The University of Tennessee's Long Road to Desegregation

How UT administrators spent decades keeping black students out

On June 15, 1950, nine men gathered in the Nashville office of Gov. Gordon Browning. Browning, a Democrat who had been elected two years earlier over Republican candidate and Opry star Roy Acuff, was not actually there. The attendees were all officials of the University of Tennessee, and why they were in the state capitol that day is unclear from the record of the meeting. Presumably some legislative business or other had brought them. But in any case, on this day, they took advantage of their group presence to discuss a matter that was causing all of them a fair amount of anxiety: the looming possibility that sometime soon, the university could be compelled to admit a black student.

It almost goes without saying that all of the men at the meeting were white. What is more interesting from a historical distance is the tone and tenor of their conversation (which was dutifully transcribed by a secretary). There is among them no enthusiasm at all for the prospect of allowing the descendants of slaves onto any of the UT campuses. There is also very little of the kind of overt racial hostility that we've come to think of as the hallmark of the defenders of Jim Crow. There is, instead, a great deal of bureaucratic hair-splitting about all of the technical ways they can try to avoid a mixed-race student body, a gloomy sense that they are waging a losing battle, and a keen desire to avoid blame for anything that happens.

At one point, Cloide Everett Brehm, a former dean of UT's Agricultural School who had become university president in 1946, sounds a baleful and familiar note, attributing all the trouble to outside agitators. "They are going to be here," he says. "It is not the Negroes themselves. You have the Civil Liberties Union—the Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the South—it is a ‘red' outfit." But, he continues, "They should be admitted only by the opinion of the attorney general. I want the attorney general to decide and make the decision, rather than us. Let him decide it rather than you or me."

This year, the university is celebrating a half-century of desegregation. The first black students to attend the Knoxville campus have been remembered and saluted in newspaper articles, TV reports, and MLK Day ceremonies. The emphasis has been on the relative peacefulness of the transition, an abiding theme of the way Tennessee tells the story of the Civil Rights era to itself. And with some justification—in comparison with Alabama, Mississippi, or Arkansas, the end of legally-mandated white supremacy in Tennessee came without too much clamor. In the most comprehensive history of the University of Tennessee, To Foster Knowledge, the school's entire desegregation effort warrants just six pages. "For the most part students and faculty worked to prevent any unpleasantness during integration," the authors write.

Well, kind of. There may have been no violence on campus, no federal troops escorting any students, nobody blocking any schoolhouse door. But the road to a racially open university was a long one, strewn with obstacles deliberately placed by several generations of UT administrators. And some vivid illustrations of this are available in a small, fascinating trove of papers collected online by the university as part of the Tennessee Research and Creative Exchange (TRACE), a digital archive of scholarly research and historical documents. Under "Collections," and then "Office of the President," you can find selected papers of Brehm, probably known to current UT students only because of the Animal Science building named for him. His tenure as president extended to 1959 and so covered almost the entire pre-integration era. The archive is an odd assortment of letters, memos, copies of court decisions, and that one long meeting transcription. Collectively, they reflect both how complex and how insidious the institution of racial separation really was.

In retrospect we tend to think of segregation monolithically, as if it was one, big, simple evil—something that was there one year and gone the next. But it was, of course, much more complex than that. It was a legal invention, codified by legislatures and clarified by judiciaries over many decades, and it took different forms in different places. For years leading up to the monumental struggles of the '50s and '60s, segregation was a battlefield full of skirmishes between state laws and federal courts, between specific plaintiffs and specific institutions, a tangle of advances and setbacks and evasive maneuvers. It existed as much in the realm of bureaucracy and memoranda and carefully parsed rulings as in the stark landscape of police brutality, Klansmen, and lynchings.

This is the side of segregation visible in the Brehm archive. There is little invective—the only "n" word that surfaces is "negroes"—and little consideration of morality, equality, or any other philosophical dimensions of the issue. There are just men, respected and respectable civic leaders, quietly doing what they can to adhere to and ensure the survival of the status quo. That the status quo itself happened to be a system of gross injustice was, as far as these men were concerned, largely somebody else's problem. And for as long as they could, they kept it that way.

