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Eight who changed history
by Elizabeth Jane Walker

They were the best and the brightest — eight brilliant young scholars brandishing shiny, new diplomas from high schools throughout Memphis. This select group of valedictorians and salutatorians and other high-achieving graduates should have plunged headfirst into college life, pledging sororities and fraternities, heading honor societies, leading social organizations. But in 1959, they chose a different path ... one fraught with loneliness and anxiety, solitude and apprehension.

It was a sacrifice that would change the course of history at the University of Memphis.

A thousand midnights
“When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, we will know that we are living in the creative turmoil of a genuine civilization struggling to be born,” predicted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he delivered his Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

Members of the Memphis State eight  

The members of the Memphis State Eight, left to right, in 1959: (front row) Bertha Rogers Looney, Marvis LaVerne Kneeland Jones, Rose Blakney-Love, Sammie Burnett-Johnson and Luther McClellan; (back row) John Simpson, Eleanor Gandy and Ralph Prater.

Sammie Burnett-Johnson understands that metaphor all too well, as she contemplates the contrast between past and present at the University of Memphis.

“The University then and now is like night and day,” she says. “It’s like an awakening.”

Johnson and seven other men and women recently returned to the U of M to be honored for their roles in integrating what was then known as Memphis State University. In addition to Johnson, the group, known as the “Memphis State Eight,” consists of Eleanor Gandy (BA ’63; MEd ’66), Marvis LaVerne Kneeland Jones (BSEd ’74; MEd ’76), Bertha Rogers Looney (BA ’79), Rose Blakney-Love, Luther McClellan (BS ’62), Ralph Prater and John Simpson.

These students were vilified and ostracized when they set foot on campus. Forty-seven years later, administrators, staff and students welcomed them with a respect verging on reverence. The irony was not lost on Johnson and her fellow students.

“We will limit the enrollment to white students ... until the State Board of Education instructs me to admit them,” then-President J. Millard Smith proclaimed in 1954, the year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled separate education to be inherently unequal.

“Dr. Millard Smith said that blacks would never go to school at Memphis State while he was president,” recalls Bertha Rogers Looney. “We entered the University in 1959; he resigned in January of 1960. So I was amazed when the current president, Dr. Shirley Raines, personally welcomed us to campus recently. You see the contrast?”

The road to integration
Even though the Supreme Court handed down its landmark ruling in 1954, petitions flew and court battles continued to rage in Tennessee for five more years. Finally, the Memphis branch of the NAACP recruited some of the city’s top African-American scholars to apply to Memphis State University. “At first there was no entrance exam at Memphis State,” explains Looney. “It was instituted as a way of keeping blacks out.” The students who passed this test and agreed to enroll became known as the “Memphis State Eight.” Not all of them were thrilled at the prospect of attending the University.

“I was salutatorian at Hamilton High School, and the counselors asked if I were interested in taking the Memphis State entrance exam,” recalls LaVerne Kneeland Jones. “I said, ’No, I’m not.’ I had a scholarship to go to another college in another city. But my dad said, ’I can’t provide transportation or money once you get to that school. So I think you need to enter Memphis State. You deserve to go there as much as anybody else does.’”

In the 1950s, African-American families wishing to send their children to a state-supported college had only one choice: Tennessee State University in Nashville. For families in Memphis, the cost could be prohibitive. In addition to underwriting transportation and tuition expenses, the student would have to pay for room and board. “This was a tremendous disservice to the black families in Memphis and Shelby County,” says Ralph Prater. “Most black families were poor to begin with, so this created an extra burden on them in order for their children to get state-supported educations. Our families were also paying taxes, and a portion of those taxes were being used to offset the cost of operating Memphis State.”

  Members of Memphis State eight walking to class

Plainclothes police escorted members of the Memphis State Eight to classes; they were told they could not go to the school’s cafeteria or to the student center. By 1962, the University’s African-American enrollment had risen to 53. “We are proud of the role we played in integrating the University,” says Ralph Prater, who went on to a distinguished 26-year career as a corporate attorney for Chevron.

Rules and more rule
Most of the Memphis State Eight recall being tense and anxious the day they arrived on campus. “I wasn’t afraid, but I was apprehensive,” explains Rose Blakney-Love. “I didn’t fear that someone would attack us, but there was a lot of tension.”

Prater admits experiencing a certain amount of fear. “We had no idea what might happen, and we knew that there were some real possibilities that some very dangerous things could occur,” he says, “but we were anxious to get an education, and to get that education at a reasonable cost. Therefore, we were willing to take the chances that we did.”

The cadre of students encountered rules and regulations that seem ludicrous by today’s standards. “We were told what to do, what to wear, where to go,” Prater says. “But more than anything we were told what we couldn’t do.”

