KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Theotis Robinson Jr., a Knoxville political trailblazer and the first Black undergraduate student admitted to the University of Tennessee, has established a scholarship endowment for incoming first-year students at UT.
The Theotis Robinson Jr. Flagship Pathway Scholarship Endowment will support student graduates from one of 38 designated Flagship high schools in Tennessee. It will be awarded for up to four years and can be bundled with other state and university scholarships.
“This helps bring it full circle,” says Tyvi Small, vice chancellor for diversity and engagement and a close friend and mentee of Robinson’s. “Historically, Theotis helped lay the foundation for us.”
“If it hadn’t been for his bravery, tenacity, and his will, many of us wouldn’t be working here, studying here, and contributing to the phenomenal tapestry that is UT. Now, in the present, he’s still providing opportunity and access through this generous gift.”
Robinson was offered a scholarship to Knoxville College after graduating high school but applied to Tennessee because they offered a political science major that Knoxville College did not. He was initially denied admission because of the color of his skin.
After a series of meetings and debates with university administration, university police was changed and Robinson became the first Black undergraduate student admitted in 1960. Robinson, along with Willie Mae Gillespie and Charles Blair, joined a small group of Black graduate and law students at UT in 1961.
In 1970, Robinson became the first Black person to be elected to Knoxville City Council in more than 50 years and served as the vice president of economic development for the 1982 World’s Fair.
He later was hired by Tennessee in 1989, initially serving as a political science lecturer. He served in various educational leadership positions for more than 20 years, spending the last fourteen as the UT System vice president for equity and diversity until his retirement in 2014.
Earlier this year, the university renamed two residence halls in honor of Robinson and Rita Sanders Geier for their unwavering efforts in pursuit of equity and social justice in higher education.
“My hope is that by attending UT, students will not only be prepared for their life’s work in the careers they choose,” Robinson says. “But I hope their time at the university also enhances their ability to contribute back to society once they leave.”