Jessie Lou Arnold was the first African-American student at the University of Tennessee at Martin, enrolling on June 12, 1961. The moment was reported by newspapers across Tennessee.
Arnold, now Jessie Lou Arnold Pryor, was encouraged to be the first by Harold Conner Sr., her principal at the Weakley County Training School who later became the first African-American administrator at UT Martin.
Conner, who was known as “Dean Conner,” joined the staff at UT Martin in 1969 as the assistant dean of students, later becoming the assistant vice chancellor for student affairs.
On Friday, Oct. 20, both pioneers were remembered by having residence facilities named in their honor. Arnold Pryor Place reflects the courage and determination that the student had in those first years of integration on campus. Conner Community memorializes the vision and mentorship of the former administrator.
The buildings were formerly known, respectively, as University Village 1 and University Village 2, but now they have names, names of honor that will last for years to come.
Dr. Mark McCloud, the vice chancellor of diversity and inclusion, led a ceremony held between the two facilities and spoke about the history of Pryor and Conner.
“Their remarkable journey as the first Black student and first Black administrator have left an indelible mark on our institution, and we are proudly, profoundly thankful for their dedication, courage and leadership,” he said.
McCloud spoke about each of the honored people and what made them worthy of the honor.
“As the first Black student, Jessie Arnold Pryor’s presence at our university symbolizes the power of education, equality and unyielding determination to overcome obstacles,” he said. “She blazed a trail that countless others have followed, creating a more diverse and inclusive campus for generations.
“As the first Black administrator, Harold Conner Sr.’s leadership and commitment to fostering an inclusive environment has been instrumental in the transformation of our university into an institution that is more equitable and welcoming as a community. His tireless efforts have helped to break down barriers and promote diversity in all aspects of our university life.”
Pryor was unable to attend the ceremony, but she asked Student Government Association representative sophomore Favour Osisioma of Medina to read a speech that she sent to her.
“I know it took many people to make today a reality, and I am grateful to all of them,” the speech read. “…When I learned that a residence hall was to bear my name, I was dazed and speechless. I felt much like I did in the weeks before I first entered UT Martin, when sleep eluded me and I was overwhelmed.
“I was especially humbled to learn that I would be honored along with a man I had such deep respect and admiration for, Professor Harold T. Conner Sr. He was my teacher, basketball coach, high school principal and guidance counselor. I also knew him as a man of God. I have many fond memories of times with him, his wife and his children in those early years.”
Pryor’s speech included what she called “lifelong lessons gained through residence hall life.”
“Being the first person of color to live in one of the UT Martin residence halls opened up new experiences for me,” she stated. “For example, I could use the campus library, but the Martin city library was still off-limits to me. I learned to swim in the UTM pool, but was not allowed at the city pool. I could eat in the UTM cafeteria, but not at any of the city restaurants.
“Things gradually changed, but that was my reality in the beginning, and that provided lifelong lessons in tolerance and patience.”
Conner’s son, Dr. Harold Conner Jr., spoke on behalf of the Conner family and also thanked those involved with bringing about the naming of the residence hall in his father’s honor.
“I would like to talk a little bit about the life and legacy of Harold Conner Sr.,” he said. “Many of you knew him as educator, as coach, as mentor, as lecturer. He was several things to several people.”
Conner said his father had to take a bus from Fulton, Kentucky, to McKenzie every day to finish high school. He then fought in World War II, got married and had three children.
“Before he came here as a dean, he taught me math and science and talked a lot about engineering,” he said. “So, I decided, ‘I’m going to be one of those engineers that he’s talking about.’ So, he was instrumental in my career and many of yours.
“…’I tried to get Black students to fulfill their highest potential,’ and I think any of you who were around him for any length of time know that’s what he would say.
“Many of you have heard him say that he didn’t believe in luck. That’s what a fool says when God blesses him with a favor. He also said many times that prejudice is ignorance, and all should be judged on their merit.”
Administrators involved in the residence facility naming process included UT System President Randy Boyd, former UTM Chancellor Keith Carver, UTM Provost Dr. Philip Acree Cavalier and current UTM Chancellor Dr. Yancy Freeman.
PHOTO: Dr. Harold Conner Jr., the son of former assistant dean of students Harold Conner Sr., speaks at the naming ceremony on Oct. 20 about his father, for whom the UT Martin residential facility known as Conner Community is being named. His father was also a mentor, principal and coach for another honoree, Jessie Lou Arnold Pryor, the first African-American student at UT Martin, for whom the residential facility Arnold Pryor Place was named that day.