The students could not step on campus before 8 a.m. or after noon. They were excluded from entering the cafeteria or student center, and were forbidden to participate in ROTC or physical education classes. One restroom on the entire campus was allotted to the group’s women and one to the men. “Each of us had a state trooper who was assigned to walk with us from class to class,” Prater says.

The administration provided the eight students with a separate orientation session and registered them for all their classes. “The administration more or less expressed to the eight of us during orientation that they did not want us there,” says Looney.

On their first couple of days on campus, Jones and Looney watched students drive by, horns blaring and Confederate flags unfurled. “Actually, we sort of expected more harassment,” Jones says, “but it never did happen.”

In the classroom
Imagine being invisible. That’s how some of the Memphis State Eight explain the academic environment they encountered. “We had no one to communicate with in class,” Jones says. “The white students were indifferent and ignored us as if we weren’t there.”

“I had one instructor who would never call on me when I would raise my hand,” Johnson recalls. “I got used to it. I continued to raise my hand in spite of that, even though I knew that I would be treated as invisible.”

Prater uses the term “benign neglect” to characterize the attitude of the student body. “No one had anything to say to me,” he says. “If I went to a table in the library where students were already sitting, they would immediately get up and leave, and I would end up with the whole table to myself. It was certainly frustrating, and we all felt a sense of isolation during our stay at Memphis State.”

Eleanor Gandy says she was determined to make the most of her educational opportunity, in spite of the snubs. “If there were no seating assignments in a class, the students would leave the seats empty all around us,” she says. “It was like they had put me in another room so that I could hear the class, but not participate. Although I certainly noticed this practice, I wasn’t deeply affected by it. After all, everyone in that classroom was listening to the same lecture and receiving the same instructional materials. My main interest was in getting that degree. The other aspects didn’t matter to me.”

Occasionally, members of the Memphis State Eight encountered professors and students who gave them hope. Gandy recalls one instance in which a white student from Mississippi invited her to attend a concert with her. Jones also recalls the kindness of Dr. Victor Feisal, her biology professor. “He went out of his way to help me,” she says. “For instance, one day he took the time to sit down with me and show me how to study my biology assignments.”

Johnson recalls one professor who attempted to make her experience as positive as possible. “He was open to the idea of desegregation,” she says, “and he told me, ’Sit wherever you choose in class.’” Then the professor announced that the class would be taking a field trip to Mississippi. Johnson’s stress levels skyrocketed. “I was really afraid, being the only black person on a bus going into Mississippi,” she says, “but the instructor set the tone for that trip, too. He said, ’You’re going to be all right; nothing is going to happen to you.’ Evidently he had talked to the other students, because they were all very nice to me. So that instructor made my experience in his class a very positive one.”

Fast forward
In September of 2006, the Memphis State Eight were astounded by the reception they received at the University of Memphis. Several members of the group had never graduated from the University, choosing instead to complete their degrees elsewhere. In the ensuing years, all eight excelled in their chosen professions, with most of their progeny also completing undergraduate, master’s and doctoral degrees.

The University celebrated the accomplishments of the Memphis State Eight during a formal dinner and reception; the group also toured the campus and participated in a public forum and press conference.

Perhaps the most gratifying aspect of the reunion occurred when they learned the impact their actions have had on the lives of succeeding generations of young people. Today, more than a third of all U of M students are African American. For the past decade, the University has been recognized as one of the nation’s top producers of African-American graduates with baccalaureate and advanced degrees. And the percentage of African-American graduate students at the U of M is more than double the national average. Two vice presidents, a vice provost, two assistant vice presidents, one dean, six program directors, a chair of excellence holder and about 10 percent of all faculty members are African American.

“When we look at numbers like that, we are extremely proud,” Prater says. “It’s hard to believe that what we did back then could have resulted in such significant increases not only in the student body representation but also in the administration, faculty and staff.”

“I’m amazed at the progress that’s been made and continues to be made there,” says Looney. “I’m proud to say that I have had several nieces and nephews and great nieces who went to the University of Memphis. They were able to join various organizations — such as clubs and sororities and fraternities — that were not open to us.”

Reflecting on her years at the University, Love knows that the sacrifices she made resulted in an immeasurable legacy for thousands of other students, including two of her daughters, who are U of M alumnae.

“I used to think back on those days and wonder if I would have done it again,” Love says. “I know I would have. It had to be done; somebody had to be first. We helped pave the way not only for our own children, but also for all the others who came behind us. And that made it all worthwhile.”

In President Shirley Raines’ address to a crowd gathered to honor these pioneers, she explained her aspirations for progress.

“As we move forward and continue to grow as a University,” Raines said, “we hope the courage and strength shown by the Memphis State Eight will inspire generations of future students to stand up for what they believe, to right inequalities and to fight for social justice for all people everywhere.”

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