TTU's Black Cultural Center to be named for first black grad

Little more than a generation ago, black residents of Middle Tennessee had only one choice if they wanted to attend a public university -- Tennessee State University.

In 1964, Tennessee Technological University admitted its first black students. Before then, black members of the area faced the economic and logistical obstacles of commuting to Nashville and beyond for higher education.

Recognizing those obstacles, Tennessee Tech students and a board of administrators and faculty have chosen to name the university's Black Cultural Center in honor of its first black alumnus, Leona Lusk Officer, who made numerous sacrifices to obtain something that many today take for granted.

From 1945 until 1964, the Sparta schoolteacher spent her summers working toward a bachelor's degree at Tennessee State. During that time, she would leave her husband and children behind, live with a cousin and return to Sparta on weekends. Her daughter, Nancy Officer Hancock, even recalls her freezing and canning vegetables during those weekends -- in between studying and writing papers.

Upon integration of Tennessee Tech, Officer transferred and finally earned her degree, graduating in 1965.

"I'm very honored to name the Black Cultural Center after Mrs. Officer," says Tonia Duncan-Rivers, center director. "I feel that without her doing what she did, none of us probably would be here. She's an inspiration not only to African Americans but to all people. She proves that hard work and perseverence pay off."

"Mrs. Officer is a prime example that if you're willing, if you have a goal to further yourself, you can do it against all odds," says Carole Kuhnert, assistant to the president of Tennessee Tech and chair of the ad hoc committee that helped implement the name change.

The Black Cultural Center will hold a naming ceremony in February, which is Black History Month.