I’m a professor at the University of Memphis (formerly called “Memphis State”). In the center of campus there is a placard telling the story of the “Memphis State Eight” – the eight African American students who enrolled in Memphis State in 1959 and were the first to integrate campus. The placard tells that they came to campus at 8am and were asked to leave by 12pm daily, but beyond that does not give many details about what life was like on a regular basis for them.
Last week, for a special Black History Month program at my daughter’s middle school (her middle school is a lab school that’s on the university campus), one of the Memphis State Eight, Bertha Rogers Looney, came to speak. Though I’d read the placard, and googled a little more about the Memphis State Eight, hearing her speak brought the story to life.
When she was a senior in high school, she had been accepted to a Historically Black College/University (HBCU). She was excited about the college experience and looking forward to it – just like so many seniors in high school do. But the adults in her life started encouraging her to take a required test to see if she could be admitted to Memphis State. She told her parents, her teachers, and her pastor that she wanted to go to the HBCU and wasn’t interested in trying Memphis State. They kept suggesting she just take the test and eventually she complied, figuring she would probably not pass it anyway and the discussion could be closed. Instead, however, she received a perfect score on the test and suddenly she had to make the choice. Would she enroll at Memphis State in order to start paving the way for full integration? Or would she enjoy a traditional college experience at an HBCU?
She eventually decided to enroll at Memphis State. On her first day, she was told that she wasn’t allowed in the library, the gym, the cafeteria, or any other shared spaces on campus. She was to come at 8am and leave by noon every day. She was to sit in the back of her classes with a police officer next to her. She soon learned that no matter how many times she raised her hand, the professors would never call on her.
There was nothing traditional about her college experience, instead she was living a hard fought protest every day for 4 years. Since she couldn’t go to the library and professors wouldn’t help her, she said her high school teachers helped when she needed it and the NAACP hired tutors when necessary. Even still, she was one of only 2 of the Memphis State Eight to stick it out till graduation.
The University of Memphis student population is now 39% Black – something that Bertha Rogers Looney seemed so thrilled by. She said something like, “We still have work to do, but it’s amazing seeing so many African Americans here on campus. And y’all don’t have to worry about your teachers calling on you anymore. We’ve come a long way.”
I’m not a Black woman. I’m not living in 1959. I will never know what Bertha Rogers Looney’s experience really truly felt like. But I have been inspired by her. Sometimes I feel like the state of the world is beyond repair. The racism and the sexism that I see can feel palpable. Sometimes I want to throw in the towel with the work I’m doing. But Bertha Rogers Looney’s decision to skip out on the college experience was a first step toward a movement of meaningful change. Back then, she never could have imagined how the university would look today. I’m so glad she didn’t throw in the towel.
She’s still alive?! What an amazing experience to have heard her speak. Sometimes events that seem so far in the past actually are not far at all; they are the lived experiences of people around us. Her story gives me so much to think about. Thank you for sharing it.
Yep! I think out of the 8, 2 are still alive. She said that back in 2006 (when they were all still alive), the university issued a formal apology (for treating them like crap) and they all got together on campus for a reunion of sorts