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Trailblazing against tradition: Web archive offers history of U.Va.’s first African-American students

By Robert Brickhouse

Gregory Swanson (above left) was being admitted to U.Va. Law School in 1950.
Gregory 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.

Anyone seeking a detailed historical picture about the years when the University’s doors began to open to African-American students will find a wealth of material and insights in new U.Va. digital history archive at

Atima 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.

A Chesterfield resident whose parents emigrated from Uganda, Omara-Alwala was a Student Council vice president, women’s 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.

How did you go about your research? I read a tremendous amount and I talked to former administrators, professors and many former students. Brian Kay’s 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 adviser.

Leroy 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, 1969-1970.

What 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.

What 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 didn’t 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 who attended.

What are some of the overlooked pieces you’ve 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 in education.

A few of the other historical firsts I’ve 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.

What 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.

What 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. They’ve 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.

In what ways do you think U.Va. has changed? Or not changed? It’s 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 haven’t. Some white students aren’t 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 person’s actions. There’s got to be some opening up on both sides. And there needs to be a genuine realization of where we’ve come from, in order to understand where we can go.


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