The Desegregation of Middle Tennessee State University

By Madeline Quinby

The 1960s brought turbulence, activism, and necessary conversation across the United States about racial justice and politics.  The country fought with itself about how to treat people of color in society.  Higher education institutions and school systems struggled to handle protests in both directions about desegregation and integration.  Many southern universities faced conflict when desegregation efforts were implemented, but Middle Tennessee State University found a more peaceful transition. 

MTSU was originally Middle Tennessee State Normal School: a two-year teacher training program that opened in 1911 and evolved into a four-year teacher’s college in 1925.  Up until 1962, the students were all white.

“In 1951, three years before Brown v. Board of Education, Judge Robert L. Taylor ruled that two African American applicants be admitted to the graduate and law schools of the University of Tennessee because equal facilities were not available in the state's black university as required by legislation passed in 1941,” wrote Frank B. Williams, Jr. in  at the Tennessee Encyclopedia.

Schools in Tennessee started allowing integration before legislation mandated it nationally.  When MTSU had its first black student in 1962, the school continued this peaceful precedent started by the state.  Olivia Woods was the first black student on MTSU’s campus and started classes that fall.

“We didn’t have [turmoil],” said Woods in an oral history published by the Al Gore Research Center.

“I guess people got used to seeing me on campus as it were, and then Margaret and Linda.  Then they thought ‘Well, they are not going to be bad,’” she said.

Margaret Carney and Linda Kennedy started attending MTSU the semester after Woods.  They were the next two black students to attend full-time at what was then Middle Tennessee State College.

“In passing, some might kind of shun me, you know.  But that didn’t matter because I was there to get an education, to get a job, so we could educate my children,” said Woods.

Woods said she believed being an older student who was not worried about the social side of college was helpful.  She did recount one incident where somebody was openly racist towards her as she was preparing to register for classes.

“Some young man came in and said, he looked at me and said, ‘Ooh, it’s dark in here,’” said Woods.

University president Dr. Quill E. Cope was giving a presentation to the new students when the man made the comment.  Quill asked the man to stay after the session, according to Woods.

“I never had anything like that happen again,” said Woods.

The first black students who attended MTSU were not interested in being trailblazers or activists, claimed Woods.

“They were more interested in getting that degree to help them; you know, further their education and increase their pay than they were in trying to prove something,” she said.

Woods graduated with a degree in elementary education in 1965 and came back to MTSU to get her Master’s degree in curriculum and instruction in 1974.  She taught for 21 years in Murfreesboro City Schools.  Olivia Woods died at the age of 96 on Oct. 2, 2016 in Rutherford County.

“One of the black magazines wanted to do a story on her.  She refused. She said she wasn’t [at MTSU] to be a milestone. She just wanted to get her degree,” said her son George Woods in an interview with the Daily News Journal after her passing.

Linda Kennedy started at MTSU in 1963 but then left the university. She returned and received her master’s and specialist in education degrees from MTSU and taught at Smyrna Middle School and LaVergne High School, according to MTSU News.  

She died on January 26, 2012 at the age of 65.

“Linda Kennedy was a trailblazer at MTSU and an inspiration to those who followed in her footsteps at our University,” said President Sidney A. McPhee in response to her passing.

After black students began attending the university in larger numbers, student activism became a factor.  MTSU has historically used Confederate rebel flags, mascot Nathan Bedford Forrest, and the song ‘Dixie’ to convey school spirit.  These racially charged traditionsbecame controversial with the arrival of black students on campus.

 

Sylvester Brooks, a black student, started at MTSU in 1968 and began campus-wide debates over whether or not to keep those school symbols.  He wrote an open column in Sidelines, MTSU’s student-run newspaper on Oct. 21, 1968 titled, “’Dixie’: What does it Mean?” where he challenged the morality and appropriateness of using the symbols.

“We must re-evaluate our traditions to determine just how applicable they are in our modern and mass society. The day that Middle Tennessee State University first desegregated, a tradition was broken. It was discarded because it was wrong. Other traditions are equally wrong and equally outdated,” Brooks wrote.

 

This article provoked campus-wide controversy and many Sidelines op-eds both in favor and against Brooks’s opinion.

“This is what I think. This is what I feel. You can like it, or you cannot like it. If you want to respond to it, that's great. You want to fight about it, we can fight about it. Then we'll try some other way to get under your skin,” Brooks said in response to his publication during a Sept. 2000 interview with the AGRC.

