The Beginning of Desegregation
Leona Lusk Officer's enrollment at Tennessee Polytechnic Institute in January 1964 initiated the beginning of desegregation of the last campus in the Tennessee Board of Regents system. Integration would be a long, incomplete process, as Black students, faculty, and employees struggled to be respected and supported on campus and in the broader Cookeville community.
Leona Lusk Officer: First Black Student and Graduate
On January 3, 1964, Leona Lusk Officer enrolled as a transfer student at Tennessee Polytechnic Institute. She had previously attended the segregated Agricultural and Industrial State Normal School (now Tennessee State University) in Nashville off and on since 1945. Officer taught in the segregated public school system in White County, Tennessee, until the school system laid her off in 1962 for not having completed her bachelor's degree. The Sparta City Schools Superintendent Charles Golden encouraged her to attend nearby Tennessee Tech. Officer waited to apply to Tennessee Tech until after her daughter completed a degree at Agricultural and Industrial State in 1963. Golden advocated on Officer's behalf and helped her enroll in the 1964 winter quarter. Administrators attempted to keep her enrollment quiet, but word spread in the local newspapers.
Stories from Officer's children provide the little information known on her experience at Tech. She studied education and commuted to class from her home in White County. At about 47 years old when she enrolled, her age, family's needs, and race made her feel disconnected from the younger, white student body. Officer did not make many friends on campus and did not engage in campus activities beyond her coursework.
On August 28, 1965, Officer graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Education and became the first Black graduate of Tennessee Tech. For more on Officer, check out the dedication page of the Leona Lusk Officer Black Cultural Center History exhibit here.
The earliest Black student athletes at Tennessee Tech faced immense pressure to excel. For the African American community, the inclusion of Black athletes on formerly all-white teams provided hope that United States society was capable of change and that future generations could live and thrive in a desegregated world. White coaches, fans, and teammates looked to the first Black athletes as evidence of the abilities and moral character of the entire Black community. At the same time that white people were judging the few Black athletes more critically than their white peers, white people also held up the presence of Black athletes on sports teams as evidence of the lack of racism at their institutions.
The same year that Leona Lusk Officer enrolled at Tech, the Tennessee Tech basketball coaching staff recruited Henry James Jordan, Joe Neal Hilson, and Marvin Knott Beidleman for basketball grant-in-aid scholarships. Jordan and Hilson were both from Rockwood, Tennessee, and attended the segregated Campbell High School. Beidleman was from Bristol, Tennessee, and attended Slater High School. They enrolled at Tech in the fall quarter of 1964 and became the first Black student athletes when they played on the freshman men's basketball team during the 1964-1965 season.
The white coaches felt comfortable having the Black basketball players share the court during away games, but concern over the local white community's support of the team led the coaches to avoid putting in all of the Black players at once during home games. In describing playing basketball as a Black student athlete at Tech, Marvin Beidleman said:
"It was tough at times and integration was still fresh. . . I didn’t have too many problems with it, but there were still problems. Our team was a pretty good team, but the black guys really didn’t get to play together at the same time that much when we were at home. At the away games, all of us black guys got to play at once and we’d be hawking the ball with that full-court press." - Marvin Beidleman, quoted in Tim Hayes, "Douglass, Slater alumni got a moment they deserved," Bristol Herald Courier, 2020 February 1.
They were star athletes, but the university failed to properly support them in their transition to attending a predominantly white university. None of the first three Black athletes completed their degrees. At the beginning of the fall quarter of 1966, the head coach suspended Jordan from the team for disciplinary reasons, the specifics of which are not documented in the Tech Archives. Hilson dropped out because of poor grades in the spring of 1967. In 1967, the United States Army deployed Beidleman with the 101st Airborne Division to fight in the Vietnam War.
When questioned about his poor retention rate of basketball recruits in a meeting of the university's Athletic Committee in March 1967, head coach Kenny Sidwell dismissed the students leaving as part of the risks of sports recruitment. The chairman and others stressed to Sidwell that the students were there foremost to receive an education, not just to play basketball.
Morris Irby Jr. was born to Morris and Irene Smith Irby in Cookeville, Tennessee. He grew up in West Cookeville and played Little League Baseball on racially integrated teams. He attended the segregated Darwin School until the school burned in 1963 while he was in the eighth grade. His class completed the remainder of the term in a temporary classroom at Trinity Baptist Church. In the fall of 1963, he enrolled in the newly integrated Central High School. He graduated from Putnam County Senior High School in 1967.
