MURFREESBORO — The MTSU community is mourning the passing of its first African-American undergraduate student.
Olivia Murray Woods died Sunday, Oct. 2, at the Bridge at Hickory Woods, an assisted living center, in La Vergne, Tennessee. She was 96 years old.
A native of Murfreesboro, Olivia Murray was born April 15, 1920. She attended both Bradley Elementary School and Holloway High School, where her love of education survived both segregation and the Great Depression.
“Her teachers really stressed it, even back in those times,” said her younger son, George Woods.
She attended Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State College (now Tennessee State University) prior to marrying Collier Woods Sr., who also was an educator, starting a family and teaching part-time for both Murfreesboro City schools and Rutherford County schools.
George Woods said his mother enrolled at Middle Tennessee State Teachers’ College (now Middle Tennessee State University) in fall 1962 as a transfer student after her husband told her that his salary alone would not be enough to put their three children through college.
“All she wanted to do was to get her degree so she could go back to work,” said George Woods, who also is an MTSU alumnus.
Mr. Woods said his mother told him about only one racially tinged incident that occurred during an orientation session. She said a white male said, “It’s getting awfully dark in here” while walking past her.
Quill E. Cope, then president of MTSU, heard the comment and told the assembly he wanted to talk to whoever made that remark at the conclusion of orientation. From that point on, Woods experienced no difficulties, according to her son.
“In passing, some (students) might kind of shun me, you know,” Woods said in a June 19, 2001, oral history interview for MTSU’s Albert Gore Research Center. “But that didn’t matter because I was there to get an education, to get a job, so we could educate my children.”
Olivia Woods graduated in May 1965 with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a minor in humanities. She obtained her master’s degree in curriculum and instruction in 1974. By then, Woods said, blacks were more readily accepted.
“But most of the people who were going nights and doing intercession, they were like me,” Woods said in the 2001 oral history interview. “They were more interested in getting that degree to help them, you know, further their education and increase their pay than they were in trying to prove something.”
Woods taught second- and third-graders full-time in Murfreesboro City schools, retiring in 1986 after 21 years as a teacher.
She was a member of Mount Zion Baptist Church as a child and joined Allen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church after marrying her husband.
In addition to George Woods, survivors include another son, Collier Jr., a daughter, Debi Woods Harris; five grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. Scales and Sons Funeral Home of Murfreesboro is handling arrangements, which were incomplete as of this writing.
Audio of Woods’ 2001 oral history interview is available at http://digital.mtsu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/mtsu1/id/1347. A 2011 video interview that includes footage of Woods is at http://youtu.be/qJvIHt1EJSI.