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The University of Memphis: A Centennial History

Updated on January 5, 2014
College Yearbook, 1931
College Yearbook, 1931

The Memphis landscape, situated on the eastern bank of the Mississippi river, is generally hazy with stifling humidity, which often smothers the Bluesy sounds of local musicians and traps the heavy scent of barbeque that characteristically permeates the city. Broad parkways and avenues cut through dense neighborhoods of multi-story homes, most of which feature wrap-around porches and dilapidated roofs. But historic buildings and businesses are not the only things that line these multi-lane streets; beginning in January of 2012, 100 life-size replicas of Bengal Tigers were strategically positioned throughout the city as well. These bronze statues, designed by sculptor David Alan Clark, stand in homage to the University of Memphis’ Centennial celebration (http://www.memphis.edu/). This institution, whose persistence and fierceness is embodied by its mascot, the tiger, has underwent multiple transformations since its historic inception, whilst preserving and respecting the university’s mission, culture, and traditions.

A Solution to a Societal Need: the Normal School

Subsequent to the rates of illiteracy evidenced of the 1870 census, attempts were made by the Tennessee legislature and county courts to provide support towards expanding and stabilizing the area’s educational system, accordingly necessitating the training of qualified instructors (“Tennessee,” 2003). At the turn of the century, the General Assembly of the State of Tennessee responded to this heightened demand for teachers by formulating and enacting the General Education Bill of 1909. Through this mandate, three teacher-training institutions, including the West Tennessee State Normal School (WTSNS), were chartered. Three years later, on September 10th, WTSNS opened its doors to future educators who would become learned in the standards of teaching (http://www.memphis.edu/).

Positioned on an 80-acre lot, adjacent to the Memphis and Charleston Railroad, the West Tennessee State Normal School sought to provide its student body with essential knowledge that would meet the state board’s requirement for instructors to hold both a high school diploma and teaching certification prior to entering the realm of public education (Bond, Breland, & Sherman, 2012). Since the sole intent of the institution was to formally train teachers, the majority of students that attended WTSNS in its first years were women. It took merely one decade for the school to establish a library, dining hall, and men’s dorm, as well as select the iconic school colors of blue and gray, representative of the Civil War’s dueling armies (http://www.memphis.edu/).

First Graduating Class of the Normal School, 1913
First Graduating Class of the Normal School, 1913

From Normal School to Research Institute

The year 1925 evidenced further development of collegiate offerings while any secondary courses were discontinued. Considering its new academic structure, the school was re-named the Western Tennessee State Teacher’s College (WTSTC). By the advent of the 1940s, WTSTC had once more shifted its purpose and evolved into a complete liberal arts institution, now recognized as Memphis State College (MSC). Over the next ten years, MSC launched its initial graduate program, recognized its first alumnus president, and expanded the campus through various large-scale building processes (http://www.memphis.edu/).

It was shortly thereafter, in 1957, that increased funding, support from local groups, a winning NCAA basketball team, and integration of national Greek and academic societies, allowed Memphis to be granted university status (Chumney, 2009). It was only in 1994 that the institution was bequeathed with its present identifier: University of Memphis (Bond, Breland, & Sherman, 2012). Yet, regardless which title the university held throughout its many years, its singular purpose was always to educate. Certainly, the school’s evolution caused a shift of its primary focus on training certified instructors. After the broadening of collegiate offerings and the establishment of a graduate and doctorate program, the university thrived as a metropolitan research hub, a designation that it presently retains (http://www.memphis.edu/).

Memphis State College
Memphis State College

Integration and its Implications

Considering the current demographic composition of the city of Memphis, which maintains that over 60% of its population identify themselves as being of African American descent, the 1954 Supreme Court decision to dissolve the practice of segregation in public schools had perhaps the greatest impact on campus culture of what was then recognized as being MSU. Two years after achieving status as a university, Memphis State unwillingly conceded to admitting its first African American students, collectively known as the “Memphis State Eight” (Bond, Breland, & Sherman, 2012). Forced into isolation by their peers through designated seating during athletic events, disallowed campus access before eight in the morning and after twelve noon, and denied access to certain classes, such as physical fitness, these students served as the stepping stones to greater attempts at integration just the following year, in which 25 African Americans were granted admissions to the university (http://www.memphis.edu/).

These selective and ethnically biased practices were although solely reflections of a hate-driven era. Years later, the University of Memphis prides itself on having a highly diverse campus. Various initiatives, including the Access Diversity Grant, enable Memphis residents of all backgrounds to gain admissions and achieve in higher academia, thereby fostering social betterment in the process. According to recent enrollment figures, such institutional efforts towards heterogeneity have been effective: currently, the student populace comprises 35.6% Black students, while an additional 17.5% are identified as other ethnic minorities (“University of Memphis,” 2012).

Integration at Memphis State
Integration at Memphis State

Encouraging the Present through the Past

Since its inception in 1912, the University of Memphis has honored and continues to uphold numerous institutional traditions. For instance, the university’s mascot, a Bengal Tiger named TOM (Tigers of Memphis), was the brainchild of several students, who, during a 1914 football game, proudly proclaimed “We fight like Tigers!” While the nickname immediately took hold, it was not officially adopted by Memphis until 1939. The Mighty Sound of the South, the university’s nationally recognized marching band, which made its debut in the 1940s, serves as another medium through which the schools traditions, such as the institution’s fight song “Go! Tigers! Go!” have been preserved (http://www.memphis.edu/).

While originally intended as a small training school for public school teachers, the University of Memphis has become one of Tennessee’s three doctoral extensive institutions. Vastly exceeding the initial enrollment of 300 students, the school now educates over 21,000 students. Innovative architecture, such as the ultra-modern FedEx Forum, stands alongside the century-old administration building, connecting present attempts of academic excellence and community service to the university’s ambitious past. The rather hurried evolution of this institution, if anything, attests to the school’s ability to adapt to fluctuating social and political environments, thereby foreshadowing a future legacy of longevity.

The Memphis Campus, 2013
The Memphis Campus, 2013

University of Memphis Literature (and Further References)

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