20 Sep 2012
- Written by Erica Horton
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Each of them – all in their 70s – sat at a table with family and friends wearing a white flower pinned to their suits and dresses.
Eight friendly smiles greeted students and guests in the University Center at the University of Memphis, a building, had it existed 53 years ago, they would not have been allowed to visit.
"It is beautiful to see all of this color in the room and I'll tell you this color was quite absent in 1959," Ralph Prater, a member of the Memphis State Eight, said. "As Luther McClellan and the rest of us will attest to, there were only eight, no administrators, no staff, no professors, only the eight of us who found ourselves in a sea of white."
Hosted by the U of M's Office of Multicultural Affairs, Memphis State Eight Day was Tuesday, Sept. 18 and centered around the unveiling of a historical marker on the U of M campus.
After a two-hour brunch in which guests were allowed to talk to the eight people that integrated the U of M, the crowd moved to the Administration Building, where the marker stood beside it, covered with a green cloth and gold ropes.
The marker, sponsored by the U of M and the Shelby County Historical Commission, lists the names of the eight honorees – Rose Blakney, Eleanor Gandy, John Simpson, Marvis Kneeland, Luther McClellan, Ralph Prater, Bertha Rogers and Sammie Burnett (deceased).
Spearheaded by Lonnie Latham, associate dean of multicultural affairs, the marker and an application processing fee for the Shelby County Historical Commission costs about $2,400 and was paid for by the U of M.
"I felt that this was the centennial year for the university and that we had them on campus before but we had never presented them to the city and they didn't just help the Memphis State area, they helped the community," Latham said. "It was important that the city honor them, the county and the Memphis community, and that they be recognized for the bravery that they displayed in being the first under hostile environments."
The events for the day were paid for by the U of M Student Event Allocation Committee, the U of M Department of History and the African and African American Studies Department.
More than 400 people attended the marker ceremony.
Brianna Wilkerson, president of the Black Student Association at the U of M, and Russell Born, president of the Student Government Association, started the marker ceremony with words of welcome.
Speakers also included U of M President Shirley Raines, Vice President of Student Affairs Rosie Bingham, Mayor A C Wharton Jr., Shelby County Mayor Mark H. Luttrell Jr., U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen and Jimmy Ogle, chairman of the Shelby County Historical Commission.
Raines gave a brief history of the African-American presence at the University of Memphis.
"By 1980, thirty-one of the 785 Memphis State faculty and eight of the 127 administrators were African Americans," she said. "But today, in our 100th anniversary, look around this wonderful crowd at the diversity and the colleagueship that exists in this crowd and throughout this university. Today we honor these pioneers of civil rights and can tell you that one third of the student body at the University of Memphis is African American."
Zelma Dillihunt, 76, attended the ceremonies to represent her sister, the late Sammie Burnett.
Each honoree had a story to tell of his/her time at the University of Memphis in the 1950s, then known as Memphis State.
"As I would take my seat in the class, I would notice that seats around me would be left vacant," Prater said. "On those days that I had a few hours or a few minutes to go to the library, if I sat at a table where other students were sitting, the moment I sat down at the table, all of the other students got up and left."
While attending Memphis State, the pioneer eight students were not allowed into the student center or cafeteria. They were not allowed to take physical education or ROTC classes and they were required to leave campus by noon every day.
While speaking to guests in the University Center, Marvis Kneeland said when she and the other black students arrived on campus – which had a population of approximately 4,500 in the fall of 1959 – university administrators had already ordered all of their books.
"They didn't ask us what we wanted to major in, didn't ask us what time we needed for classes," she said. "They just said, 'here you go. Don't go to the library, no P.E. and no health courses either.'"
The year before she started attending Memphis State, Kneeland said she went to Lemoyne College, with the help of her family, church, friends and sororities and fraternities.
The Board of Regents, she said, had said they needed a year to prepare Memphis State for integration.
"I loved Lemoyne and I got a taste of what going to college was going to be about and I got to register myself, pick out my courses," she said. "It did not happen that way at Memphis State."
The other surviving members said times on campus were lonely.
"I had a beautiful young lady escort me to the reception and stay with me thus far and I said in 1959 my escort was a plain-clothed law enforcement officer, so it is great to be here," Bertha Rogers said.
Some in the group, including Rose Blakely, said they did not want to attend Memphis State, but went anyway with the encouragement of family and friends.
"I just flat didn't want to go. I graduated from Hamilton High School. I was salutatorian. I had some scholarships and some things I wanted to do. I wanted to go out of town," she said. "My mother said, 'Well now you got an opportunity and we gone try this out.'"
Blakely said she cried and pouted, but still "ended up" at Memphis State University.
"But, with the years come knowledge and maturity and I can see now why she pushed me," she said.
Eleanor Gandy said she stayed focused on the reason she wanted to attend college in the first place, to get a degree.
Because she was focused, Gandy said she doesn't remember much about things that "should have distracted her."
"I was happy to see my mother's smile when the degree was placed in my hand," she said.