Civil rights legend Bertha Rodgers Looney honored with Share the Love Award

Bertha Rodgers Looney made history when she and seven other African-American students walked onto the University of Memphis (then Memphis State University) campus in the fall of 1959. They were the first African Americans to integrate the College and collectively came to be known as the Memphis State Eight.

Bertha Rogers Looney accepts the Share the Love Award from Malinda Wade. Pictured with them are: Professor Valetta Brinson, Assistant Professor of Business and Legal Studies Joanitha Barnes, Dr. LaDonna Young, and Professor Levi Frazier.

As Looney would later reveal, it was a lonely and isolated walk past throngs of students who did not welcome their presence; yet they determinedly forged ahead in pursuit of a college degree.

In recognition of her tenacity, courage, perseverance and lifetime of achievements, Southwest’s Diversity Club and Club of the Arts presented Looney with the Sharing the Love Award Feb. 7 in celebration of Black History Month.

An overflowing audience gathered inside the M Auditorium on the Union Avenue Campus, eager to hear Looney speak about her experience as a student-pioneer in the civil rights era.  Associate Professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences Melinda Wade welcomed guests to the event, an extension of the Carter G. Woodson award. “We are here to share the love,” said Wade. “We all know love conquers all and as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so aptly put, ‘At the center of non-violence stands the principle of love.’”

Looney said she was planning to attend LeMoyne-Owen College when, at the age of 18, she was asked to be a part of the trailblazing group of students. “Jesse Turner encouraged me and I reluctantly accepted the challenge,” said Looney.  She said they had to leave campus by 12 noon and were told not to interact with the other students, among other intentionally humiliating and stringent rules. “We ‘obeyed’ because we knew our education was a priority.”  According to the University of Memphis, today, 36.5% of the student population is African-American.

Looney’s own walk through life was guided by her parent’s teachings. “My parents taught me how to live, love and give of myself and that if I studied I could achieve in life,” she said.  Reflecting back on her life, Looney said it was all worthwhile to now see African Americans in the positions of provost, coach, professor and leaders.  She encouraged students to stay focused and to follow their dreams.

Associate Professor of Communications, Graphics and Fine Arts Levi Frazier said Looney was always about the business of getting an education and educating others.  “Looney’s education did not stop with a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Memphis – she was a person of lifelong learning,” said Frazier.  Looney went on to obtain a master’s degree in English with a concentration in English as a Second Language (ESL) from the University of Memphis and taught ESL in the Czech Republic. She also attended Coppin State University in Baltimore, Maryland, and Catholic University in Washington, D.C.; taught high school business education in Memphis City Schools; and is currently teaching at Southwest in the Department of English.

Dean of Humanities, Social Sciences and Mathematics Dr. LaDonna Young paid tribute to Looney on behalf of President Tracy D. Hall and the College. Young thanked Looney for standing in the face of silence, the silence she encountered from classmates who ignored her, and by professors who did not acknowledge her presence in the classroom, let alone her intellect. “Thank you for taking a stand so that I and others like me who were not included in the blueprint or DNA of the American Higher education system could finally be afforded the opportunity to sit in lecture halls, student unions, dormitories, or anywhere our imagination and determination or brilliance takes us,” said Young. “You exemplified Black Girl Magic long before we heard of it.”

Interspersed within the program were a musical tribute that included the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” sung by Valetta Brinson, accompanied by pianist Willie Perry; a dramatic interpretation by Catherine Woods and Brandon Lewis; and a reading by Joanitha Barnes.

Bertha Rogers Looney addresses a capacity crowd at the Share the Love award celebration Feb. 7 inside the M Auditorium on the Union Avenue Campus. Seated are Valetta Brinson and Joanitha Barnes.

Bertha Rogers Looney addresses a capacity crowd at the Share the Love award celebration Feb. 7 inside the M Auditorium on the Union Avenue Campus. Seated are Valetta Brinson and Joanitha Barnes.

A dramatic interpretation of Looney’s student experience performed by Catherine Woods and Brandon Lewis.

A dramatic interpretation of Looney’s student experience performed by Catherine Woods and Brandon Lewis.

Valetta Brinson sings the Gospel hymn, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.”

Valetta Brinson sings the Gospel hymn, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.”