A historical perspective
by Andrew Shurtleff
English Professor Lisa Woolfork talks with a student. Left
and right: students walk to and from classes.
Human dignity, decency, mutual respect and
understandings informed by a genuine knowledge of history . .
. belong to all of us.
John T. Casteen III
much of U.Va.s history, diversity was a predicament to avoid
rather than a goal to embrace. Women, blacks and other minorities
were excluded, leaving the Universitys hallowed tradition
of intellectual vigor and ethical conduct available to only a
the last 50 years, much has changed. Women students now outnumber
men, Asian Americans and Hispanics have been embraced both in
the classroom and in the workforce and perhaps most dramatically
African Americans have become vital to the life and achievements
gains do not always mean acceptance, and diversity is still a
central concern among employees and students. With this issue,
Inside U.Va. launches
a series, Voices of Diversity, with two stories: one
a historical perspective (at right), the other explaining the
Envision Diversity initiative started by U.Va.s
leadership. (See Walk the talk, page 5.)
Paul M. Gaston
response to President Casteens call for an examination of
the history of the Universitys racial beliefs and practices
could take us back a long way and run to many hundreds of pages.
I go back 100 years to broach one part of that examination: How
racial segregation was brought to an end here.
1903, W.E.B. DuBois wrote that the problem of the twentieth
century is the problem of the color-line. For African-Americans
this problem was a white problem, rooted in the dominant
races determination to maintain what was loosely called
white supremacy. Here in Virginia, a brand new constitution had
just been adopted to fortify the color line. Its architects
as, indeed, most white Virginians thought the denial of
citizenship rights to black people stemmed from natural forces
resulting in what they called The Negro Problem.
Universitys leader at that time saw the denial of citizenship
rights as a kind of biological necessity. Dr. Paul Barringer,
the last chairman of the faculty (a post abolished with the appointment
of our first president in 1904), claimed to see black Americans
on the return to barbarism and likened their presumed
journey to the return of the sow ... to her wallowing in
the mire. The black man, he wrote, was a simple creature:
Supply his bodily wants, including a woman, and he is happy
under any social conditions. He came out of a heritage of
fifty centuries of historically recorded savagery
to a point where comfort, health, self-respect, and gentility
are as a rule nothing compared with the gratification of vanity,
lust, the craving for drink, tobacco, the gaming habit, etc.
the time I joined the faculty in 1957, the Universitys leaders
had pretty much abandoned Chairman Barringers crude racist
language. But the assumption that blacks were genetically inferior
to whites, unsuitable for study at the University, to be kept
on their side of the color line, remained widespread. Dean Ivey
Lewis, a popular biology professor, gave scholarly credence to
white supremacy beliefs in his eugenics class. When the Supreme
Court ruled against Virginias school segregation in 1954,
his former students wrote to say that if his teachings were understood
that decision would never have been handed down. The courts
brief for equality ran counter to deeply held beliefs in the University
as well as in the state.
Harry Byrd, the commonwealths revered political leader,
promised to mount a massive resistance to the enforcement
of the ruling. His ally on Richmonds afternoon newspaper,
James Jackson Kilpatrick, furnished the explanation: the
Negro race has
debased every society in which its blood
has been heavily mixed.
Darden, a man of uncommon dignity and humane sensibility, was
president at this time. He knew the folly of massive resistance,
but he could not break loose from his heritage or his friends
to speak against it publicly. Part of his reluctance stemmed from
his belief that schools should remain segregated. Shortly before
the Supreme Court decision he resigned from the Souths front-line
interracial organization, writing to its director to say that
its newly announced advocacy of integration was something to
which I cannot subscribe.
with both the best and the worst of Virginias leaders defending
the color line there seemed little chance that the problem
of the twentieth century would even be acknowledged, much
less confronted, by them. None of them, of course, saw it as a
courtesy of Special Collections/Dave Skinner
into this heady ferment, President Edgar Shannon, above, abandoned
the cautious policy that had kept him aloof from the civil
rights cause to become a partner in the student movement for
the other hand, President Darden and his Board of Visitors knew
they could not continue to restrict enrollment only to white people.
Alice Jacksons application for admission to the graduate
school had been rejected in 1935, the dean explaining to her that
to admit her would be to violate the long established and
fixed policy of the Commonwealth of Virginia. By 1950, however,
such cavalier rejections were no longer possible because of a
series of lawsuits successfully argued by attorneys of the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Swanson, the plaintiff in one of them, gained admission to the
Law School in 1950.
years after Swanson had won admission, when I arrived, 22 African-American
students were enrolled in the various graduate and professional
schools, most of them studying for advanced degrees in education.
The College remained the last bastion of segregation.
at mid-year 1960-61, an engineering student and the administration
negotiated his transfer to the College, an arrangement that secured
minimum publicity. For most of the rest of the 1960s, the administration
followed a policy of containment, admitting as few applicants
as possible. In 1965, fewer than 20 attended classes on Grounds;
in 1967-68 there were 31 full-time and 40 part-time students.
containment policy that maintained this tokenism was finally abandoned
in 1969 in the face of protests of a coalition of radical, liberal
and moderate students. The story of the 1960s is one of the gradual
transformation of student thought that made that outcome possible.
