Dr. Robert Kirk, the University of Tennessee’s First Black Professor, Has Joined the Ancestors


by Veracity Savant

October 3, 2023

Professor Emeritus Robert “Bob” Kirk, the first Black professor to join the University of Tennessee at Knoxville’s full-time faculty, has passed away at the age of 92.

A native of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Dr. Kirk developed a deep passion for education early, earning his bachelor’s degree in health and physical education from Fisk University in 1953, Knox News reports. Kirk went on to serve in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, eventually earning his doctorate from Indiana University in 1960 and starting his professional career as an educator during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. 

In 1967, Kirk joined the University of Tennessee Knoxville’s faculty as an associate professor. Just two years later, he made history as the University’s first full-time Black professor. He would go on to make history again as the first Black professor to earn tenure and the first to head a department, serving at UT Knoxville for 36 years before his retirement in 2003. 

An esteemed professor on campus and a beloved entrepreneur in the community, Kirk was loved by everyone. One of his businesses was affectionately known as “Kirk’s Market” and became a staple in the city. He also owned the Magnolia Cafe and Kirk’s Restaurant and Hilltop Garden and Nursery. 


“My dad touched everyone; he was just a multifaceted individual who was also a businessman. He had this little small convenience store that he owned for 20 years that people remember to this day,” his son Derek Kirk remembered. 

Kirk was a pioneer in breaking racial barriers at UT Knoxville. During his time as professor, he chaired the Division of Health and Safety and served as director of the University of Tennessee Safety Center. Dr. Kirk was a member of the Board of Trustees of Emory and Henry College, a member of several community councils and hospital boards, as well as the executive secretary of the Knoxville Black Officials Coalition. 

He also was an active member within the Tennessee Department of Education and lent his expertise to several historical Black colleges over the years including Grambling State, Alabama State, Southern University at Baton Rouge, Southern Illinois University, and his alma mater, Fisk University. Despite his many accomplishments, accolades, and awards, at his core, Kirk remained just a good person, and most importantly, a present family man. 


“My father came to Knoxville, I would say at a difficult time. And he always just had the sense to treat anyone like you would want to be treated…And at the same time, he had a history of excellence…To do all of the things he did in a 24-hour day, to make the mark he did on so many people, and he still was there as a father every step of the way. As his daughter, I still don’t know how he did it all. I look back on everything and am amazed,” said Kirk’s daughter Tracy Kirk Hardin. 

While he is no longer physically with us, Dr. Kirk’s legacy is alive and well. His work on campus, in his community, and as a longtime member of Lennon-Seney United Methodist Church, is what most sticks out with those who knew him. Especially with his students, many of whom he continued to keep in contact with up until his last days. Theotis Robinson Jr., one of the first Black undergraduate students at UT said he will cherish the friendship he developed with Dr. Kirk over the last five decades, never forgetting all he imparted on his students. 

“He left a legacy at the University of Tennessee not only as the very first Black tenured professor in the history of the college but in the relationships he built with students,” said Robinson. 


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