In a 2006 interview with WCTE, Irby described what segregation in Cookeville felt like for him growing up:
At that time, that’s what we knew. Okay. So, therefore it was accepted because that’s the way it was. And then there was a lot of things that you didn’t question. Now, you knew that when the derogatory slur would come that that wasn’t right. That that wasn’t good. . . it was kind of interesting that, that you know, we paid the same money [as white people], but we were put in the loft [at the movie theater]. . . At that time, you didn’t think a lot about it. But now, as I started to get older and I got later in my teenage years and you started seeing a lot more of the civil rights movement going on on TV, it started coming to, to mind more that gosh, a lot of these things that is going on in Cookeville, that’s not right. And I think back now, and there’s a lot of pain with what occurred, and how it occurred, and why it occurred. We’d go to town, we’d have to go into the back of a restaurant to eat. Now, one thing that I later on thought about well, why is that? All of them had black cooks there, but I couldn’t walk in the front door to eat.
Irby played baseball for Putnam County Senior High School and caught the attention of the Tennessee Tech baseball coach. Sid Hatfield recruited Irby to attend and play for Tech on an athletic scholarship. Irby jumped at the opportunity. He recounted in 2020:
"I always had aspirations to go to college, but I tell you the truth, I had no idea how I was going to get here." - Running through Time: Former Student Athlete Panel, October 19, 2020, Office of Multicultural Affairs records.
When Irby signed to accept his scholarship offer, he learned that he would be the only Black baseball player on the team. He became the first Black baseball player at Tech when he enrolled in 1967.
Irby described how Black athletes hung out together on the quad and in the cafeteria:
I remember us getting together a lot of times there just if nothing more keeping each other company. And I think that went a long way to help us. - Running through Time: Former Student Athlete Panel, October 19, 2020, Office of Multicultural Affairs records.
Irby graduated in 1971 with a Bachelor of Science in Business. He also earned a Master's degree in Educational Psychology from Tech in 1977.
For more on Irby, check out the biography in the 2019 Legacy Gala program here.
White property owners and landlords used redlining and other discriminatory practices to limit where African Americans could live in Cookeville. For example, the 1943 deed for the land which the Tech Training School was built on includes a racial restrictive covenant against people of African descent owning, renting, or leasing the land for 99 years. Black students and employees navigated limited off-campus housing opportunities when moving to Cookeville in the 1960s and 1970s.
To comply with fair-housing interpretations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the university began investigating whether off-campus landlords provided safe and non-discriminatory housing and created new approved off-campus housing lists for students in 1967.
In 1970, Greg and Libby Wright struggled to find an apartment after they had temporarily moved from Cookeville for Greg's co-op. Several landlords claimed that they did not have availability for the Black married couple, when later investigation revealed that they had openings.
In the 1960s, Black college and high school students pushed for the inclusion of African and African American history and culture in curriculum across the United States. Students grew up reading literature by white Americans and Europeans, studying white music and art, and learning about history through white narratives in their schools. Black students were frustrated by the lack of representation in their coursework and argued that educational institutions failed to offer the comprehensive education they advertised when they excluded non-white culture, history, and thinkers.
At Tennessee Tech, the first course that explicitly addressed the United States African American community was offered by the Department of Geography, Philosophy, and Sociology in the 1962-1963 academic year, before Black students were admitted. Titled "Minority Groups in the United States," the sociology class framed African Americans and other ethnic and racial minority groups as a problem needing to be solved. The course description from the Bulletin reads: "The cultural and social backgrounds of minority groups, their problems of adjustment, and the causes and results of contemporary ethnic conflicts.”
The following academic year, the Department of Geography, Philosophy, and Sociology added a course titled "Geography of Africa." The course covered the physical geography of the continent and the diverse cultures of African people.
In the 1967-1968 academic year--when Black students at the university totaled 33 students--the Department of History and Political Sciences began offering the "History of the American Negro, 1865-Present" as an upper-level course. According to the Bulletin, the class covered, "The impact of freedom and Reconstruction, advent of 'Jim Crow,' Booker T. Washington v. W.E.B. DuBois, the Harlem Renaissance, legal struggles, urbanization, and the modern confrontation with the color barrier.” The next year, the department expanded the African American history course offerings to include a second class that covered from 1517-1865.