Dr. Walter Ridley — U.Va.'s First Black Graduate
by Ervin L. Jordan, Jr.
When distinguished educator Dr. Walter Nathaniel Ridley died on September 26, 1996, at the Chester County Hospital, West Chester, Pennsylvania, age of 86, we — and his family, friends and admirers — lost a man whose life of courage and quiet dignity achieved a major cultural milestone. In my life I have been privileged to meet several living African-American legends: Muhammad Ali, Julian Bond, Tony Brown, John Hope Franklin, Alex Haley, and Coretta Scott King. Dr. Ridley too, was among those whose life and work made a positive difference in our society. He was the first black to graduate from the University of Virginia and dedicated his life to the education of black college students.
Born April 1, 1910, in Newport News, Virginia, to John Hoskins and Mary Washington Ridley, Ridley's parents were prosperous and middle class. His father John was a co-founder of the Crown Savings Bank of Newport News and in 1953 the city named a new federal housing project in his honor. Walter Ridley recalled that W.E.B. DuBois, the first African-American to earn a history doctorate, a founder of the NAACP, and the nation's most articulate and brilliant black scholar of the twentieth century, influenced him to excel. DuBois, visiting the Ridley home while organizing Newport News' first NAACP chapter, set aside time to talk to the seven-year-old boy and predicted to Ridley that man would some day walk on the moon. Inspired by his family and DuBois, Ridley graduated from John Marshall Elementary School and Huntington High School (1927), Newport News, and became an outstanding Howard University student where he received bachelor and masters degrees in psychology in 1931 and 1933, graduating with honors.
He joined the faculty of Virginia State College in 1936 as a psychology professor. Four years later he expressed interest in attending the University of Virginia, telling one of its deans that he "saw no reason why a native son could not go to the state university." The Ridley family never believed race should be a barrier to success. Ridley and his two brothers proved this throughout their lives; Leroy became a bank president and Peter, the deputy recorder of deeds in Washington, D.C.
Ridley married the former Henrietta E. Bonaparte (a native of St. Paul, Minnesota) in July 1939 and they became parents of two children: Yolanda Louise (a graduate of the University of Chicago and a social worker, and Don LeRoy (a graduate of Cheyney State College). Between 1933 and 1950 Ridley was employed as a case worker for the Federal Emergency Relief Agency (1933-34); an educational advisor to the Civilian Conservation Corps in Pennsylvania and Maryland (1934-36); chairman of Virginia State's psychology department, director of the college's extension department, and coordinator of counseling services (1936-57); president of the American Teachers Association (1944-47) and member of the Virginia State Teachers Association [both black teachers' organizations]; a member of the Junior Town Meeting League of America's board of trustees (1944-47); a General Education Fund Board fellow (1945-46); and a charter member of the U. S. Commission on UNESCO (United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 1946-48). During his three-year term as president of the American Teachers Association (1944-47) its membership increased from 3,900 to 11,500.
After completing graduate courses at the University of Minnesota (1939-40) and Ohio State University (1940), Ridley applied to the University in January 1950 and was admitted in September 1951 after telling university officials, "I don't know of any reason why I should not attend the University of Virginia. My father paid taxes which fund the University." The year 1951 was a momentous one for African-Americans in many instances: the army deactivated the 24th Infantry Regiment, the last all-black unit, as part of the military's conversion into a desegregated force; Washington, D.C. courts outlawed segregated restaurants, and the University of North Carolina admitted its first Negro student.
Ridley's admission was significant because the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision ordering the desegregation of public schools was three years in the future; in fact, the Supreme Court did not decide Brown until a year after Ridley's graduation. The school's officials decided to admit qualified blacks on a case by case basis to avoid more expensive and (successful) lawsuits such as Swanson v. Rector and Visitors of The University of Virginia (1950). Gregory Hayes Swanson (1924-1992), U.Va.'s first black student, applied for admission to the Law School and was admitted in September 1950 after a successful federal lawsuit (He withdrew in July 1951 due to what he described as an overwhelming climate of racial hostility and harassment and later practiced law in Virginia and Washington, D.C., as an attorney with Internal Revenue Service). Nor could the University risk denying Ridley's admission because he was a native Virginian and a respected, accomplished academic at one of the state's oldest public institutions of higher education (Virginia State College, Petersburg).
