Tennessean Editorial: At 100, TSU Has A Rich Legacy

At 100, TSU Has A Rich Legacy
– The Following Op-Ed appeared in the February 16, 2012 issue of the Tennessean

Carter G. Woodson began Negro History Week in 1926. Observed during February in honor of the births of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, it expanded to the entire month in 1976.

Black History Month is a special time to laud the achievements — both past and present — of African-Americans. This year holds special significance for Woodson, who, 100 years ago, became the second African-American to earn a Ph.D. at Harvard University. Similarly, the city of Nashville can be especially proud this Black History Month, as its own Tennessee State University celebrates its centennial.

From its perch between Centennial Boulevard and Jefferson Street, the Agricultural and Industrial State Normal School opened its first summer session on June 19, 1912. The opening was the culmination of a tireless, three-year effort by the all-black Normal, Agricultural and Mechanical College Association — led by community leaders Ben Carr, Henry Allen Boyd and James Carroll Napier — to have the state’s first and only public center for the higher education of blacks located in Nashville. Guided by its first president, William J. Hale, and a faculty composed of graduates from many of the nation’s leading liberal-arts colleges, the normal school grew to a college of national repute by 1933.
A decade later, Hale passed his leadership to TSU alumnus Walter S. Davis. With his “Touch of Greatness,” Davis began working to transform the college into a “strong A-class university.” In 1951, the college was granted university status and in 1958, was fully accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Concurrently, Davis committed to athletic excellence by hiring legendary coaches John A. Merritt, John McClendon and Edward “Ed” Temple, who produced internationally renowned athletes such as Wilma Rudolph, Ralph Boston, Wyomia Tyus, Edith McGuire Duvall and Chandra Cheeseborough.

In the more than 40 years since Davis’ retirement in 1968, TSU has been led by only six presidents. Of special note is Frederick Humphries, who, during his 10-year tenure, assumed the mammoth task of overseeing the merger between historically black TSU and traditionally white University of Tennessee-Nashville in 1979. Maintaining the delicate balance between the university’s founding mission and future vision hasn’t always been easy, but TSU supporters call on the school’s distinguished alumni as proof that its mission is still relevant.

“Jefferson Street” Joe Gilliam Jr. played for the Tigers before becoming one of the NFL’s first starting black quarterbacks. TSU is also the alma mater of multimedia mogul Oprah Winfrey, media icon Xernona Clayton, gospel icon and ambassador Dr. Bobby Jones, pioneering cardiac surgeon Dr. Levi Watkins, wireless communication inventor Jesse E. Russell, public affairs specialist Traci Otey Blunt, and Kevin W. Williams, president and managing director of General Motors Canada.

Fortunately, the link between TSU’s past, present and future is still strong. A legend in her own right, Tigerbelle Cheeseborough-Guice has been a coach at TSU for almost two decades and now inspires a new generation of student-athletes as director of the university’s track and field program. She, like thousands of TSU Tigers worldwide, is still thinking, working and serving.

Crystal A. deGregory, Ph.D., is a graduate of Fisk and Vanderbilt universities and teaches in TSU’s department of history, geography and political science.

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A historian and storyteller whose research interests include black higher education and college student activism, DR. CRYSTAL A. deGREGORY is a research fellow at Middle Tennessee State University’s Center for Historic Preservation in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. A graduate of the historic Fisk, Vanderbilt, and Tennessee State universities, she is a passionate Historically Black College and University (HBCU) advocate, convener of the HBCUstory Symposium, and editor-in-chief of The Journal of HBCU Research + Culture. Follow her online at @HBCUstorian.