Trailblazing against tradition:
Web archive offers history of U.Va.s first African-American
By Robert Brickhouse
Swanson (above left) was being admitted to U.Va. Law School
in 1950. He sued the University to gain entrance and was successful
due to a series of court cases that was slowly unraveling
the "separate but equal" clause, mandated in 1896
with Plessy vs. Ferguson.
seeking a detailed historical picture about the years when the
Universitys doors began to open to African-American students
will find a wealth of material and insights in new U.Va. digital
history archive at www.virginia.edu/uvadiversity.
Omara-Alwala, a 2003 American Studies graduate, worked with a
Harrison Undergraduate Research grant to prepare the project,
Trailblazing Against Tradition: The Public History of Desegregation
at the University of Virginia, 1955-75. The interactive
archive offers interviews with key alumni, a comprehensive timeline
noting many overlooked facts, and a national perspective on the
tumultuous era. The picture is often one of loneliness and determination
in the face of indifference and outright hostility. But there
are also stories of friendships, openness and acceptance, and
for many of the trailblazers, outstanding career success.
Chesterfield resident whose parents emigrated from Uganda, Omara-Alwala
was a Student Council vice president, womens rights activist,
Cavalier Daily writer, frequent community volunteer, and participant
in numerous public-interest groups during her U.Va. years. Currently
on the staff of Gov. Mark Warner, she plans eventually to study
public policy and law. She discussed the project with U.Va. News
Services by phone and email.
did you go about your research? I read a tremendous amount and
I talked to former administrators, professors and many former
students. Brian Kays dissertation on desegregation at U.Va.
was a main resource, but offered few accounts by black students.
My goal was to put the civil rights struggle at U.Va. in context
with the national struggle. I tried my best to clarify who were
the exact firsts at U.Va. Historians Julian Bond,
Brian Balogh, Phyllis Leffler and Scot French offered many helpful
ideas, as did American studies professor Alan Howard, my major
Willis (above) was the first African American to live on the
Lawn, 1961-62. University President Edgar Shannon (below center)
and Student Council President James Roebuck (left center)
consulted before Shannon's historical speech denouncing the
war in Vietnam and promoting racial equality. Roebuck was
U.Va.'s first African American Student Council president,
motivated you? It began with my looking around the University
and seeing it steeped in so much Southern tradition. It was originally
an all-white Southern male institution. The sons of planters and
their descendants, some of the wealthiest men from the white South,
came here. I wondered, how did the first black students end up
at U.Va.? What did they experience? They were courageous students,
some of whom quietly endured substantial abuse and torment or
just plain icy isolation during those early years.
impressed you most? The strength, courage and utterly steel emotions
these students had. They developed interesting coping mechanisms.
Some spent a lot of time with the black community in Charlottesville,
some locked themselves up in their room and just studied all the
time. Some left, but most stayed not only to show they
had the right to an education, but that they could survive no
matter what was thrown at them. I learned of black students so
isolated that some didnt even know they had attended at
the same time. I found a University that was so proud of its history
but had paid little attention to details of African-Americans
are some of the overlooked pieces youve pointed out? No
one seemed to know of the black medical students in the 50s
except for perhaps those who had attended. Everyone seemed to
know of the first black to graduate the University, Walter N.
Ridley, with a doctorate in education, in 1953. But no one seemed
to take note of Louise Stokes-Hunter, the first black woman to
graduate from U.Va., three months later, also with a doctorate
few of the other historical firsts Ive tried to call attention
to: Leroy Willis was the first African-American to live on the
Lawn, in 1961-1962, and was also the first to enter the College
of Arts & Sciences, in 1960. Edward T. Wood was the first
African-American to enter the Medical School, in 1953. Anna Franklin-Savage
was the first African-American woman to attend the Medical School,
in 1955. In 1967, law student James Gay was the first black Student
Council representative. James Roebuck was the first black Student
Council president, in 1969-70, a great leader during one of the
more tumultuous years in U.Va. and American history.
are some of the obstacles black students faced in the 50s
and early 60s? These black men and the few black women were
here during a volatile time for race relations in this country.
At football games, every time U.Va. scored a touchdown the band
would strike up Dixie while some waved Confederate
flags. Blacks were careful where they sat. They were not allowed
in fraternities and were glared at when they tried to attend any
social events. They were often ignored in the classrooms, mostly
invisible to all around them. Sometimes their teachers would pick
on them, cracking jokes about blacks in front of the class. I
believe their struggles early in life prepared them for great
success in their later lives.
role have the first black students played as alumni? Many of them
have been mentors to those who come after them. These were the
ones who decided to form an alumni group and a scholar program
for promising black students of today. Theyve tried to take
their own experiences and channel it into opportunities for us.
There are many black alumni that return to U.Va. but usually for
African-American alumni events.
what ways do you think U.Va. has changed? Or not changed?
Its very much changed. Half the students are women, a large
percent of the student body is non-white and students of color
have been in positions of leadership. The faculty is more diverse.
But some things that need to change havent. Some white students
arent able sit and listen to the feelings of students of
color. And some students of color are quick to suspect the worst
of every white persons actions. Theres got to be some
opening up on both sides. And there needs to be a genuine realization
of where weve come from, in order to understand where we