Gala commemorates struggle
Published: Tue Oct 04, 2011
aNearly 900 people gathered last week in the Knoxville Convention Center to celebrate 50 years of African-American achievement at UT.
The event was part of UT's year-long celebration commemorating the first black undergraduates to enroll in the university.
The large crowd honored UT administrator Theotis Robinson, the families of Charles Blair and the late Willie May Gillespie with a standing ovation.
UT Trustee Anne Holt Blackburn, a 1973 alumna and Emmy-award-winning anchor for Nashville's WKRN-TV, served as the mistress of ceremonies.
"Today's students owe a debt of gratitude to the brave men and women who broke down the walls of segregation at the university," Chancellor Jimmy G. Cheek told attendees. "The events of the past have brought us to where we need to stand today — a campus open to and committed to diversity."
The celebration, organized by the 50th Anniversary Committee, featured musical and dramatic performances highlighting the challenges and accomplishments of the last five decades.
UT students, faculty and staff, along with community members, were part of the music and dramatic production.
The 1970s were represented by a song and dance production of the song "Age of Aquarius."
The All Campus Theatre and Strange Fruit Productions student groups joined forces to produce a play highlighting the 1980s and the on-campus struggle for equality.
The families of Gene Mitchell Gray, the first African-American graduate school student, and Lincoln Anderson Blackney, the first African-American law school student, were also recognized at the celebration.
Many African-American achievers attended, including Brenda Peel, the first UT African-American undergraduate to obtain a degree; Lester McClain, the first African-American scholarship athlete, who played football in 1967; and Wade Houston, the first African-American basketball coach in the Southeastern Conference.
Among the many other individuals and groups celebrated for achievement was the late Fred Brown, who founded UT's Minority Engineering Scholarship program.
Cheek noted the impact of Brown's work and highlighted the efforts of the campus' Love Gospel Choir and ME4UT student organizations.
Cheek also made note of Brown's role in nurturing many students, including UT trustee Spruell Driver, a 1987 engineering graduate.
Driver was named a Torchbearer upon graduation and went to Duke University to earn a law degree. He also was celebrated at the event as the first African-American president of the UT National Alumni Association.
Music faculty member Donald Brown, a three-time Grammy nominee and internationally renowned jazz pianist, played "Someday We Will Be Free," accompanied by vocalist Kelle Jolly.
The program reflected on the role of sports in UT's African-American achievement.
Including Larry Robinson, the first African-American to receive a scholarship for UT's varsity basketball team; linebacker Jackie Walker, who became the first African-American football team captain; and Condredge Holloway, who was named the school's first African-American football quarterback and UT alumna Benita Fitzgerald, who was the first African-American to win a gold medal in the Olympic 100-meter hurdles.
The program gave credit to the work of Rita Sanders Geier, who filed a lawsuit against the state in 1968, which led to a long-standing consent decree and dedicated funding for minority recruitment, scholarships and faculty hiring at UT. Geier came to work at UT in 2007 as a special assistant to the chancellor and retires this fall.
UT junior Jessica Session gave a riveting slam poetry performance, which was accompanied by vocalist Shana Ward, pianist Kristopher Tucker and cellist Jeremiah Welch, all of whom are UT undergraduates.
The gala ended with the university's Alma Mater, sung first in traditional style and then reworked into a modern arrangement for the grand finale, which showcased all the evening's performers.
Cheek thanked celebration co-chairs, Charles and Annazette Houston, and members of the committee for an enjoyable and inspiring event.
Avery Howard, agriculture and natural resources leadership and table host at the Gala, remarked on the event's meaning.
"It was incredible to see the achievement of African-Americans who attended UT. It inspired me to see that I can make an impact just as they did," Howard said. "African-American students at UT are not here solely because they want to be but because of the work of others who have come before us. Reflecting on the 50 years of accomplishments by African-American students makes me want to continue to make a difference for another 50 years."