years. He is retired now, but he often accepts invitations to speak at UT or attend dedications and ceremonies, like the one a few years back to rename a dormitory after him.
Robinson’s name is forever emblazoned into Knoxville’s history, much like on that dorm building. At the age of 18, he and two others became the first Black students to enroll at the University of Tennessee.
The pioneer has lived in Knoxville his entire life. His childhood home used to stand where the Civic Auditorium is located. He attended McMillan Primary, Green Elementary, Vine Junior High, and Austin High School.
“My fifth-grade teacher had the greatest impact of any teacher I ever had. Mrs. Drake was her name,” Robinson said.
Drake introduced her students to United States history and the Constitution, “and how far Americans were away from interpreting the Constitution based upon what it said. That was before the phrase ‘Black Pride’ ever came forth, but she taught that.”
The following year, when Robinson was finishing his 6th-grade year, the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, although the Knoxville school board would need to create a desegregation plan in order to make that a reality.
Implementation of a plan had still not happened by the time Robinson was a senior at Austin High, so he joined 16 other students to seek admission to the white schools in the area.
“The group that I was in, we went over to what was then East High School, which is now Austin-East. The principal met us at the door, telling us that we couldn’t come in,” he said. “After we were turned away, that’s when the lawsuit was filed.”
Josephine Goss v Knoxville Board of Education ensured that desegregation was in the future for Knoxville students, but it would still be several years until a formal plan was put in place.
A few months before his high school graduation, four students in Greensboro, North Carolina sat at a whites-only lunch counter to protest private-sector segregation. This peaceful protest spread throughout the country and reached Knoxville lunch counters by June.
“I was one of the ones going down there practically every day, sitting in at Woolworth’s, and Kress, Walgreen’s, you name the place, and I was one of the people down there,” Robinson said. “Took my dad one day. He witnessed what it was like and experienced the atmosphere. He saw all the harassment that was going on.”
Robinson recalled that a white UT student purchased a grape soda and poured it over the head of a protestor. When Robinson and his father returned home, his dad said, “Son, I support everything you’re doing. I’m 100 percent behind you, but I can’t do this. If somebody does that to me and calls me the magic word, that nonviolence stuff is going out the window,” he recalled with a laugh.
After a month of the sit-ins, an ad was published in the Sunday edition of the News Sentinel with a list of the inequities still present in Knoxville. One of those issues stated the Black students were not accepted into the University of Tennessee undergraduate program.
“I was getting ready to go to school, go to college, and I thought, ‘This is something I can do, that I can do something about,’” he said. “That very night, that same Sunday night, I wrote down a letter of application to UT.”
He never mentioned his race nor his high school on the application, yet he still received a letter of rejection, citing their policy to not accept “Negroes.”
Robinson spoke with the dean of undergraduate admissions, who set up a meeting with UT president Andy Holt.
“He wanted to know why I wanted to come to UT. I told him I was born in Chattanooga, lived in Tennessee all my life, paid taxes here in Tennessee,” Robinson said. “Every time I buy a six-pack of Coca-Cola, I’m paying taxes on it. Some of that tax money goes to UT, so I have a right to come here to major in political science, and I can’t do it at Knoxville College.”
Holt said the decision was up to the Board of Trustees, and he would bring the issue to them, to which Robinson replied, “you and the Board needs to understand if UT doesn’t change its policy, I plan to sue the University.”
The State Attorney General determined he could not win the lawsuit if Robinson filed against them, so the Board reviewed his application. They deemed he was eligible for admittance.
He began classes on Jan. 4, 1961. Other universities in the south began desegregating their campuses, and several students were met with violence.
Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter enrolled at the University of Georgia at the same time as Robinson and were faced with mobs outside of their dormitories. James Meredith started school at the University of Mississippi in October of the following year, which launched a deadly riot where two people were killed.
“I had none of this kind of treatment. This was a Sunday afternoon picnic in the park in the spring,” Robinson said. “I don’t know that I could have withstood what he had to endure.”
