How Tennessee's Schools Became Separate and Unequal

Segregation in the Volunteer State had some East Tennessee roots

It is hard to say exactly when segregation began in Tennessee. As in other former slave states, the transition to a new form of enforced racial separatism after the Civil War was accomplished through custom and intimidation as much as through laws. In higher education, there was no uniform practice. Most existing schools remained all white, with newer schools opening to accommodate aspiring black students. Knoxville College, for example, was founded in 1875.

The federal Morrill Act, which in 1862 created land-grant universities in the Union states, was extended to Tennessee in 1867. It led to the creation of an agricultural campus at what was then East Tennessee University, and was a major step toward the school successfully rebranding itself as the University of Tennessee in 1879. One section of the law required that "no citizen of this State, otherwise qualified, shall be excluded from the privileges of said University, by reason of his race or color." But, it hastened to add, the university should provide for "the separate accommodation or instruction of any person of color." And the new state constitution adopted in 1870 required separate instruction for blacks and whites.

The newly created UT struggled with these competing mandates, and resolved them by outsourcing any qualified black applicants—first to Fisk University in Nashville, and then in the 1880s to Knoxville College. The relationship with Knoxville College was strengthened in 1890, when Congress passed a second Morrill Act that restricted the use of federal funds for separate black colleges. UT got around this by formally establishing a branch of its Industrial Department on the Knoxville College campus, in effect making Knoxville College a part of the university system. In a short essay that year describing the arrangement, UT President Charles Dabney Jr. seemed well pleased with its results: "There were sixteen colored students last year and the number will increase largely when the new department has had time to illustrate its plans."

Dabney was an energetic young reformer who opened UT to women and campaigned for more educational spending at all levels. But there were limits to the progressivism of the time, as he illustrated in the conclusion to his essay, heralding the practical nature of the education available at Knoxville College. "We believe that this College now provides for the ‘brother in black' the kind of education which he needs most," he wrote. "The schools established by churches and benevolent people at the North have naturally aimed to give him a literary education which would qualify him to teach or preach. This has, we think, been carried too far. It is the aim of the University of Tennessee, as it believes it is its duty, under this important trust, to provide industrial education for him. The interest manifested and the success already attained encourages us to expect splendid results from this experiment."

The situation was different just a little to the south of Knoxville. At Maryville College, according to a history of the school written in 1969 by its former President Ralph Waldo Lloyd, at least a few black students had been enrolled and graduated even before the Civil War. And in the post-war period, until the end of the 19th century, there were five to 10 black students each year. Nine of them received bachelor's degrees.

But Maryville College unwittingly played a role in hastening the end of such flirtations with integration. One of its white students, Moses Houston Gamble, was incensed on entering the school in the 1890s to discover that he was expected to share the campus with black students. He even dropped out for a year to avoid having a black student in his graduating class.

Gamble was subsequently elected to the Legislature, and in 1901 he helped write a strict new Tennessee law that reflected his experience in Maryville. The bill made it a misdemeanor for "any school, academy, college, or other place of learning to allow white and colored persons to attend the same school, academy, college, or other place of learning." It became the primary force for school segregation in Tennessee for the next half-century.

Lloyd's book recounts this story in detail, noting that Gamble confided it to him personally. But, reflecting the political sensitivities of the immediate post-segregation era, Lloyd omits Gamble's name, referring to him only as a "prominent state and national leader." Gamble went on to be a professor at Maryville College, a member of the state Board of Education, and a circuit court judge. Gamble Avenue in Maryville is named for him. He died in 1934, but the law he helped write kept black students out of his alma mater until the Brown v. the Board of Education decision in 1954.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said that Gamble Hall on the Maryville College campus was also named for Moses Gamble. In fact, it was named for his son, Joe C. Gamble, also a Maryville graduate. The younger Gamble was chairman of the Maryville College Board of Directors in 1954, when the board announced the campus would again be racially integrated.