New Exhibit Explores the History of Black Students and Employees at Tennessee Tech

By Hannah O’Daniel McCallon

The Tennessee Tech University Archives’ newest digital exhibit is now live! “Imagine Going Half a Day and Not Seeing Anybody That Looks Like You”: A History of Black Students & Employees at Tennessee Tech provides a survey of the Black history of the university from its founding in 1915 through the present day.

Photograph of two Tennessee Tech cafeteria employees working on December 9, 1964.

Tech was founded as a racially segregated, public institution in 1915. By the 1920s, African Americans worked at the college, but the administration relegated them to low-paying employment in the cafeteria. Tech was the last higher education institution in the Tennessee Board of Regents system to desegregate. Leona Lusk Officer’s enrollment in 1964 opened the door for Black students at the university.

The exhibit provides snapshots of some of the earliest Black employees and students at the university. It traces the founding and activism of historically Black student organizations on campus. The exhibit contextualizes changes in the campus climate in statewide and national events. It features over 175 photographs, oral histories, clippings, flyers, and other documents.

The exhibit was a collaboration with the Tennessee Tech University Office of Multicultural Affairs and University Advancement for the celebration of the 30th Anniversary of the Leona Lusk Officer Black Cultural Center on campus. We curated a total of three digital and one in-person exhibits for the anniversary.

The curation of the exhibits began with research in June 2020. Assistant Archivist Hannah O’Daniel McCallon worked on the exhibits nearly full-time alongside regular reference duties. Archives student worker Rhyannon Karney assisted with digitization and research during the fall 2021 semester.

Photograph of a student studying outside the Roaden University Center on April 13, 1988.

Most of the known resources on Black students and employees held in the Archives represent the viewpoint of white administrators, staff, and students. Student volunteers in the RACE PLUS program helped fill the gap in our collections by conducting oral histories with Black alumni from November 2020 to January 2021. We hope to continue conducting oral histories this summer through a paid internship. The transfer of records from the Office of Multicultural Affairs to the Archives in 2020 also was crucial for documenting the Black campus community from the 1990s to 2020.

Photograph of baseball player Morris Irby running to round third base in a home game against Eastern Kentucky University in May 1970.

To support the RACE PLUS students in their background research for their interviews and the exhibit research, the Archives digitized pages from The Oracle student newspaper and Eagle yearbook that related to the Black campus community. Other collections that were useful for exhibit research included records from the Office of Communications and Marketing, Dean of Students, President’s Office, Photo Services, University Assembly, Tennessee Board of Regents and Tennessee Higher Education Commission collection, and Tech Times.

Staff digitized most of the items that informed the exhibit. About 175 items are included in the exhibit, while over 2,000 items relevant for researching the Black campus community are available on our new digital collections website. Direct links to individual items can also be found in the bibliography.

Materials of note include:

We are so grateful for the alumni who shared their memories with us, the students who volunteered to conduct the oral history interviews, the Office of Multicultural Affairs and Dr. Robert Owens for reviewing and suggesting edits to the exhibits, and Alumni Center staff who helped us make the initial connections with alumni.

The exhibit formally opened on April 21, 20201. It can be viewed at:

If you would like to print and display the flyer for the exhibit, it can be downloaded at:

About University Archives

Archives and Special Collections resides in Angelo and Jennette Volpe Library on the first floor. The collection includes materials of legal, fiscal and historical significance to Tennessee Tech University and documents the history of the Upper Cumberland Region. The collection includes over 2,500 cubic feet of manuscripts, photographs, and archives from Tennessee Tech as well as surrounding people, businesses, and organizations of the Upper Cumberland. The collection contains books on the history and culture of the Upper Cumberland Region of Tennessee.
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