Opened in 1912, Tennessee State University (TSU) has become one of Tennessee’s most recognized public higher education institutions, both nationally and internationally. Its athletes, including Ralph Boston, Wyomia Tyus, and Wilma G. Rudolph, have won twenty-nine medals in the Olympic Games. The university’s most famous graduate, Oprah Winfrey, became America’s highest paid entertainer and television personality during the 1990s. By 1996 seven TSU buildings had been placed on the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district–the first of Tennessee’s public colleges and universities so designated.
As the twentieth century began, Tennessee remained the only state with legal segregation that did not have a public college for its African American citizens. In 1907, after learning that the general assembly planned to authorize publicly supported normal schools, Nashville’s African American leaders demanded the inclusion of a school for blacks. In 1909 the legislature authorized a normal school in each grand division and another school for the state’s 472,987 African Americans. Benjamin Carr, Preston Taylor, and other African American leaders in Nashville formed the Colored Agricultural and Industrial Normal Association and launched a campaign to locate the school in Davidson County. Taylor, Carr, Henry Allen Boyd, James C. Napier, T. Clay Moore, W. S. Ellington, and others appeared before several legislative sessions, the Davidson County government, and the governor. They solicited over $80,000, including funds gathered from a door-to-door campaign in African American neighborhoods. On January 13, 1911, the State Board of Education decided to locate Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State Normal School for Negroes in Davidson County.
William J. Hale, Chattanooga school principal and a friend of the state superintendent of education, was selected as principal of the institution. He supervised the school’s construction on rocky Zollicoffer Hill overlooking the Cumberland River. The campus eventually expanded to 165 acres. The school’s early buildings consisted of the President’s Home (Goodwill Manor), an industrial building, a three-story main building, two dormitories, two barns, and farm houses.
On June 19, 1912, Tennessee A&I State Normal School for Negroes opened its doors for summer school, enrolling 245 students who were taught by thirteen teachers. State Normal soon served as the summer school training site for most of Tennessee’s African American educators. By fall 1912 enrollment had risen to 300; the school was formally dedicated on January 16, 1913.
Tennessee A&I Normal offered remedial elementary and secondary courses as well as a high school diploma that required sixteen Carnegie credits. After completion of the normal curriculum, the students received teacher certification. Students paid $101 per year for books, room, board, and fees. Chapel attendance was required, and each student worked two hours per day. By 1922 the curriculum included college courses, and Tennessee A&I graduated its first college class of eight men in June 1924. The institution’s name was changed to Tennessee A&I State Normal College in 1925, and two years later the word Normal was dropped. The school’s motto, “Enter to Learn; Go Forth to Serve,” and the words on the school’s seal, “Think; Work; Serve,” gave little offense in the age of segregation when whites expected African Americans to hold subordinate and service positions.
Public school education for blacks seldom reached the sixth grade in most Tennessee counties. As a result, Tennessee A&I grappled with crowded conditions, and enrollment quickly rose from 401 in 1916 to nearly 2,000 within a few years. Much of the funding for improvements in public education for African Americans came from northern philanthropists. By 1917 the Anna T. Jeannes Fund and the Rosenwald Fund maintained agents at Tennessee A&I. Improvements in secondary and high school education for black children in most counties enabled Tennessee A&I State College to abolish its normal and high school divisions by the 1930s.
In 1927 a new building phase began. African Americans raised some $65,000; the General Education Board contributed $100,000; and the state legislature appropriated $400,000. The campus design included a quadrangle on the north side of Centennial Boulevard surrounded by three new buildings (Hale Hall, Memorial Library, and Harned Science Hall) and several original structures. Hale employed A. W. Williston, a Tuskegee landscaper, to beautify the rock-filled campus. In 1932 another building phase produced the Women’s Building, the Administration and Health Building, and the Industrial Arts Building. In 1935 more improvements added a football stadium, a track field, a limestone fence along Centennial Boulevard, and recreational facilities. From 1943 to 1949 a $6 million program completed the Engineering Building, a new heating plant, expansion of the Women’s Building, and expansion of Memorial Library. During this period, A&I added a graduate school and awarded the first master’s degree in 1944. By this time, A&I enrollment numbered 1,513 students, and the school claimed the third highest total number of graduates among historically African American universities.
On September 23, 1951, the school received recognition as Tennessee A&I State University and obtained the first Air Force ROTC unit for African Americans. In 1958 the university gained land grant status. During the presidency of Walter S. Davis, the University’s enrollment grew to over 6,000 students, and construction added several more buildings: the Graduate Building, Clay Hall, Lawson Hall, a Home Economics Building, and new dormitories. Three older buildings were torn down, leaving only Goodwill Manor, the presidential home, from the original 1912-15 campus.
The school’s name changed to Tennessee State University in 1968, the same year that a federal court suit was filed to dismantle the recent erection of the University of Tennessee’s Nashville (UTN) branch. The plaintiffs argued that downtown UTN furthered segregation in higher education and competed with TSU. On July 1, 1979, UTN’s modern downtown campus merged with Tennessee State University.
Meanwhile state neglect and years of use had left TSU’s main campus in a deplorable and shameful condition. A limited building phase between 1975 and 1985 added the Gentry Physical Education Complex, School of Business Building, a new library, the Torrence Engineering Building, and the CARP Research Building, in addition to renovations to the old Memorial Library, and Harned and McCord Halls. Beginning in 1989 TSU student leaders pressured the governor for changes. As a result, the general assembly appropriated $122 million over several years to implement a Master Plan developed under President Otis L. Floyd that included the rebuilding of the campus infrastructure, the renovation of all buildings, and the construction of new facilities. Federal funds helped to transform two old barns into an agricultural complex, to build an agricultural center at McMinnville, and to support minor renovations on the main campus.
In 2000 Tennessee State University, an urban, land-grant institution, was Tennessee’s most cosmopolitan public university, enrolling over 8,600 students of all races. Over the years, TSU’s student body has represented eighty-six of the state’s ninety-five counties, fifty-one nations, and forty states. The university has employed faculty members of all ethnic groups while claiming the distinction as America’s sixth largest historically African American university. From its founding in 1912, TSU has prospered under the leadership of its acting and permanent presidents, including W. J. Hale (1912-43); Walter S. Davis (1943-68); Andrew P. Torrence (1968-74); Frederick S. Humphries (1975-85); Roy Peterson (acting, 1985-86); Otis L. Floyd (1986-90); George W. Cox (acting, 1990-91); and James A Hefner (1991-present).
Lester C. Lamon “The Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial Normal School: Public Education for Black Tennesseans,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 32 (1973): 42-58; R. Grann Lloyd, Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State University (1962)