The University of Memphis Office of Multicultural Affairs celebrated the 60-year anniversary of becoming a racially-integrated school Sept. 18 honoring the first black students to attend, known as the Memphis State Eight.
Among the original Memphis State Eight who attended the event were Bertha Rogers Looney, Ralph Prater, Luther McClellan, Marvis Kneeland Jones and John Simpson, although only Looney addressed the audience. Sammie Bernett-Johnson, Eleanor Gandy and Rose Blakney-Love, the other three members, are now deceased.
“I could not imagine 60 years ago that I would walk onto this campus and not be afraid or look over my shoulder for a brick to be thrown at me, but here I stand 60 years later, and thankful for all that has happened,” Looney said.
The University of Memphis and the Office of Multicultural Affairs thanked the Memphis State Eight for their bravery and willingness to pave the way for the UofM students enjoy today. Linda Hall, associate dean of the Office of Multicultural Affairs, expressed excitement about the evening and showcasing the diversity at the UofM.
“We have already established a relationship with everybody, we stay in touch and they stay in touch,” Hall said. “We don’t want anyone to forget about their contribution. I feel humbled and honored to stand on their shoulders.”
After the event, Ralph Prater, visiting from California, spoke about being back in Memphis. “It feels like home and from what I understand, things have progressed quite well,” Prater said. “Although we certainly don’t have enough African Americans in good positions, there’s still room for improvement.”
Despite confinement to her wheelchair, Kneeland Jones showed a positive attitude for the event, the students and the opportunity to see her friends.
John Simpson spoke highly of the progress and said the university had avoided his worst fears.
“I have been honored with things I don’t deserve,” Simpson said. “As far as I’m concerned, this is my home and the best university I could be around.”
Simpson was also happy that his grandson is a UofM student and enjoying his time here.
UofM Student Government Association president Antonio Scott spoke at the event, lauding the progress toward greater diversity since 1959.
“SGA is my main involvement but my biggest involvement is being a student of color at Memphis,” Scott said. “Tonight was not only about celebrating the courageous leadership of the Memphis State Eight, but also to recognize their trailblazing leadership they offered.”
Scott pointed to the black leadership within student groups like the SGA or Student Activities Council, the African American 18,000 UofM graduates, and the presence of all nine historically black Greek letter organizations at the UofM.
Both Scott and Looney stressed the importance of faith in the fight for equality. Looney described her trust in her faith to carry her through and Scott repeated Galatians 6:9.
“Let us not be weary in well-doing, for in due keeping, we shall reap if we faint not,” Scott said.
Scott used this scripture to emphasize the harvest that the Memphis State eight’s work started.
“The courage, strength and dignity of the eight young black students, who in the face of insurmountable adversity persevered for they knew in their well-doing, others, including me, would reap the benefits,” Scott said. “To the Memphis State eight, thank you. You integrated so that we may be educated.”