Since his time at UT, Robinson was elected to the city council where he served from 1970-1977. He served as the Vice President of economic development for the 1982 World’s Fair and returned to UT, first as a lecturer of political science and eventually retiring as the UT System Vice President of diversity and inclusion. He was granted an honorary doctorate for a lifetime of work to advance social justice, received the Whitney M. Young Lifetime Achievement Award from the Knox Urban League, was named by Metro Pulse as one of the most 100 influential Knoxvillians of the 20th century, and had a dormitory on UT’s campus renamed after him.
Those fortunate enough to meet him or listen to one of his speeches will likely hear him mention those that came before him: Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass, or Sojourner Truth.
“I followed in the footsteps of those people. I stood on their shoulders to seek to carry on the work of advancing human rights and civil rights,” Robinson said. “You are now preparing yourself for a life and careers. Be sure as you build your career and as you travel life’s paths, to leave behind footsteps. Build the kinds of shoulders that others following you can stand on to continue. Live a principled life so that you can leave behind those footprints for others to follow.”
Members of the Knox County community gathered on Friday for a “Lunch and Learn” discussion at Pellissippi State Community College, a conversation that focused on awareness and advocacy of foundational literacy.
The Lunch and Learn series was initiated by KCS Board of Education Member Betsy Henderson in partnership with Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs, the Knox County Education Foundation, and tnAchieves, to focus on current themes in education, both locally and statewide.
“The issues we’re hearing a lot this year are focused on literacy and foundational literacy,” Henderson said. “We wanted to focus on that, especially with Dr. Rysewyk’s priority on foundational skills. That’s one thing that personally, as a mom, is important to me.”
Panelists for Friday’s event included Department of Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, KCS Executive Director for Learning and Literacy Dr. Erin Phillips, and SCORE Chief K-12 Impact Officer Dr. Sharon Roberts.
Phillips addressed the technical side of how students can increase their knowledge to build literacy, saying it’s important for them to master the foundational skills that pave the way for understanding more complex material.
Schwinn emphasized the importance of the group effort that is needed for building literacy, that goes beyond the classroom and into the home.
“Really strong early literacy instruction is so engaging,” Schwinn said. “Part of early literacy, part of teaching is really that partnership between the child and his or her teacher, the partnership of his or her teacher and the parent, and how together, we can crack the code.”
The goal of the event is to be more than just a luncheon where attendees learn from the panelists, but also to challenge community members with specific action items.
“Read as much as you can on this topic,” Roberts said. “Become as knowledgeable as you can on this topic. Read to children. I would encourage us to read on varying topics to build their knowledge.”
The next Lunch and Learn will likely focus on teacher recruitment and retention, and all events are open to the public.
The first cohort of The 865 Academies revealed their new career-themed Academies at a celebration hosted by Central High School on Thursday.
The 865 Academies initiative launched in the fall of 2022, and is designed to transform the high school experience in Knox County. The goal is for every KCS graduate to be prepared for enrolling in postsecondary studies; enlisting in service to their country; or finding employment in a high-wage, high-skill, and in-demand profession, with an entrepreneurial mindset.
By establishing career-themed academies, the initiative will create small learning communities within larger schools, allowing students to participate in career exploration activities and take a deep dive into areas of interest while also building strong connections with teachers and other students.
“We’ve got to prepare students, and school systems are uniquely positioned to do that,” said Superintendent Dr. Jon Rysewyk. “Our job is to have students prepared for when they graduate.”
The celebration was attended by community leaders and industry partners, including Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs, who said 865Ready graduates will ultimately benefit Knox County and East Tennessee.
“This is just wonderful to see a really intentional, strategic effort to in some ways customize the student experience,” Jacobs said. “They get the tools and the skills that they need to excel in areas that they’re either naturally drawn to or things that they love.”
Gordon Heins, the president and chairman of the A.G. Heins Company, said industry partnerships positively impact both organizations and students. By working together, KCS students are provided valuable opportunities for work-based learning and career exploration.
