Summer of 1961 marked the beginning of desegregation at The University of Tennessee at Martin when an African-American woman and Martin native named Jessie Lou Arnold arrived on campus. While her time here was not filled with fond memories, Ms. Arnold did pave the way for all the other African-American students who would set foot on this campus.
The University's Dean, Dr. Paul Meek, approached Ms. Arnold's mother in the spring of 1961 to ask if her daughter would like to attend UT Martin to help begin the process of desegregation at the University. Rev. Harold Conner, her school principal who later became the first African-American administrator in 1969, also encouraged her. Ms. Arnold was 16 years old when she agreed to take on this important but soon difficult task.
Dr. Meek asked Ms. Arnold to live on campus and gave her the choice of where she would like to live, the new or old section of Clement. During her sophomore year (1962-63) she lived in the newly renovated section of Clement Hall. She did not have a roommate nor did she make any friends. However, a few girls would sit and talk to her while they were in the lounge.
She entered college not really knowing what types of careers were available. She had only seen ministers, nurses, teachers, and a doctor in her ethnic group. Therefore, from that list she decided to get her degree in education because that is all she really knew.
She really did not have anyone on campus whom she could call her mentor. But her favorite professor was her French professor, Dr. Muriel Tomlinson. She went on to teach senior French when she did her student teaching at her old high school.
On June 3, 1965, Ms. Arnold became the second African-American graduate from UT Martin, and was the first to complete a full student career at the institution. She went on to The University of Illinois to get her master's.
She was married to Paul Pryor, who was a student at UT Martin for one year. She and Mr. Pryor became the first African-Americans to join the UT Martin Choir.
Ms. Jessie Lou Arnold Pryor was instrumental in shaping this campus into what it has become today. We honor her for her strength and perseverance.