Gregory H. Swanson (left) consults with Assistant Law Dean Woltz after registration at U.Va.
on September 15, 1950. (Photo courtesy of University of Virginia Special Collections)

Gregory H. Swanson
First African American Admitted to U.Va. (1950)

In November 1949, 25-year-old Gregory Hayes Swanson applied for admission to the UVA Law School. Although not the first African-American to apply for admission to all-white UVA, he was the first to gain admission. It took a lawsuit to accomplish this.

A native of Danville, Virginia, and a Howard University graduate (with bachelor's degrees in political science and law), Swanson had recently been admitted to the Virginia Bar, and was a practicing lawyer in Danville at the time of his application. He wanted to study corporation law and insurance with a view to teaching later and required higher education to do so. At the time, UVA was the only state-supported institution with a law school.

Swanson had an excellent academic record, and after reviewing his application, the Law School Faculty unanimously voted that he be admitted. A poll of students and faculty indicated that a significant portion of the University community would not object to the presence of African American students in UVA classrooms; some students even petitioned the Board of Visitors to admit Swanson. Attorney General Lindsay Almond, Jr., advised the Board of Visitors that the rejection of a candidates' application solely on the basis of race "would not be successfully defended," given recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings in Sweatt v. Painter and McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Board of Regents (1950). In those cases the Court ruled that the segregation of the plaintiffs by state-funded institutions of higher education stigmatized them on the basis of race and deprived them of an equal educational experience. Yet despite all of these factors arguing for Swanson's admission, the Board of Visitors rejected his application:

The applicant is a colored man. The Constitution and the laws of the State of Virginia provide that white and colored shall not be taught in the same schools. It has been the traditional policy of the University of Virginia to provide for the difference between tuition costs at the University of Virginia and the cost at other comparable institutions for colored applicants who may not be admitted to the University of Virginia Law School by reason of the law of this State. The Board of Visitors feels that it is obligated to comply with the Constitution and laws of the State of Virginia. Therefore, the application has been denied. [DOCUMENT #1]

Represented by the Virginia Branch of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Swanson filed a case against the University of Virginia "for himself and all other Negro citizens of Virginia similarly situated" to gain admission into the law school. [DOCUMENT #2] In a case lasting less than 30 minutes, a three-judge panel of U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered that Gregory Swanson be admitted to the University's law school. "Where a State maintains only one tax-supported graduate school," the court ruled, "it cannot bar Negroes for reasons of race or color." The presiding judge, Judge John J. Parker, reprimanded UVA's attorneys for "using the courtroom as a forum for public relations." Virginius Dabney, the editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, questioned UVA's decision to challenge Swanson's admission, given the inevitability of the federal court's ruling. "If the board could have conscientiously granted the application without taking the matter to court, it would have saved trouble and would also have benefited race relations." [DOCUMENT #3 ]

Swanson enrolled in the Law School in the fall of 1950. [DOCUMENT #4] His admittance by no means meant acceptance. He was not allowed to live on Grounds; thus, he lived in the Carver Inn on Preston Avenue for the year. He was isolated from social activities. At one point, he wrote to University President Colgate Darden, asking whether he had a legal right to attend dances sponsored by UVA's "private" dance societies, "which are an integral part of the activity of the University." Darden responded that the dance societies, as well as other University organizations, were "private" and, thus, open to members only. In July 1951, after completing his first year, Swanson withdrew the University "due to what he described as an overwhelming climate of racial hostility and harassment." (See Ervin L. Jordan, Jr. "Walter N. Ridley: UVA's First Black Graduate".) Swanson went on to practice law in Martinsville and Alexandria, Virginia.. He joined the legal staff of the IRS in 1961 and remained there until retiring in 1984. He died in 1992.

Though Swanson did not complete his studies at the University of Virginia, his struggles were not in vain. His admission marked the beginning of the break down of segregation at the University of Virginia. According to U.Va. historian Ervin L. Jordan, "The school's officials decided to admit qualified blacks on a case-by-case basis to avoid more expensive and 'successful' lawsuits." In the fall of 1951, Walter N. Ridley became the second African-American student to enroll at UVA, this time without the need for a lawsuit. [DOCUMENT #5] He pursued a doctorate in education and in 1953 became the first African American graduate from the University of Virginia.

SELECTED DOCUMENTS

Virginius Dabney, "The 'Swanson Case' -- And Then What?" Richmond News Leader, July 27, 1950

"University's Segregation Suit Is Set; Three-Judge Court Will Hear Case," Richmond Times-Dispatch, Aug. 23, 1950

"Negro Wins Suit to Enter Law School at University; State Fails to Give Equal Facilities, Judges Point Out," Richmond Times-Dispatch, Sept. 6, 1950

"Virginia Editors Take a Philosophical View of the 'Swanson Case,' Richmond News Leader, Sept. 9, 1950

"U.Va. to Permit Swanson to Sit in Student Section at Football Games," Richmond News Leader, Sept. 20, 1950

"U.Va. Enrolls Negro, Ph.D. Candidate," Richmond News Leader, Sept. 27, 1950

ANNOTATED BIBLIOGRAPHY

Click here to download in Word (.doc) format


BACK TO HOME PAGE