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Changing Times

  Among the first coeds to attend U.Va.
   

Into the twentieth century, few questioned the all-male, all-white character of the University's student body. Female and black students attended summer teaching institutes at U.Va. as early as the 1890s, but they were not invited to attend classes during the academic year. One woman passed an examination and earned a certificate in mathematics in 1893, but the Board of Visitors quashed that practice.

Suffragists led by Richmond's Mary Cooke Branche Munford advocated in the General Assembly for full female admission to the Commonwealth's premier university. Munford settled for a compromise, when in 1920 the University agreed that women more than twenty years of age could enroll in graduate programs. Not until 1970, however, under the pressure of a pending federal court suit filed by four female high school seniors, did the College of Arts & Sciences accept women freely into first-year classes, making the University of Virginia fully coeducational.

Walter Ridley, U.Va.'s First African-American Graduate  
   

The struggles over African-American admissions were equally long and arduous. Into the 1950s, legislators and University officials alike adhered to the Virginia law against "the admission of white and colored persons in the same schools," as they wrote to the occasional black applicant. Supported by the NAACP, lawyer Gregory Swanson sought and won admission to the University's law program in 1950. In 1951 Walter N. Ridley left his position as a psychology professor at Virginia State University and soon became the first African-American graduate of the University, receiving a doctorate in education in 1953.

  Student Protests in 1970
   

Throughout the 1960s, more calls for change rocked the University and the nation, as students rose up in protest against the war in Vietnam. Tension peaked at U.Va. after four students were shot by members of the Ohio National Guard at a Kent State University demonstration in May 1970. Edgar Shannon, professor of English and the University's president since 1959, consulted with student leaders and confronted angry protestors over a series of days. Ultimately he won their confidence by announcing that he respected their acts of conscience. He directed faculty to excuse absences and late assignments, so students could "concentrate on constructive action in the re-direction of the nation's war policy." As many universities across the nation were shutting down amid student unrest, Shannon's bold statement drew criticism from government leaders and many alumni but praise from students and faculty.