The University of Tennessee will soon rename two residence halls after Black trailblazers Rita Sanders Geier and Theotis Robinson, Jr.
The halls that will be renamed are Orange Hall and White Hall, the former to be named after Geier and the latter after Robinson. Previously, Orange and White acted as placeholder names for the residence halls.
These individuals have had some monumental feats.
Geier led a 38-year lawsuit starting in 1968 when she was 22 years old. Her case fought against segregation and for underprivileged students in the higher education system of Tennessee. This resulted in the Geier Consent Decree, which has increased scholarships, faculty and enrollment for African American students to this day.
Meanwhile, Robinson became one of the first African American undergraduate students at the University of Tennessee in 1961 when he was 18 years old. He led change for African American admittance in higher education, especially within Tennessee.
Both individuals worked for UTK for several years until their retirements, and both still have lasting impacts on campus.
Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Engagement Tyvi Small spoke about this renaming and the importance of these two individuals.
“I can’t think of any two more deserving people to have these naming opportunities because of the impact that they’ve had here at our university,” Small said. “And really across the state. I don’t want to minimize the impact of them and not just here at UT, but certainly they had impact across higher ed(ucation) across the state.”
Small started working on this renaming process last summer during the police brutality protests.
“As we looked at last summer as the country was reeling from social injustice and unrest, many of our sister campuses and our conference and in the south were really looking at historic names of buildings and places,” Small said.
“And while we didn’t have any problematic names per se, what we did realize is that … our buildings’ names weren’t representative of all of the diverse people who had played significant roles in helping shape UT into what it is today.”
Small worked with Vice Chancellor for Student Life Frank Cuevas on this renaming. Cuevas spoke about this experience.
"We are excited to rename Orange and White Halls after two extraordinary trailblazers,” Cuevas said.
“Vice Chancellor Small and I spent the last few months working on a proposal to rename these residence halls for Theotis Robinson, Jr. and Rita Sanders Geier. They devoted their lives to tirelessly working for equal justice for historically underrepresented students on our campus and our state. Now that the Board of Trustees has successfully approved this request, the name change will immediately take effect. Signage will also be installed soon.”
Alongside them, a senator in the Student Government Association, Maria Urias, worked on pushing this renaming. She now works on the Task Force for the Naming of Buildings as a senior in SGA.
She spoke about her involvement in this renaming process.
“… in spring of 2019 I learned about Mr. Theotis Robinson Jr.'s legacy and incredible contributions to this campus, and saw him being an active member of the community by attending all the town halls following the incidents that had happened that semester,” Urias said.
“It inspired me a lot, and after realizing that there wasn't any space on campus dedicated to his legacy, I reached out to Dean Smith of the libraries as I was considering writing an SGA Senate bill to name a room in the library after him since it is such a community-oriented space.”
She realized that writing a bill would be unnecessary. She said that “Dean Smith wrote a memo to the Chancellor’s cabinet” after hearing her proposal. The cabinet had already started planning the renaming, so they worked with Urias in turning their focus to the halls instead.
“It was a decently smooth timeline of events, albeit COVID may have delayed the process a little bit,” Urias said. “I am so glad to see UT move in the direction of honoring Black trailblazers such as Theotis Robinson, Jr. and Rita Sanders Geier. It is one step of what needs to be many other actions and initiatives to make this campus more inclusive and reflective of its student body.”
Small also talked about how all of these people and proposals came together.
“All of the stars just aligned,” Small said. “Because we were having those conversations a long time ago. After summer happened and then after we were working and talking to Maria (Urias) … these were all things that we were working on, but we were working on them separately.”
He said that everything “came together quite nicely” after working with everyone and talking through what they wanted to accomplish.
Cuevas and Small confirmed that the Board of Trustees has approved of the renaming. Right now, they are waiting for the signs to come in so that Geier and Robinson’s names will officially be on the buildings.
Small hopes that students and faculty will feel inspired by having these names represent these buildings, “particularly our students, whether you are African American, whether you are historically underrepresented, whether you are first generation, whatever your background is.”
“I hope any person that lives in those residence halls, young or old, can look at those names and think about what possibilities might exist for them to make an impact … on this campus and their communities and our state and ultimately in our world,” Small said.
“And so that’s what those buildings I hope mean to those young people, those folks who drive by, those faculty and staff who drive by and see those names there. And it hopefully inspires them to continue to want to make change and to continue to want to make an impact in our world.”
Rita Geier Hall and Theotis Robinson, Jr. Hall will receive their signage soon. This renaming became possible through the work of several different people and groups. They hope to continue honoring those who have impacted the University of Tennessee.