‘Pinks and Reformers of the North'

One of the earliest documents in the Brehm collection is dated Oct. 17, 1942. It is a letter to Roy H. Beeler, for many years Tennessee's attorney general, from Paul J. Kruesi, an influential Chattanooga businessman who in the 1940s was one of the leaders of UT's Board of Trustees. Kruesi was a legend in Chattanooga; he moved to East Tennessee in 1902 from Schenectady, N.Y., where his father had been a right-hand man to Thomas Edison and was credited with creating the first phonograph. When Kruesi's father died, Edison became legal guardian of Kruesi and his siblings until they reached adulthood. Kruesi rose to prominence in East Tennessee as founder of the American Lava Company, and served as president of the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce. (The Chamber now gives out an annual prize for innovation called the Kruesi Award.)

But what concerned Kruesi in the fall of 1942 had little to do with business. He was worried about two lawsuits: one out of Missouri that had been decided a few years earlier by the U.S. Supreme Court, and one pending in Tennessee. In the Missouri case, Gaines v. Canada, the Supreme Court had struck one of its first blows against the "separate but equal doctrine" established in the Plessy v. Ferguson case in 1896. Lloyd Gaines, a black college graduate, had sued for admission to the University of Missouri's Law School, on the grounds that Missouri had no separate law school for black students and therefore couldn't provide anything "equal." The Court agreed, ruling that Missouri's practice of sending black students to other law schools out of state failed the legal test. (Gaines never actually matriculated; he disappeared into a Chicago night not long after the decision, but that's another story.) The case was a major victory for the NAACP and its crusading Harvard-educated attorney, Charles Houston. It sent shivers throughout segregated academia. Many states were vulnerable to such challenges at the graduate level. UT had successfully fought off a similar suit in 1937 from a student seeking admission to its Department of Pharmacy in Memphis. But that was before the Gaines decision. Now, a group of black students was suing to enter UT's own Law School. Beeler had argued on UT's behalf in front of the state Supreme Court, citing the 1901 state law that made it a crime to teach black and white students in the same institution (see sidebar). While they awaited the ruling, Kruesi was writing to commiserate.

"It is of little consolation to us who have at heart the state's interest in its educational system, and in particular in its University, that the Supreme Court of the United States was ‘all wet' and wrong in its Missouri decision," Kruesi writes. "The more one reflects on the ultimate implications of that decision, the more disastrous to the economy of the state it becomes. At the moment the only issue seems to be the admission of negroes to the Law School, but, admittedly, this is only a test case by the pinks and reformers of the North. The same arguments will inevitably be used not only as to courses in home economics, but engineering, chemistry, and so forth. Furthermore, the extension of the philosophy (as I see it) laid down in the Missouri case, would indicate that sooner or later the demand will be made that since there are five or more teacher training schools so distributed geographically in the State as to cause a minimum of travel expense to the citizens of such areas, then either negroes should be admitted to each of these institutions or the capital and operating expenses of them should be duplicated by like institutions for negroes."

In other words, really providing separate but equal schools for black students would be a huge cost to the state. Kruesi concludes by noting that the state Department of Education was working to create alternatives that might head off a drastic, Missouri-style ruling. But he adds, with an almost audible sigh, "that this will really forever settle the question, even if and after such facilities are provided, takes a good deal of optimism to believe."

In the short term, the state's jury-rigged solution worked. The Legislature quickly passed a law guaranteeing separate graduate programs for black students, and pledged hundreds of thousands of dollars to the state's primary black college, the Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State College for Negroes. Ruling on the lawsuit, Michael v. Witham, the state Supreme Court said that was good enough.

‘You Could Stall for a Time'

But as Kruesi suspected, that was hardly the end of the issue. Applications kept coming, with the university turning again and again to the state for guidance in how to deflect them. In 1948, UT President Brehm wrote to Beeler about two black applicants to the UT Law School, one local and one from out of state. The short response from Robert T. Kennerly, counselor general in Beeler's office, is in the TRACE archive, dated July 1:

"Dear Dr. Brehm,

Thank you for yours of the 28th relative to the application of Earl C. Jackson of Snow Hill, Maryland as well as Rudolph V. McKamey of Knoxville.

