In a nice twist of fate, two residential halls at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville are being named after Black civil rights activists, not because the buildings were already named after racists but simply because the two activists deserve the honor.
According to CNN, the two buildings will be named after Rita Sanders Geier and Theotis Robinson. Robinson was the first Black student to attend the undergraduate school, and Geier is known for filing and winning a lawsuit that would help make the state’s higher education system more equitable.
“Each of them broke barriers and showed so much courage to do it,” Chancellor Donde Plowman said in a statement announcing the change. “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.”
When Robinson applied to UT in 1960 he didn’t disclose that he was Black. After the university found out, Robinson fought to gain admittance to the school and was ultimately successful. Following his time at the university, Robinson would go on to become the first Black person post-Reconstruction to be elected to Knoxville City Council in Tennessee.
In 1968, Geier filed a lawsuit against the state while she was a faculty member at Tennessee State University, the only historically Black public university in the state. During her time there, Geier saw that the school wasn’t receiving the same resources or funding as the other, predominantly white universities in the state. The case would be litigated for decades, ultimately culminating in the Geier Consent Decree which would find the state increasing funding to Tennessee State, and creating scholarships and programs to create more equity for Black students entering higher education.
“Theotis really was that trailblazer who said this university should be open to everybody, and Rita said not only should it be open to everybody, but everybody should have equal access and equal opportunity,” Tyvi Small, vice chancellor for diversity and engagement, said in the statement.
Both Geier and Robinson would go on to work for the university, and were delighted to learn they would be receiving this honor. “I couldn’t be prouder—not for me and my name—but the fact that we’ve come to this point to honor me and Theotis in this way,” Geier said in the statement.
As the first Black student to attend the school, Robinson said “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. “The university has been a very interesting place for me, and it’s been very central to my life.”