Celebrating the Centennial

The University of Memphis commemorates its first 100 years.

photograph by Michael Finger

No, your eyes aren’t deceiving you. That’s a tiger standing in front of the Regions Bank building on Poplar. And look, another one is prowling around the parking lot of the Blue Plate Café. A tiger holding the scales of justice guards the entrance to the University of Memphis law school downtown. And more than a dozen of these beasts — painted in all the colors of the rainbow — seem to be perched everywhere around the U of M campus. This strange menagerie is part of a rather unusual celebration of the school’s one-hundredth birthday.


From the Beginning

Built on land once used as a cotton plantation by a Civil War veteran, the 80-acre West Tennessee State Normal School opened to great fanfare on September 10, 1912.

The normal school, which would eventually become the University of Memphis, started with just 200 students and 17 faculty members. The only cost for students during the school’s early days was a $2 registration fee. Young men and women of good character were offered two years of high school education and two of college.

The earliest pupils chose the tiger as the mascot and blue and gray as the school’s colors: The story goes that the idea was to reunite two colors ostensibly separated during the Civil War.

The school changed its name to West Tennessee State Teachers College in 1925. At that time, the college began offering four-year degrees. Several departments were added to the campus, including physical education, biology, chemistry, arts, penmanship, and geology. The Brister Library opened in 1931.

Enrollment had climbed to about 1,000 students by 1941. This prompted another name change, to Memphis State College. Graduate studies began being offered in 1950.

By 1957, enrollment had doubled to about 2,000 students, when a proposal to make the school a branch of the University of Tennessee was shot down. Instead, then-governor Frank Clement endorsed a bill to grant the college “university” status. It was renamed once again, becoming Memphis State University (MSU). The institution admitted its first black students in 1959. Doctoral programs were offered beginning in 1966.


Major Expansion

President Cecil C. Humphreys oversaw an expansion during the 1960s and ’70s, including the building of the University Center and a 12-story library. MSU’s entire curriculum was accredited in 1983 — the first public university to gain that distinction in Tennessee.

The last name change came in 1994: the University of Memphis. The Ned R. McWherter Library opened the same year. Two distinguished entrepreneurial brands lent their names to significant educational centers at the turn of the twenty-first century: the Kemmons Wilson School of Hospitality and the FedEx Institute of Technology.

All told, today, the university stretches over 1,600 acres and has 237 buildings on eight sites. It is one of six universities in the Tennessee Board of Regents system. It has an annual budget of $439 million and a local economic impact estimated at $1.43 billion. Total enrollment for the Fall 2011 semester was 22,725.


The University Today

To celebrate its centennial, in 2012 the University of Memphis Alumni Association embarked on an unusual and eye-catching promotional campaign, by releasing 100 tigers to roam throughout the city. Not real ones, of course, but life-size fiberglass replicas. Local companies and individuals have paid $3,000 to $5,000 to sponsor a tiger — each creature representing a single year in the school’s century-long history — and then recruited area artists to decorate the tigers any way they chose. 

The result? Creatures you’d never find in jungles or zoos — pink, blue, red, green, and even chrome tigers, with stripes formed from beads, legal documents, IRS forms, and all manner of materials, including bits of broken mirrors and even automobile tires. As you might expect, a few of the tigers bear a rather striking resemblance to Elvis Presley, and others pay tribute to our city’s culture and heritage. The campaign not only draws attention to the long history of the university, but showcases the incredible work of the many talented artists and designers in our area. 

The tiger campaign culminated in 2012 with the unveiling of a massive bronze statue of Tom, the university’s official mascot, permanently standing guard outside the school’s new university center (above).

Space prevents us from showcasing each of the U of M’s centennial tigers, but throughout the pages of this City Guide, we have scattered capsule images and descriptions of some of our favorites. For updates on the “Tigers Around Town” campaign, visit the University of Memphis Alumni Association website


— All “Tigers Around Town” photographs throughout this City Guide by Michael Finger. Additional reporting by Greg Akers and Lindsay Jones.

An old color postcard of the planned UM campus.

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