UT’s first Black student shares views on freedom, ‘footprints’ at PSCC

Pellissippi State Community College students, faculty and area visitors had an opportunity to hear from the first African-American student to enroll at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, which came in January 1961.

Theotis Robinson Jr. shared his experiences and advice as that first student during a “Conversation with a Legend,” as part of Black History Month, at PSCC’s Hardin Valley campus Tuesday, Feb. 13.

“Understand that government, that politics impact your rights very directly,” Robinson advised. “For example, I mentioned tuition and how that impacts you and your families.

“Pay attention to what’s going on in government,” he added. “Right now, our country is really at a crossroads. Are we going to remain a democracy or are we going to become an autocratic (government)?”

Sounding a warning, “We need to understand that and how that affects our freedoms,” Robinson said. “You see, many freedoms are being eroded constantly.

“I hope you are leaving your footprints behind,” he added.

Robinson has been leaving footprints behind since he graduated from Austin High School in 1959, when he filed a lawsuit to attend University of Tennessee.

He and PSCC president L. Anthony Wise talked about Robinson’s decision to attend the university when it was an all-white institution.

Born in Chattanooga, Robinson and his family moved to Knoxville in a house where Knoxville Civic Coliseum now stands near downtown.

“It was a shotgun duplex,” he recalled of his home.

Robinson recalled his parents were “loving, instructional and supportive” of his educational pursuits.

“When he was a senior in high school, Robinson attempted to enroll in an all-white Knoxville East High School and became a plaintiff in a lawsuit to desegregate the city’s public school system in 1959,” stated a press release from PSCC.

He continued his ambitions by enrolling at UT. Initially, Robinson planned to attend Knoxville College, but he changed his mind.

He applied for UT but was rejected because of his race.

With support from his parents, Robinson met with the university president and threatened to file a lawsuit. He was admitted and began classes on Jan. 5, 1961. He later became one of the first African-Americans to graduate from UT.

“His actions allowed (other) Black undergraduate students to attend,” the press release said.

He didn’t stop there. Robinson participated in sit-ins at local lunch counters.

He later served on Knoxville City Council, as vice president of Economic Development for the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville and as vice president of Equality and Diversity for the UT system.

“He was a catalyst for change,” said Stella Bridgeman, dean for PSCC’s Magnolia Avenue campus.

As far as his political activities, “I’ll be working until the day I leave here,” Robinson said.