You have no choice under the Constitution and statutes of Tennessee except to refuse admission to negro applicants. From a tactical standpoint in preparing for litigation I hope that the Law School or any other graduate school concerned will be filled at the time such applications are considered."

The feared litigation apparently did not materialize. But other efforts were already under way elsewhere. Just two years later, in June 1950, the U.S. Supreme Court issued decisions in two cases that would make it even harder for UT to keep out black students. In Sweatt v. Painter, from Texas, and McLaurin v. Oklahoma, the court ruled that it was not enough for states to merely establish separate graduate schools, as Tennessee had done. In the Texas case, the court found that the state's hastily concocted black law school was in every way inferior to the law school at the University of Texas. In Oklahoma, it went even farther: Under court order, the University of Oklahoma's graduate school of education had grudgingly admitted a black student, George McLaurin, but then made him sit at separate tables in the cafeteria and library, and at a desk outside the classroom, in the hallway. "The result is that appellant is handicapped in his pursuit of effective graduate instruction," the decision read. The cases were argued by an NAACP team that included future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. And the rulings, taken together, fenced in even more the leeway states had in providing "separate" education.

On June 13, a week after the decisions were announced, UT administrator James P. Hess, then the secretary of the Board of Trustees, sent copies of them to Brehm. Two days later came the meeting in Browning's office. Besides Hess and Brehm, the participants were Fred C. Smith, dean of the university; R.F. Thomason, dean of admissions; E.A. Waters, dean of the graduate school; John C. Baugh, UT's general counsel; John L. Neely Jr., director of the school's physical plant; and James L. Anderson, Brehm's administrative assistant.

According to the transcript, Brehm tells the group, "I have been talking with Mr. Hess this morning about the Supreme Court decision, about negroes, and I called you together to get a more or less uniform policy about the way we want to approach it."

Waters reports that he was approached just the previous Friday by a black student named Gene Gray (misspelled in the transcript as Jean), inquiring about enrolling in graduate school. "I knew what he was doing," Waters says. "I told him he probably knew the state law and the constitution and our present interpretations quite as well as I did; that the matter was largely out of our hands and suggested the matter be taken up with the attorney general."

A long discussion follows about whether it's even a good idea to mention state law when talking to a black applicant. Brehm suggests Waters could have merely agreed to accept an application, and then let the paperwork take its course. "The point I am making," Brehm says, "you did not have to bring up the race question. You could stall for a time and in the meantime be submitting the matter to the attorney general. It could be, as has been the case in the past, he did not have the required pre-graduate training."

Brehm notes with satisfaction that the university had not turned away a black applicant on racial grounds since the 1937 case with the pharmacy school. Instead, it had used technicalities in order to not give grounds for a race-based lawsuit. "These other cases we have had," Brehm says, "the papers or transcripts were not in order. We have not denied anybody admission on the race question except 10 or 12 years ago."

But Waters warns that the civil rights groups are likely to find a qualified student who can't be rejected on any other grounds. "I think we can anticipate this happening," he says. "The person applying for admission will be hand-picked and his sponsor will have already determined that the courses he has taken and the grades he has made meet our technical requirements. They are too smart to send in routine applications."

Brehm laments all the media attention the Supreme Court decisions have attracted. "Of course the papers were full of this," he says. "I kept quiet myself and did not have anything to say, other than I had not had a chance to study the implications and did not know what effect it would have on the university." But, he adds, he doesn't really doubt what the cases mean: "Even if we go through the courts, I am convinced we will have the same decision that has been made in these other states. It is simply a matter of time until they will be here."

The assembled officials do not disagree. But they fear the public and political repercussions for themselves. Hess, the namesake of UT's Hess Hall, says, "As important as the matter of discipline is the attitude of the people of the state. I think we should do everything we can to postpone it as long as we can—saying officials of the university just folded up and admitted them." He cites the experience of their colleagues at the University of Oklahoma in the McLaurin case: "In Oklahoma, the governor and attorney general accused the university of balling it up." Baugh agrees, "It is what happened out there, and a lot of heads were chopped off, too."

