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 that 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.”