Two dorms at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, will now bear the names of two Black civil rights leaders in the state “whose fight for equity and social justice transformed the state’s higher education system and the university,” according to a news release from the school.
The dorms will be named after Rita Sanders Geier, a Memphis native, and Theotis Robinson of Knoxville.
Robinson is known as the first Black undergraduate student admitted to the university and one of the three Black students to fully desegregate the university in 1961. Geier is known for a landmark lawsuit that sought to dismantle inequities in the state’s higher education system, the news release said.
The school said both are trailblazers who later worked for the university.
“Each of them broke barriers and showed so much courage to do it,” said Chancellor Donde Plowman. “Both of them are people who looked around at their world and said it can be better — we can be better. They moved the world forward.”
The news comes as schools across the country — such as Duke University and Virginia Tech — are renaming buildings after prominent Black people after a summer of racial reckoning across the United States.
Robinson fought for the right to attend UT
When Robinson submitted his application to UT in 1960, he didn’t want the admissions office to know he was Black.
The school eventually found out.
Robinson then fought for the right to attend UT and was eventually admitted, the school’s news release said.
“Theotis really was that trailblazer who said this university should be open to everybody,” said Tyvi Small, vice chancellor for diversity and engagement.
Robinson told the school UT has been “a very interesting place for me” and it has been central to his life.
“When I walk across the campus and I see Black students, I have a certain smile on my face and a certain feeling,” Robinson said.
Robinson was also involved in the lunch counter sit-in movement during his senior year of high school.
He would later become the first Black person since Reconstruction to be elected to the Knoxville City Council, the news release said.
He returned to UT in different roles, serving as a political science lecturer and then as the UT System’s vice president of equity and diversity between 2000 and 2014, the release said.
Geier said the state had two separate higher education systems
Geier filed a lawsuit against the state of Tennessee in 1968 when she was a faculty member at Tennessee State University, a historically Black school and also Oprah Winfrey’s alma mater.
Geier and four other plaintiffs accused the state of maintaining two separate higher education systems, the release said.
Litigation in the case spanned decades, but the Geier Consent Decree ultimately came out of it in 2001.
“It included an infusion of funding to improve facilities at Tennessee State and create scholarship programs aimed at increasing African American enrollment at the state’s other public universities, including UT,” the news release said.
The decree was lifted in 2006.
Geier told the school she “saw the injustice” and saw the potential in changing it.
“I was young enough and idealistic enough to think I could do that,” Geier said. “I think opportunity meets you, and the only thing that is required of you is to have your eyes open and to take advantage of the opportunity.”
“Rita said not only should it be open to everybody, but everybody should have equal access and equal opportunity,” said Small.
Geier was a student at Vanderbilt Law School when she filed the lawsuit. She went on to work for the US Department of Justice and Social Security Administration, the news release said.
She later joined UT as an associate to the chancellor and a senior fellow at the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy.