“Imagine Going Half a Day and Not Seeing Anybody that Looks Like You”: A History of Black Students and Employees at Tennessee Tech

Tennessee Tech University was founded as a racially segregated, public institution in 1915. By the 1920s, African Americans worked at the college, but the administration relegated them to low-paying employment in the cafeteria. The college was the last higher education institution in the Tennessee Board of Regents system to desegregate. Leona Lusk Officer’s enrollment in 1964 opened the door for Black students at Tennessee Tech. Integration has been a long, incomplete process, as Black students, faculty, and employees have struggled to be respected and supported on campus and in the broader Cookeville community. Despite the challenges the Black campus community has faced, students and employees have created spaces for joy and pride in themselves.

There is no universal and timeless experience shared by all Black students and employees at Tech. The university's Black community has included people from the small towns of the Upper Cumberland, residents of U.S. cities with large Black populations like Atlanta and Nashville, and immigrants and visiting students from beyond the United States.

The diversity within the Black campus community shaped how individuals experienced the university and surrounding area. Local and national events, such as legal challenges to segregation at other universities and the assassination of Dr. King, also influenced the climate for the community at Tennessee Tech. Within this environment, individuals and groups stepped up to initiate change. Black students banded together to cope with the isolation of attending a predominantly white college. Students advocated for the hiring of Black faculty, staff, and administrators; recruitment and support of Black students; and expansion of the curriculum to include non-white culture.

The title, "Imagine Going Half a Day and Not Seeing Anybody that Looks Like You," is taken from a quote by Tech alum and long-time administrator Marc Burnett. He was describing the isolation of being an African American student on a predominantly white campus.

The Archives would like to thank students in the RACE PLUS program, alumni, Charria Campbell and Corinne Johnson in the Office of Multicultural Affairs, Dr. Robert Owens II, and Janet Mansel and Amanda Fabrizio-Grzesik in Alumni Development for their support and involvement in this project.

This exhibit is presented in honor of the Leona Lusk Officer Black Cultural Center's 30th Anniversary. For more on the anniversary celebration, check out the website here.

Accessibility note: Click on images in the exhibit to view them in larger sizes and to access image descriptions, transcriptions, or screen reader compliant PDFs.


Curated by Hannah O'Daniel McCallon with research and digitization assistance by Rhyannon Karney. First published April 21, 2021. The items in the exhibit are held by the Tennessee Tech University Archives and Special Collections unless otherwise noted.