In the late 50s and on through the mid-60s there seemed
little chance that students would ever challenge their segregationist
heritage. A few representative examples of why would include these:
1957 Cavalier Daily editorial branding the NAACP a communist-front
organization, guilty of subversive dealings;
Cavalier Daily editorial condemning the 1961 student-faculty boycott
of the whites-only theater on the Corner for sullying the reputation
of the University, violating the sense of honor at
the heart of its existence;
Student Council refusal in 1962 to allow the interracial Human
Relations Council to exist on Grounds until it proved itself worthy
by inserting in its by-laws a clause prohibiting boycotts and
courtesy of Special Collections
Jacksons application for admission to the graduate school
had been rejected in 1935, the dean explaining to her that
to admit her would be to violate the long established
and fixed policy of the Commonwealth of Virginia. By
1950, however, such cavalier rejections were no longer possible
because of a series of lawsuits successfully argued by attorneys
of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored
People. Gregory Swanson (far left), the plaintiff in one of
them, gained admission to the Law School in 1950.
deans reprimand of a student for identifying his U.Va. connection
on a placard carrying a Jefferson quote during the 1965 Selma
memoirs of students from this era, growing in numbers now, are
replete with recollections of the deeply ingrained white problem.
One who entered the College in 1963 recalls that it was
the year of the Birmingham demonstrations and fire hoses and cattle
prods, the murder of Medgar Evers, the great March on Washington.
He arrived in Charlottesville passionately interested in
the civil rights movement, a fact that immediately
set me apart from most of my fellow students in the first-year
dorms. He recalls taping on his door a Time magazine cover
picturing Martin Luther King. It was soon gone: Someone
used a can of lighter fluid to write the letters KKK and set it
on fire. On another occasion he showed his roommate a pamphlet
describing the beatings of blacks during a Danville sit-in. To
which his roommate replied: Theyre niggers; they get
a kick out of that. Little wonder that this alumnus recalls
the atmosphere as conformist and oppressive.
conformist and oppressive atmosphere for white dissidents was
hardly a nurturing one for the few black students who made their
way into the University. A student who arrived in 1964 recalls
how the black pioneers put their bodies on the line in a
foreign and largely hostile or indifferent white culture.
There was, he writes, no model of how to be a black Wahoo
in a social environment dominated by institutions absurdly
called fraternities. He also recalls that some of the fraternities
hired armed guards on one occasion, erroneously fearing that a
civil rights group was coming to integrate them.
of the white alums who was part of an underground effort to recruit
black students wondered why any would want to come, given these
hostile conditions. But they did come, seeking the academic advantages
and material opportunities to be acquired and, for some, the chance
to erase the color line. By the critical 1968-69 academic year,
52 of them were full-time residents on Grounds.
balance of opinion among students was then moving away from the
die-hard segregationists. In 1967, for example, the Cavalier Daily
editors blasted the University for its tolerance of prejudice
and the furtherance of a sick heritage.
This revolutionary transformation of student attitudes
almost impossible to have predicted a few years earlier
owed to two interacting historical developments.
M. Gaston was a member of the history department from 1957
to 1997, where he taught Southern and civil rights history.
His classic interpretation of Southern history, The
New South Creed: A Study in Southern Mythmaking, has
just been reissued in paperback.
the one hand, the black-led Southern civil rights movement had
galvanized the nation by the mid-60s. Far-reaching civil
rights laws had been passed and the movement seemed to have washed
away many of the myths that had undergirded segregation. Inspired
by this movement, more students each year coalesced to challenge
the racial traditions of the University. An embattled minority
at the beginning of the decade, they saw their numbers increase
each year. By 1968-69, the several dissident organizations included
the Human Relations Council, the Southern Student Organizing Committee,
a Radical Student Union, the Virginia Weekly (radical publishers
of a vocal alternative newspaper), and the Virginia Progressive
Party (which would sweep the College elections in 1969).
genuine student movement was born. It reached the peak of its
moral and political persuasiveness during the 1968-69 academic
year. A student coalition comprising the newly-formed Black Student
Union, the radical and liberal groups, and the larger moderate
group of more traditional leaders set the agenda for University
change and charted the course to the future. The year was studded
with marches, demonstrations, demands and counter demands, all
bespeaking a new form of life at the University. After one of
its many all-night meetings, the Coalition issued a bold call
times like these rational and compassionate men cannot afford
to tolerate bigotry. Thus we of the University community feel
it to be our moral obligation to press the Board of Visitors,
the Governor of the State of Virginia, the Legislature, as well
as citizens of the state, for immediate action in the area of
race relations. The days are gone in which progress can be measured
by minute degrees. The days are gone when apologies are sufficient.
into this heady ferment, President Edgar Shannon abandoned the
cautious policy that had kept him aloof from the civil rights
cause to become a partner in the student movement for change.
Before the year was out he accepted many of the coalitions
demands. He made commitments to actively recruit black undergraduates.
He and the faculty promised to seek black faculty members, to
establish a course in black studies and to inaugurate an interdisciplinary
Afro-American Studies program. At last it seemed that the debris
of segregation was about to be swept away.
what would succeed it was anything but clear. Promises of a new
era were commonplace in the spring of 1969. The history of the
keeping of them, however, is a story for other occasions as President
Casteens injunction to examine the unvarnished history of
the institution is acted on. Mr. Jeffersons belief that
the earth belongs to the living may encourage the
present members of the University community to find their own
answers to that question, basing their judgments on contemporary
events and their own experiences. As they search for answers,
however, they would do well to remember William Faulkners
equally apt aphorism that the past is never dead; its
not even past.