Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy
John Finger, Joy DeSensi, Clint Allison
The University of Tennessee football program excluded African-Americans from 1891 to 1967. During most of that span, Volunteer athletic teams competed in the Southeastern Conference (SEC), the last major intercollegiate athletic league to desegregate. Between 1963 and 1967, changes in the university athletic department, in the conference, and in society at large prompted Tennessee and several other SEC members to integrate athletics. The process of racial desegregation ranks as perhaps the least chronicled significant event in University of Tennessee football history.
In addressing that void, this dissertation examines the desegregation of the University of Tennessee football program within the context of the 1963 to 1967 time period. The lack of previous scholarly attention made imperative the use of oral history interviews, and several participants central to the desegregation process contributed. A thorough search and analysis of pertinent archival materials and contemporary newspaper accounts of the period provided additional perspective, as did a review of the existing literature on African-American sports history and athletic integration.
Albert Davis of Alcoa, Tennessee, accepted a football scholarship offer from the University of Tennessee on April 14, 1967. His signing officially ended more than seventy years of racial exclusion in Volunteer athletics. When an entrance score controversy kept Davis from attending the university, actual desegregation on the playing field fell to Lester McClain of Nashville. By earning a varsity football letter in 1968, McClain became the first African-American to do so in the Southeastern Conference. Football desegregation proceeded fairly smoothly at Tennessee, although resentments expressed by McClain near the end of his college years created a stir.
The University of Tennessee did not lead the Southeastern Conference into football desegregation, but the Tennessee case proved vital to a transformation in the conference. Member institutions of the SEC gradually accepted athletic racial integration during the late 1960s and early 1970s, in large part because of events at the University of Tennessee, and that acceptance transformed the Southeastern Conference into a more nationally recognized and respected athletic league.
Epling, Robert Thomas, "Seasons of Change: Football Desegregation and the University of Tennessee and the Transformation of the Southeastern Conference, 1963-67. " PhD diss., University of Tennessee, 1994.