Human dignity, decency, mutual respect and understandings informed by a genuine knowledge of history . . . belong to all of us.
Center: English Professor Lisa Woolfork talks with a student. Left and right: students walk to and from classes.
Photos by Andrew Shurtleff
For 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 privileged few.
Over 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 of U.Va.
But 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.
By Paul M. Gaston
The 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.
In 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.
The 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.
By 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.
Colgate 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.
Thus, 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 white problem.
|Drawn 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.|
On 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.
Gregory Swanson, the plaintiff in one of them, gained admission to the Law School in 1950.
Seven 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.
Then, 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.
The 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:
A 1957 Cavalier Daily editorial branding the NAACP a communist-front organization, guilty of subversive dealings;
Another 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;
The 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 picketing;
|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. Gregory Swanson, the plaintiff in one of them, gained admission to the Law School in 1950.|
A deans reprimand of a student for identifying his U.Va. connection on a placard carrying a Jefferson quote during the 1965 Selma demonstrations.
The 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.
A 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.
One 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.
The 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.
Paul 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.
On 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).
A 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 to action:
In 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.
Drawn 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.
But 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.