From its perch between Centennial Boulevard and Jefferson Street, the Nashville Agricultural and Industrial State Normal School opened its first summer session on June 19, 1912.
Guided by its first president, William J. Hale, and a faculty composed of graduates from many of the nation’s leading liberal-arts colleges including graduates of Atlanta, Fisk, and Howard universities, the normal school grew to a college of national repute by 1933. Hale married Fisk alumna Hattie Hodgkins with whom he had three children, William Jasper, Jr. ’31, Gwendolyn Claire ’39 and Edward Harned ’41, each of whom graduated from Tennessee State with distinction.
In 1943, 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.” Under his leadership, Davis lead the college to university status in 1951, 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.
John Ayers Merritt (1926 – 1983) was a head football coach at Tennessee State University where he tallied four undefeated seasons, claimed four Midwestern Conference titles, and scored the school’s first-ever NCAA Division I-AA playoff victory in 1982. His stellar coaching record at Tennessee State was 174–35–7.
A major contributor to the development of modern basketball and a pioneering American basketball coach, John B. McLendon, Jr. (1915 – 1999) is recognized as the first African American basketball coach at a predominantly white university. McLendon was a three-time winner of the NAIA Coach of the Year award and won three consecutive NAIA championships at Tennessee State, making him the first college basketball coach ever to have won three consecutive national titles.
Pioneering women’s track and field coach Edward Stanley Temple (1927 – )was Head Women’s Track and Field Coach at Tennessee State for 44 years and was Head Coach of the U.S. Olympic Women’s Track and Field Team twice, in 1960 and 1964, and Assistant Coach in 1980. During his coaching career at TSU, forty members of the famed Tigerbelle teams have represented their countries in Olympic competition, including Wilma Rudolph, Wyomia Tyus and Chandra Cheeseborough, the current director of the university’s track and field program.
Regarded as a civil rights and women’s rights pioneer, Wilma Glodean Rudolph ( 1940 – 1994) was considered the fastest woman in the world in the 1960s and competed in the Olympic Games in 1956 and in 1960. In the 1960 Games in Rome, Rudolph became the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field during a single Olympic Games. As one of the most famous TSU Tigerbelles, she elevated women’s track to a major presence in the United States.
Richard Lamar Dent (1960 – ) is a former football defensive end, who played primarily for the Chicago Bears of the National Football League. He was the MVP of Super Bowl XX and in 2011, he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
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.