Trailblazing Against Tradition:

 Linda Howard James Roebuck James Trice Wesley Harris David Temple Robert Bland Raymond Gavins

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The Public History of Desegregation at the University of Virginia 1955-75

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The Preface

The Road to Desegregation at UVA| The University 1955-75: The Timeline

|UVA & the USA in the 1950s| UVA & the USA in the 1960s| UVA & the USA in the Early 1970s



The University of Virginia is nationally known for its adherence to tradition. Walking across the Grounds, the depth of University’s pride in its traditions is apparent. The air is thick of yesterday, but yet the students are the future of the new millenia and not of a white male Southern society. Amongst these first graduating classes of the new millennia, there are blacks and women, Asians and Latinos, gays and international students. It is an eclectic group of people, selected to attend Mr. Jefferson’s University, and entirely not reminiscent of the first graduating classes of the University of Virginia in the 1830s. The University has come a long way from the small white male Southern institution it once was.

For all the pride the University brags in its traditions, from dressing up and attending football games to calling UVA affectionately, “Jefferson’s University”. One finds that sometimes stubborn adherence to tradition can jeopardize the complete history of the University. Glaringly omitted until four to five years ago, was the story of African-Americans and women and how they came to be part of Jefferson's University, in the University Guide tours. Beginning as a tour entitled "Women and Minorities at UVA" tour, they have expanded to two very popular tours called "Slave to Scholar: The History of African Americans at UVA" and "How They Did It: The Story of Women at UVA". Long overdue, these tours recognize the voice of women and many African American students who attended the University during the US Civil Rights Movement and the Women's Rights Movement. But as the University begins to learn their names and their accomplishments, many of them have still gone unnoted or never have been recognized. This project, in short aims to tell the story of the first African Americans who were students, not as University history traditionally remembered them, which were slaves and servants.

Although desegregation at UVA began in 1950, this project covers the years 1955-1975. The reasons are threefold: 1) these were explicit years of turmoil for the United States in the national movement for Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, and the Vietnam War. During this time change happened nationally that was the catalyst for change at UVA. 2) The number of black students attending UVA increased rapidly throughout this time and with their increasing number and tireless tenacity doors were blown open from which later generations of black students were to benefit. 3) Many today at the University still are unaware of the achievements of African American students during the years of 1955-1975 and have never heard them tell their story.

This project is only a beginning, as the seven interviewed are certainly not all of the "trailblazers". Hopefully many more alumni will leave their stories behind for the University and other interested persons to savor. But for now, this is to the best of my knowledge, an account of African American History at the University, 1955-1975, including the early years of the 1950s for their historical importance. This is the story of the first African-Americans to take that first step onto University Grounds, home to an all white Southern male institution and Southern tradition, and who defiantly trailblazed against tradition.


This project was funded by a Student Research Award from the David A. Harrison Undergraduate Research Award Fund at the University of Virginia.

Research and interviews compiled by Atima Omara-Alwala, UVA Class of 2003

Works Cited