He spoke at an Associated Student Body meeting soon after Sidelinespublished his letter. He convinced the student government to vote down the use of Nathan Bedford Forrest and the confederate rider as university symbols, according to Brooks.

“Never in my vaguest imagination did I think that would happen,” said Brooks.

He said President Melvin G. Scarlett was at the meeting that night, and Brooks felt that Scarlett supported the movement.  The symbolism was not completely replaced until 1976 and debates about the name of Forrest Hall continue today.

Scarlett was also instrumental in getting rid of ‘Dixie’ and improving race relations through open communication in the face of conflict. 

“About 60 [predominately black] students marched on President Scarlett's home last night following a cross-burning incident which occurred during the MTSU-Shorter College basketball game,” reported a 1970 edition of Sidelines.

Rather than turn the students away, Scarlett listened to their concerns about the cross burning and other racist incidents that had occurred on campus.

“I said, in effect, I would not be president of a university that permitted the humiliation of a segment of its students.  And that I was going to do everything I could to find out who did this and to see that action was taken to punish them and also to develop better race relations on the campus,” said Scarlett in a 1980 interview with Dr. Bob Bullen.

He phased out the use of ‘Dixie’ after avoiding a demonstration against the song at a football game.  He gave the director of MTSU bands, Joe Smith, $3000 to commission a new fight song, according to Scarlett.

“MTSU had no fight song of its own, no pep song, so I said ‘We ought to have one,’” said Scarlett.

Scarlett died on April 16,  2012 at the age of 91.

Scarlett’s inclusive vision was shared by other MTSU faculty members as well, notably track coach Dean Hayes and basketball coach Ken Tricky. In the Fall of 1965, both coaches recruited black athletes to their teams.  Hayes signed Jerry Singleton to the track team and Tricky signed Willie Brown and Art Polk.  Singleton became the first black scholarship athlete at MTSU.

“We started getting black athletes. Ken Trickey got Willie Brown and Art Polk and it established we could go out of state and sign a diverse group. We didn't really start getting the international athletes until 1973,” said Hayes in a 2016 interview.

Hayes also served as the advisor of Kappa Alpha Psi, the first black fraternity on MTSU’s campus, according to MTSU News.

Despite forward moving efforts from MTSU, there was still a gap in diversity across all middle Tennessee schools.  In 1969, University of Tennessee – Nashville and Tennessee State University entered into Geier v. University of Tennesseethat highlighted systemic racism in the proposed expansion of UT-N, a branch of the majority white university system in a city that already had TSU, a school with near-identical programs as UTN, but was a historically black university.

“The actions of UT in expanding the program at UT-N perpetuated segregation by impeding desegregation of TSU,” wrote Gail Epstein in the Chicago-Kent Law Review.

The Stipulation of Settlementwas the final ruling of the Geier case and was decided on in 1984.  Specific instructions for structured desegregation at MTSU came with the settlement for UTN and TSU.

“Under the terms of the Stipulation, MTSU committed itself to providing greater support for African American student life on campus and to establishing a closer working relationship with TSU,” wrote Kenneth Scherzer in Middle Tennessee State University: A Centennial Legacy.

Tennessee schools had to offer alternative admissions standards for a percentage of their incoming class until they met their desegregation goals.  All Tennessee higher education institutions were required to implement affirmative actions to increase black hires. The Tennessee Board of Regents had to match any scholarships offered for white students at TSU with the same amount offered to black students at MTSU.  MTSU also received a freeze on adding new graduate-level programs and had to coordinate existing programs with other middle Tennessee schools so as not to intrude on TSU’s growth, according to Scherzer.

“Geierhas had a profound and lasting impact on Middle Tennessee State.  For African American students, it pushed the university to move beyond the tokenism of earlier integration and to create a genuine presence that embraced diversity on the Murfreesboro campus,” said Scherzer.

Despite the impact of legislation such as Brown vs. the Board of Educationand Geier vs. the University of Tennessee, Middle Tennessee found much of its original progress from their own students and faculty.

““The Civil Rights movement, they talk about it’s a great movement, but it wasn’t a great heard of people.  It was really a considerably small group of people, and a lot of them were young people,” said Brooks.

Desegregation at Middle Tennessee State University had its conflicts, however both then and now, the institution pushes towards progress.