In the spring of 1964, nearly 2,100 students graduated from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Among them was Brenda Lewis Peel. The ceremony played out like any other except for one detail. As she walked across the stage to accept her diploma, Peel made history. She became the first Black undergraduate student to graduate from the university, breaking barriers at the height of the civil rights movement in the American South.
“I don’t know if anyone even knew there was an African American student graduating,” Peel explains. “I just stood in line and walked across the stage with everybody else.”
Composed, focused, and confident, Peel quietly made her way through commencement with little to no fuss or undue attention—and she was perfectly fine with that.
Growing up in East Knoxville, Peel was the youngest of eight children. Her parents, Grady and Jessie Lewis, always stressed the importance of pursuing an education. Grady worked as a foreman for the Tennessee Valley Authority and owned a grocery store, while Jessie worked to build a loving home for Peel and her siblings. For neighbors and family friends, the Lewis household was considered Grand Central Station, buzzing with visitors at all times of day.
“Our home was loud, messy, and lively. I had a lot of fun growing up there,” Peel says, smiling.
For Peel and her siblings, attending college was an understood expectation. All of the Lewis children attended various institutions. Peel’s parents had worked hard to build a better life for their family. For their children, earning a college degree was the next step in realizing that dream.
Peel started her collegiate journey at Westminster College, an integrated Presbyterian-affiliated school in Pennsylvania. At the time, there weren’t many options for Black students wanting to continue their studies, and Peel was looking for an experience that would push her out of her comfort zone. In 1961, UT opened its doors to African American undergraduate students. That same year, Martin Luther King Jr. came to Knoxville to deliver the commencement address at Knoxville College, a historically Black institution that Peel’s older sister, Shirley, attended.
Peel was in the middle of final exams at the time of King’s visit and was unable to get home to hear him speak. It was an electric moment for the Black community in Knoxville to have a well-known figure like King share his message. As the civil rights movement grew nationally, Peel struggled with being separated from her family. She wanted to be a part of history in the city that raised her.
“I felt like I was missing out on a lot [in Pennsylvania],” Peel says. “I wasn’t in Knoxville, but I wanted to be, so that was one of the reasons I came back to the South—to do what I could with the people I cared for. The idea that the University of Tennessee would be opening for Blacks, it just was a good challenge for me. I said, ‘This is my opportunity—I want to go to UT.’”
Unlike other major southern universities, UT integrated without heated riots or protests. “I never had students say unkind things to me. They didn’t pay me much attention,” Peel says. “When UT decided that they would admit African American students, they did it, without any fanfare, without standing in the doors. They did it in a very civilized way.”
In fact, most students and professors didn’t engage with Peel at all, creating a lonely college experience for her.
Peel majored in psychology and split her time between classes and raising her newborn son, Joey. She was involved in the civil rights movement, taking part in marches through downtown Knoxville hosted by Students for Equal Treatment, a student organization advocating for racial justice. Balancing life as a student, mother, and activist, Peel wasn’t going to let anything stop her on her quest to earn her bachelor’s degree.
“I was nervous participating in the marches,” she says. “People were being arrested, and my parents were always concerned for my safety. But I didn’t do it for myself. You get the strength and the energy from outside yourself—fighting for the people you love and for what’s right.”
By the time of her graduation, Peel had conquered more obstacles than some people face in an entire lifetime, all while showing unmatched levels of grace and grit. Although her commencement ceremony was nothing out of the ordinary, she took pride in her achievements as her family cheered her on from the stands. The Lewises knew she was the first Black woman to earn a bachelor’s degree from UT. And Peel made sure she wouldn’t be the last.
Serving the Next Generation
After graduation, Peel worked for Beardsley Junior High School in Knoxville as a language arts teacher. She was passionate about serving students and often went above and beyond her role as a teacher, investing in her students’ lives and well-being as much as their formal education. Her talent for building relationships and connecting with students on a more personal level prompted her to pursue a graduate degree in counseling from Georgia State University. Sticking to her southern roots, she spent the next 27 years counseling middle and high schoolers in Atlanta as they navigated adolescence, academics, and the college admissions process.
Having already opened the door for Black students at UT, Peel carried on her service for new generations of students looking to further their education. “My goal as a counselor was to put students on the right path,” Peel says. “I wanted to help kids get through their tough times in school, help them gain confidence in themselves, and help them believe that they could dream big and earn a college degree.” After 30 years as an educator and counselor, Peel retired from Atlanta Public Schools in 2002.
In 1994, Peel was inducted as part of the inaugural class of UT’s African American Hall of Fame. She was also an active member of the alumni chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. spearheading service projects and events in her community.
“Peel set the pace for students like me—Black female students in particular,” says Dariana Martre, senior supply chain management student and current chapter president of Delta Sigma Theta. “It says a lot that the first African American to earn a bachelor’s degree from UT was a woman. We can’t stress that enough. Her work was transformational for our campus and still has a domino effect on us. She planted a seed, and the students here now are what’s growing from that seed and carrying on her legacy.”
Through her tenacity and humility, Peel defines what it means to be a Volunteer. She capitalized on the opportunity to study at UT and used that knowledge to commit to a career serving students. When asked how it felt being the first, Peel noted that she feels proud today, but at the time she was so concentrated on her goals and representing her family well that she never fully considered the impact she was having on the university.
In recognition of her service, a galleria on the second floor of John C. Hodges Library will be dedicated to Peel in late 2021. In one of the most trafficked corridors on campus, students from all backgrounds and majors will see her name and learn about the woman who paved the way for future Vols.
“Brenda laid the foundation for generations of African American students to grace the halls of the University of Tennessee,” says Tyvi Small, vice chancellor for diversity and engagement. “An individual whose actions so powerfully benefited everyone deserves to be honored in a space that is intended for everyone.”
At her current home in Atlanta, Peel is surrounded by photos of her children and grandchildren. Family remains a core value and focal point in her life, as the warm spirit of her lively childhood home has carried over into the present day. In Knoxville, she’s known primarily as a trailblazer. But for those closest to her, Peel also stands as a pillar of strength, southern grace, and kindness. Ultimately, she attributes her successes to three guiding principles: do your best, don’t let anything knock you off your path, and always help others along the way. It’s a simple and sincere life philosophy—one that Peel continues to carry like a true torchbearer.