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Theotis Robinson Jr. to Speak at the UT Space Institute

Theotis Robinson Jr.

Theotis Robinson Jr. will be the keynote speaker for the 28th Annual Black History Month Celebration at the University of Tennessee Space Institute (UTSI). The celebration will be 10 a.m. CST Wednesday, February 22, at the UTSI campus in Tullahoma, Tennessee, followed by a reception.

Robinson is a UT Distinguished Alumni, and former Vice President of Equity and Diversity for the UT System (retired). He grew up in Knoxville, where he was active in the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

As a senior at Austin High School, Robinson attempted to enroll in the fall of 1959 at the all-white East High School, subsequently becoming a plaintiff in the Josephine Goss et al. v. the Knoxville Board of Education lawsuit to desegregate the city’s public-school system. He participated in sit-in demonstrations in downtown Knoxville at FW Woolworth, SH Kress, Walgreens, WT Grant, and other businesses.

Robinson also participated in stand-in demonstrations at downtown movie theaters and the march to protest Knoxville being named an “All-American City” by Look Magazine. In the spring of 1969, Robinson organized an all-white march at a Knoxville City Council meeting to demand passage of an “open housing” ordinance. This was in all probability the only “all-white” pro-civil rights demonstration ever held in the South.

A Volunteer, trailblazer, and advocate for equality, Robinson paved the way for Black undergraduates to attend the University of Tennessee. After applying to attend UT and meeting with then President, Andy Holt and administrators, Robinson became the first Black undergraduate student admitted to the University. He and two other Black students enrolled on January 4, 1961.

Ten years later, Robinson became the first Black person elected to the Knoxville City Council in more than half a century. Following his time in public office, he served as vice president of economic development for the 1982 World’s Fair.

After teaching a course in political science, Robinson took a position in the UT purchasing department before becoming special projects coordinator in the Office of Government Relations. In 2000, Robinson was named vice president of equity and diversity for the UT System and served in that role until he retired in 2014. He occasionally gives lectures at UT and has written political opinion columns for the Knoxville News Sentinel and the USA Today Network.

Robinson is a charter member of UT’s African American Hall of Fame and was named by Metro Pulse newspaper as one of the 100 most influential Knoxvillians of the 20th century. He received the 2014 David P. Richardson, Jr. Nation Builder Award presented by the National Black Caucus of State Legislators. In 2015, the Knoxville Area Urban League bestowed him with their most prestigious Whitney M. Young, Jr. Lifetime Achievement Award.

At the September 2019 Alumni Awards Gala, Robinson was honored as a Distinguished Alumnus, the highest honor awarded by the University of Tennessee Alumni Board. The UT Board of Trustees granted Robinson an honorary doctorate in 2019 from the College of Social Work for his efforts and accomplishments in advancing social justice.

A residence hall was renamed and dedicated as Robinson Hall on UT Knoxville’s campus in September 2021. Robinson and his family established the Theotis Robinson Jr. Flagship Pathway Scholarship endowment to support students who have graduated from one of 38 designated flagship high schools throughout Tennessee and enter the University as first-year students.

Robinson is married to the former Jonida DeVelle and is the father of five children, (four surviving), and grandfather to 11 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.