In the end, the group decides to accept applications from black students if they are filed (without, of course, any promise that the students will be admitted), to not get into discussions of racial policy with applicants, and to leave it to the attorney general to figure out what the Supreme Court cases really mean. "I prefer our attitude would be just one of complying with what the attorney general tells us to do," Brehm says.

‘The Established Order of Things'

He did not have to wait long. In a lengthy opinion mailed to Brehm and dated Septemer 25, 1950, Attorney General Beeler says that in at least some cases, where other equivalent programs aren't available, UT will probably have no choice but to open its doors to black students. Beeler, a Grainger County native and Maryville College graduate who began his law career in Knoxville, leaves no doubt how he personally feels about this. In a brief prefatory letter, he writes to Brehm, "I do not know what we're coming to in this State and in the Southland." And in the opinion itself, he writes, "The writer dislikes very, very much indeed to be compelled to reach the conclusion that members of the negro race shall now be admitted as students in the University of Tennessee." He later adds:

"I think continued segregation of the races in educational institutions is the correct way to handle these educational matters, with the State furnishing adequate educational facilities for members of the negro race. It is certainly the established order of things in our Southland and if continued as the policy of the Southern States and if these States provide adequate educational facilities for negroes, then there would be no reason for strife and turmoil between the races or for race hatred; but I am fearful that when the bars are let down and negro students, even in limited number, are admitted to our State institutions that strife and turmoil will be engendered and that the amicable feeling and relationship that now exists between the races will no longer continue to exist as it has for these many years in Tennessee."

Brehm's personal reaction to this opinion isn't recorded in the archive. But despite his earlier stated preference for letting the attorney general decide the matter, the university chose instead to continue resisting applications from black students. As the UT officials expected, several of them filed suit the next year. The lead plaintiff was Gene Gray, the student who had visited Waters' office. And as the officials also expected, the ruling went against them. Citing the Supreme Court decisions, U.S. Dictrict Court Judge Robert Taylor decreed, "[T]he plaintiffs are entitled to be admitted to the schools of the University of Tennessee to which they have applied for admission."

After that decision, which led to the admission of Gray in 1952 and a trickle of other graduate students in succeeding years, the tone in Brehm's papers begins to change. Cautious pragmatism takes the place of recalcitrance. Still, there is a determination to go no further than the law requires. In a note to Brehm dated Feb. 8, 1952, Thomason, the dean of admissions, lists several questions the university must now consider. Among them:

—"Will we open the door to Negro graduate students in all fields of graduate work, or only in those fields which are not offered at Tennessee A.&I.? ... Suppose a student wants a Master's degree in education, which I believe is offered at Tennessee A.&I. Will we be obligated to take such a student?"

—"What is going to be our attitude with regard to admission of Negroes from outside the state? Presumably we can control this, but possibly it would be well at least to get the feeling of the Board on the question."

—"It is assumed, I suppose, that the Negro students who are admitted will have in general the privileges of other students on the campus. How will we decide whether or not they may participate in athletics and possibly other phases of university life?"

It would, in fact, be years before black students were afforded the full "privileges of other students on campus." A 1956 letter in the archive from Gladys Beach, UT's dean of women, to Gretchen L. Bundy, a black grad student from Johnson City, makes that clear. Noting Bundy's request for dormitory housing, Beach replies, "I regret that we are not equipped to offer you housing in the women's residence halls." Instead, she refers Bundy to a private home with room to rent, recommended by the dean of women at Knoxville College.

But that was also the year that UT finally, officially accepted what had been made inevitable by all the cases and precedents that culminated in the Brown v. Board of Education ruling of 1954. Segregation was ending everywhere, including at the University of Tennessee. One of the final documents in the Brehm archive is a press release issued in Memphis on April 24, 1956, by the UT News Bureau. It begins, "A five-year schedule for the gradual admission of Negro students to classes in all of the University of Tennessee's 13 colleges and schools was adopted by the U-T Board of Trustees at its semi-annual meeting here today."

Five years later, in 1961, the first black undergraduates enrolled at UT. They could be postponed no longer.