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University of Tennessee Martin’s First Black Student Remembers Challenges

MARTIN Tenn. — Jessie Pryor remembers the isolation of being the first Black student to enroll at the University of Tennessee Martin.

In a ceremony on Thursday marking 50 years of integration, Pryor recalled her first day of class in 1961, when she was just 16 years old.

“It wasn’t welcoming,” Pryor said. “I sat in the second row to the front and when the other students walked in, they didn’t sit. They stood against the wall around the perimeter. When the professor walked in, he said ‘I’ve been hired to teach, and I don’t care if I teach one student or 100 students.’ ”

After that, the other students sat down, but they left the desks around Pryor empty, according to The Jackson Sun (

The anecdote made the contrast with Thursday’s scene all the more impressive.

“I was the only one in 1961 and to stand here now among 1,000 Black students is humbling,” she said. “It was (a) lonely year by myself.”

Pryor, who now lives outside of Washington, D.C., majored in education and played the piano and sang while at UT Martin. She graduated in 1965.

“Sometimes I question was it worth it,” she said. “Yes, I think it was worth it. I’m filled with hope for the university.”

Pryor attended with Beverly Echols, the only other Black student attending Martin in the early 1960s.

Echols was a junior when she transferred to UT Martin from LeMoyne College in Memphis. She graduated in 1964 with a degree in elementary education.

The women were presented keepsakes from UT Martin by UT Vice President of Equity and Diversity Theotis Robinson, who was the first Black student admitted to the UT system.

Robinson, Echols and Pryor met with history students earlier on Thursday where they shared their experience and discussed the importance of education.

Placards honoring Echols and Pryor will be placed on benches in the campus’s Unity Circle.

Members of the Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity contributed $2,500 to the project.

“We felt like we should give to the first Black women to graduate from UTM,” said Christopher Craig, president of the fraternity. “We had help fundraising from our alumni.”

Pryor said she hopes that Unity Circle will be a place of solace for students.

“I hope people will come here when they need strength,” she said. “That people will come here and mend broken relationships and that this will be a place of harmony, peace and goodwill.”

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