He quickly earned a reputation as an exemplary honors student and preferred to remember his Charlottesville experience as positive: "If anyone gave any sign that I was not welcomed, I was not conscious of it." Among the friends he made was Sarah Patton Boyle (1906-1994), a white supporter of the Civil Rights Movement and wife of a university professor. Reviled by local whites as a racial traitor and the only white person in Charlottesville who favored integrated public schools, Boyle was the first white to serve on the Charlottesville NAACP chapter's board of directors. She and the Ridleys corresponded and together worked for civil rights. He was the first black student initiated into a University honorary society (Kappa Delta Pi, a professional education society) and received the grade of "A" in all his courses except one for which he received a "B+." Ridley received his education doctorate from the University's Curry School of Education on June 15, 1953 for his dissertation "Prognostic Values of Freshman Tests Used at Virginia State College." He thus became the University's first black graduate in June 1953 and the nation's first African-American to receive a doctorate degree from a white southern university. University President Colgate Darden predicted, "His excellent record leads me to believe that he will reflect credit upon the University of Virginia and upon the Commonwealth." Nonetheless, more than thirty years passed before Mr. Jefferson's University invited Ridley to visit what he always considered as "my University."
Upon graduation Dr. Ridley continued to head Virginia State College's psychology department until 1958, expanding its faculty from one in 1943 (himself) to ten and developing its first graduate programs. An avid sports fan and supporter of black collegiate athletics, he founded and was the first president of a faculty support group for Virginia State's sports teams (the Trojan Club) and chaired the school's first "Miss Virginia State" contest. He proudly and effectively served Virginia State College for twenty-one years.
Ridley worked with the National Education Association for black plaintiffs in the Brown case and was dean of St. Paul's College, Lawrenceville, Virginia (1957-1958) until becoming the fifth president of Elizabeth City State Teachers College, North Carolina, on September 1, 1958. As president Ridley tirelessly toiled to establish tenure procedures, create a fifteen-year plan for the improvement of enrollment, academics, and physical facilities, encouraged student membership on the college's committees, and expanded the number of majors to twelve. During his administration the school celebrated its seventh-fifth anniversary and became a full member of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. In 1963, by an act of the North Carolina General Assembly, the school's name was changed to Elizabeth City College. Its highest enrollment up to that time occurred in 1965-66 and its largest graduating class received degrees in 1968.
On June 30, 1968, Dr. Ridley resigned after a decade of committed service and became a professor (later chairman) of the Department of Secondary Education, West Chester University, Pennsylvania; it named him a professor emeritus in 1987. He believed in civic participation and manifested this by serving on the board of directors at the Chester County Hospital, the Pennsylvania Association for Higher Education, and the Chester County Coalition for Equal Opportunity. Dr. Ridley was also a visiting professor at Alabama University, Lincoln University and Temple University, a member of several honorary and fraternal societies as well as the American Association of University Professors, the National Education Association, the American Psychological Association, the Virginia Academy of Science, the Save the Children Federation, the Boy Scouts of America, the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, and the Council of Presidents of the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA).
Dr. Ridley published numerous education articles in The Journal of Negro Education, the Virginia Teachers Bulletin, and the Alabama State Teachers Journal and co-authored two books: Readings in Learning and Development (1972) and History of the Restitution Fund Commission of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania (1976). The recipient of awards from nearly every organization of which he was a member, the American Teachers Association formally honored Ridley with a meritorious award "for longest tenure as national officer — 25 years as president, treasurer, and trustee," 1966; he also received a President's Award "For Distinguished Service to the Faculty and to West Chester State College," 1976; and, a "Distinguished Service Award" from the Charles R. Drew Scholarship of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity for his motivation of student achievement and scholarship (1977).
Nevertheless, it was only during the late 1980s that the University of Virginia officially remembered and honored its first black graduate. "Young man, this marks the first time in 34 years that 'my University' has invited me to return as an alumnus" he said during my interview of him in April 1987 at the first annual Black Alumni Weekend (attended by 220 black alumni). However, his tone was more sad than bitter, and he held no grudges. Dr. Ridley received a special tribute as its guest of honor. The black alumni established a privately-funded scholarship in his honor to provide annual tuition assistance for twenty-five black University students. In April 1988 the state's first black lieutenant governor (and future governor) L. Douglas Wilder praised Ridley during the Curry School of Education's Alumni Day banquet where Dr. Ridley received the Distinguished Alumnus Award.
Dr. Ridley's 1953 graduation was a major milestone in the history of the United States, not just for the University of Virginia or African-Americans at Mr. Jefferson's school. Since 1979 I have researched a book on the history of the African American experience at the University. Three of its almost forgotten pioneers, Alice Jackson (the first black to apply for admission), Gregory H. Swanson (the first black student) and Walter N. Ridley (the first black graduate) have inspired me and countless others to consider the University of Virginia as 'our University.' A minister wrote of Ridley: "Because he is not God, he has been known to make a mistake. Because he is human, he has been known to even have an off day once in awhile and be a little bit difficult to get along with. But I have never known him to deliberately do a dishonest thing; to deliberately hurt a fellow human being; or to be unfaithful to his own integrity as a Christian gentleman." No one could leave a finer legacy. May God's perpetual light and peace shine upon the soul of Dr. Walter N. Ridley, an American citizen, educator, and hero.
Written by Ervin L. Jordan, Jr.
University of Virginia
Copyright 1996 by Ervin L. Jordan, Jr.
Reprinted with permission