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1912: The Titanic, $47 tuition and faculty greeting students at the train station

The sinking of the Titanic was the biggest world news of 1912, but in Memphis the big news was the founding of West Tennessee Normal School (WTNS), known today as the University of Memphis. It opened with 330 students, and a student could attend for $47 for a three-month term, which covered tuition, room and meals. At the beginning of each term, the whole faculty walked to the nearby Normal Station train depot to personally greet the arriving students. 

WTNS was primarily a school to train teachers, which consisted of a high school curriculum and two years of college. First president, Seymour A. Mynders, planned the curriculum, hired the faculty and oversaw the construction of the first three buildings — the Administration Building, Mynders Hall and the president’s house, which has since been torn down. The other two original buildings still stand in the center of campus. 

Mynders Hall, which was the women’s dormitory, was named for President Mynders’ daughter Elizabeth, who died in January 1912, four months after her marriage, and the dorm was built in the shape of an “E” in Elizabeth’s memory. President Mynders died unexpectedly at the age of 52 a year after WTNS opened. 

The Administration Building was used for all other college functions, including the library, cafeteria, classrooms, science labs and the men’s dormitory. Even school dances were held there. The school colors of blue and gray were chosen to symbolize the reunion of the North and South after the Civil War. 

Early on, WTNS had sports teams for men and women, and the athletes wore the letter “N,” which stood for “Normals” or “Normalites,” on their team uniforms. Local newspapers called them the Blue and Gray Warriors, but the athletes were commonly known as the Tigers, which wasn’t the official mascot until 1939. In the 1970s, the school got its first live Bengal tiger as a mascot. He was named TOM, which stood for Tigers of Memphis. 

The college’s student newspaper was started in 1931 and named The Tiger Rag, a reference to the unofficial mascot and a popular song of the time. In 1972, the newspaper was renamed The Helmsman and eventually became The Daily Helmsman. The award-winning newspaper has been continuously published for 90 years, including during World War II, when because of paper shortages, the newspaper had to be hand-typed and posted on bulletin boards around campus. 

The first black students, known as the Memphis State Eight, began their educations here in 1959. They were allowed only to take morning classes, could not live in the dormitories and could not eat in the cafeteria. They were required to leave the campus immediately after classes. One of the Memphis State Eight, Luther McClellan, was the first black graduate of Memphis State in 1962. The first black athlete at the university was Richard Vernon, a track star, in 1966. 

The college/university has had five names over its 109 years, and in 1957, Elvis Presley was among those who successfully lobbied the governor in favor of university status. Memphis State University finally became the University of Memphis in 1994.

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