by Matthew Gailani
A History of Tennessee State University
Tennessee has many colleges, universities, and schools, each with its own history. Nashville, the state’s capital, is home to several campuses. One of them is Tennessee State University, or TSU. TSU is a Historically Black College/University (HBCU) and was founded over 100 years ago in 1912. Its first name was the Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State Normal School for Negroes.* It was a public school built to teach African American teachers in Tennessee. At the time, schools in Tennessee were still segregated and African Americans could not attend the same schools as white Tennesseans solely because of the color of their skin. When the state government planned to create new normal schools for teachers in 1909, leaders in Nashville’s African American community, like J.C Napier, pushed for the creation of what would become TSU. While there were other historically Black colleges at the time, like Fisk and Meharry Medical College, these were private and not public schools.
After the founding of TSU in 1912, the school began to grow. In the 1940s, the school awarded its first master’s degree and in the 1950s it became a full university. Now TSU was no longer just a school for teachers, but a full university with undergraduate and graduate programs. In 1968, the school officially became known as Tennessee State University.
A Postcard showing an aerial view of Tennessee A&I State College, later TSU, Tennessee State Museum Collection.
Another major event happened in 1979 when TSU merged with the University of Tennessee at Nashville. The two schools merged because of a court case known as Geier v Blanton. Members of TSU and the African American community argued that having the two public schools in Nashville continued a history of segregation. Tennessee State University was a mostly Black university where the University of Tennessee Nashville was mostly white. In the end, the court ruled that the two schools merge under TSU.
A Graduation Photo from the 1964 Tennessee A&I State University Yearbook, Tennessee State Museum Collection.
Today, TSU is not only known for its history of academic growth and success but also a rich history of athletics. Few TSU athletes are more famous than Wilma Rudolph. Originally born in Clarksville, Tennessee in 1940, Wilma Rudolph attended TSU and was a member of the track and field team known as the Tigerbelles. In 1960, she won three gold medals at the Olympics in Rome as a runner. She was not the only TSU Tigerbelle to win gold. Under famous coach Ed Temple the Tigerbelles won a combined 23 gold medals between 1950 and 1994.
TSU is also an important part of the North Nashville community. This can be seen during one of the most important dates on TSU’s calendar, Homecoming. Homecoming happens once a year and is a chance for students and alumni to celebrate TSU. It is also a time when TSU gives back to the North Nashville community. Celebrations include performances by TSU’s marching band, known as the Aristocrat of Bands. Fans can also watch TSU’s football team, the Tigers, play in Nashville.
TSU alumni have a lot of pride in their university. Now that we know a little bit more about the history, it is easy to see why. One of our curators, Brigette Jones, is an alumni of TSU. When I asked her what it meant to have graduated from such a historic school, she summed it up in one word. “Everything.”
*It is important for students to remember that while this is the historical name of the school, it is not appropriate to use this term outside of its historical context.
Campuses: The land and buildings that make up a university or college.
Segregated: To keep separate. In this example, to separate people based on the color of their skin.
Normal School: A school created to train people to become teachers.
Merged: When separate things join or combine to make one thing.
Alumni: A graduate or a former student.
When was Tennessee State University founded?
What does HBCU stand for?
Name one alumni of TSU that is talked about in the article.
What do you think makes a good university? What would you look for if you were picking a university to attend?
The Tigers are the official mascot (or symbol) of Tennessee State University! If you were to create your own university what would you name it? What would the mascot be? What colors would your university use? Once you’ve decided, you can draw your own university’s mascot!
To learn more about TSU, visit the University's "About Us" and "History" pages.
5.43- Explain the impact of the Tennessee Constitutional Convention of 1870, including: poll taxes, segregation, and funds for public education. (T.C.A. § 49-6-1028).
8.72- Explain the restrictions placed on the rights and opportunities of freedmen, including: racial segregation, black codes, and the efforts of the Freedmen's Bureau to address the problems confronting newly freed slaves.
AAH.22- Analyze the legal ramifications of segregation laws and court decisions (e.g., Plessy v. Ferguson) on American society.
Matthew Gailani is an Educator at the Tennessee State Museum.