“As an employer, we want students to come to us looking for good-paying jobs, and that they’re prepared, and they have the tools,” he said.
Central High School is in the first cohort of The 865 Academies, and Principal Dr. Andrew Brown said student performance in Algebra I has improved, while discipline referrals are down.”
Brown credited Freshman Seminar, a new class that focuses on helping 9th-graders identify interests, aptitudes and professional skills, adding that “we are already beginning to see great results out of that work.
CHS senior Justus Hayes was involved in the early stages of launching the Academies initiative, and is also an entrepreneur. He started his own business, Blended Clothing, and during the ceremony presented shirts to several local leaders.
“Entrepreneurship is a very important thing to me. I love creating, and bringing new apparel and things to our generation,” Hayes said. “It has been my honor to help build and show my support for something that will impact our current and future generations.”
Student Ambassadors from each school presented their new Academies alongside their principals. Below are the Academies for the first cohort.
Carter High School and South-Doyle High School will be joining The 865 Academies as the second cohort in the fall.
Read City USA kicked off its 2023 one million-hour reading challenge this week with a concert at the Historic Bijou Theater.
Read City, an initiative launched in 2018 by Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs in partnership with the Knox County Public Library to promote literacy, announced its theme for the year: “All Together Now.”
“I’m excited to bring this event to the community as a celebration of reading,” Jacobs said. “We’re working with groups, businesses, schools, and families to illustrate Knox County’s commitment to literacy.”
The concert featured the “Read City Band,” a group composed of UT jazz students performing big band standards, which was led by UT Professor of Music Keith Brown.
A dance team from Go! Contemporary Danceworks performed a classic jazz-style dance throughout the event, and even transformed into dancing elephants for a musical storytime with the mayor. Jacobs read The Elephant’s Music by Monika Filipina.
New York Times bestselling illustrator Daniel Wiseman also joined on stage for an art demonstration.
“The key to reading is to read a little every day – that’s discipline,” Jacobs said. “And finding books you love; that’s the other key.”
More information and resources about Read City 2023: All Together Now can be found here.
The Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative Commission has honored Austin-East junior Tylan Baker with the 2023 Knoxville Youth Award.
The group recognizes individuals annually, and this is the first year the Youth Award has been presented to a member of the Knoxville community.
“I think it’s an honor,” assistant principal Rukiya Foster said. “It’s the first youth to ever get the award, so that’s very special. He has set the precedent and the path for youth to come.”
The MLK Commission chose to honor Baker and others based on “their commitment to continuing the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” according to their website.
“I think it’s one of the many awards he’ll be getting,” Jeff Black, another Austin-East assistant principal, said of Baker. “I think he’s driven, and he’s a great leader.”
Baker works with a number of local organizations to volunteer around his community.
“I honestly believe that I earned the award just for the service I’ve done in the community,” he said. “It was really a surprise. I didn’t know I was getting it. I just know it’s big.”
The 17-year-old is a member of the Mayor’s Youth Council, Youth Leadership Knoxville, the Urban League’s National Achievers Honor Society, National Honor Society, 100 Black Men, Young Life, Project GRAD, and the Austin-East Roadrunners football team. All of these groups allow Baker to give back in different ways.
“It’s just wanting to see the best for everybody, wanting a better community,” Baker said. “As we look to the future, the people that’s coming behind me might want to do the same thing I’m doing. I want to set a good example for them.”
AE’s head football coach, Antonio Mays, also gives credit to Baker’s parents for his success. “I know the supportive structure that they have put in place for him,” Mays said.
The Austin-East administration thinks highly of the junior, describing him with words like mentor, intelligent, powerful, empathetic, responsible, focused, gentle giant, conscientious, well-rounded, Roadrunner.
“I think it’s a manifestation of the legacy that those have laid before him, and he just picked up the torch to continue the tradition of excellence and high achievement,” said Kamau Kenyatta, an assistant principal. Visit the MLK Commission website to see the other award recipients.