'Memphis State 8' reflect on their time on campus 60 years ago, changes for the future

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The University of Memphis is remembering the first African American students who broke down racial barriers on campus 60 years ago.

The group known as the 'Memphis State Eight' faced isolation, discrimination, and hatred all while they were getting their education.

When those eight students walked the campus in the fall of 1959, they knew they weren't going to have the normal college experience.

They were banned from certain classes like physical education and ROTC. They even had to use separate restrooms and student lounges.

John Simpson, Luther McClellan, Bertha Rogers Looney, Ralph Prater and Marvis Jones are the surviving members of the 'Memphis State Eight' who integrated what's known as the University of Memphis today. Sammie Burnett Johnson died in 2011, and Rose Blakney Love and Eleanor Gandy died in 2017.

Back in September 1959, there were 4,500 students on campus and these eight were the only students of color.

"We knew it was going to be a challenge. We knew were not going to be loved or welcomed with open arms, but we knew there were some things we wanted to do, things we needed to do," said Ralph Prater, one of the 'Memphis State Eight.'

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During their time on campus, the 'Memphis State Eight' were isolated. These students were banned from the cafeteria and the student center, and they could only be on campus until noon.

"Although I was frightened the joy I would receive I would meet with the other seven before we would meet for class at 8 o clock," said Bertha Roger Looney, one of the 'Memphis State Eight.'

The eight were escorted by police to their classes. Fortunately, they weren't physically attacked, but they say it was always a fear.

"That possibility that always loomed in the back of our mind we did see several cars waving confederate flags that were an indication that people didn't particularly like seeing us here," said Prater.

But when they walk on campus in 2019, the 'Memphis State Eight' said they saw the future they could only imagine 60 years ago.

Currently, there are more than 21,000 students on campus and university staff say more than 30% of the student body is African American along with 6% are Hispanic, 4% are Asian, 4% multiple races, and 4% are other.

"The campus looks so much more beautiful, instead of being all white when we came here in 1959, to look out now and see so many students of color it, it makes all feel like what we did was certainly worth the while," said Prater.

While so much has changed, some of the 'Memphis State Eight' said there are still things that need to change starting with increasing the minimum wage for full-time employees at the university.

"When we came inequality existed with students coming and now we have the employees not getting treated fairly either and it's disappointing," said Looney.