Second part of Mayor Jacobs’ Knox County history series profiles Theotis Robinson Jr.

Black History Month

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Theotis Robinson Jr., the first African American undergraduate student admitted to the University of Tennessee, was Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs’ guest for the second installment of the “Knox Narratives” docuseries.

Robinson recalled he wrote an application letter in July 1960 to UT that avoided revealing his race and the segregated high school he attended.

“I got a response saying the school does not accept negroes as undergraduate students. Clearly, they did some investigation to know I was Black,” he said.

Robinson described “cordial” meetings with UT administrators to discuss his desire to attend the school. Robinson made it clear to then-President Andy Holt he intended to sue if UT trustees refused to integrate. The board subsequently voted in November 1960 to admit Robinson.

“That is why I consider myself the first African American admitted to the undergraduate school. I was on the point of the spear to bring about this change,” Robinson said. “In January 1961, I enrolled and two other [African American] students also came on board.”

Robinson shared tales of conflict and friendship as a student at the University of Tennessee. His fond memories include the story of a star football player who interrupted an instructor’s “racist rant” by physically intimidating him.

Robinson was later elected to Knoxville City Council from 1970 to 1977 and served as vice president of economic development for the 1982 World’s Fair. Robinson returned to the University of Tennessee as a political science lecturer in 1989 and rose to the position of vice president of the UT system. He retired in 2014.

You can watch the Knox Narratives with Robinson on YouTube and Facebook.

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