The Trailblazers: Their Stories

Raymond Gavins

Class of 1970

Upward Bound Tutor and Mentor

Charlottesville-Albemarle Action Program

Co-Founder of Black Students for Freedom (later Black Student Alliance)

Recipient: Southern Fellowship Fund and Cincinnati Historical Fellowship

First African American to receive a Ph.D in the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences 1970

Currently: Professor, History at Duke University and first African-American on the history faculty at Duke


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

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Other Featured Links:

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 Quiet Scholar & Devoted Mentor”

A child of Atlanta, Georgia, Raymond Gavins knew a little about the state of Virginia growing up. But like many Southern black alumni of the University who attended during the desegregation period, Gavins attended segregated schools in Atlanta.
An undergraduate at Virginia Union University in Richmond, Virginia, Gavins excelled at his studies in history. Gavins, considering a graduate degree, was encouraged by professors in the social sciences and history to think of attending the University of Virginia.

Gavins had not really ever considered it. He knew of the University through stories he heard about it around campus. Alice Jackson, an undergraduate at Virginia Union University, had applied for graduate study at the University of Virginia in 1935, unheard of for a black person during those days.

“I became something of a part of that, as a 1964 Virginia Union graduate,”said Gavins. Knowing of Jackson’s history, and of those others at Virginia Union who had tried or believed in desegregating the University, Gavins felt inclined to apply. “I chose the University of Virginia, partly out of that tradition.”

Gavins was aware to some degree of any social pressures he might face attending the University of Virginia. But he was somewhat doubtful. “We’re talking about 1964, so that means that the officers and faculty at Charlottesville, had been able to learn a great deal about what happened in some Deep South states some three years before,”said Gavins. “Like the University of Alabama with Autherine Lucy who was forced to leave due to riots, or the University of Georgia in 1961 when Hamilton Holmes and Charlene Hunter tried to desegregate the school. There was a riot. People were killed. There was also a riot, when Meredith entered the University of Mississippi in 1962. So my sense was that Charlottesville was remarkably civil compared to what had happened at those Universities,”he replied.

What he would experience as a black man at the University of Virginia, Gavins was prepared. “I knew that would get stares, isolation, loneliness. I think that I was remarkably well prepared for that.” His classroom experience was pleasant. He was a hard worker and kept up the pace, succeeding academically. The classroom experience wasn’t “overwhelming or daunting”, socially “Not everyone talked to me,” explained Gavins, “there were a few people who did.” What I recalled a lot was certainly being alone a lot, in the dining halls and the libraries,” Gavins said. “No one bothered me” In his second and third year as a doctoral student, more people were willing to walk to class with him or socialize with him more openly.

Social situations around Grounds for Gavins, as a graduate student, were comparatively better than those experienced by his fellow undergraduate alumni. Gavins and his wife attended gatherings thrown by his professor or department and many of them got along rather well. “My wife and I were very active in Church life in Charlottesville.”

Gavins dedication to his studies spilled over early into a passion to mentor other young African American hopefuls. He was an instructor for Upper Bound in 1968-69, a program engineered at UVA by then President Shannon and Bill Ellwood. In Upper Bound, Gavins was able to be teacher/adviser to those high school students who had the potential to go to the University someday, but needed the basic pre-college fundamentals to attain that dream.

Gavins was also involved in the inception of the Black Students for Freedom. “The [black] undergraduates were few in number, they were few enough for me to know most of them. Several of the graduate and professional students would meet with them. So I became involved in getting to know them and involved in their petitions and some of their protests,” said Gavin.

Gavin remembered the help of Wesley Harris, when he was an instructor in the Engineering school. Gavins’ desire for social change also placed him on a committee that was instrumental in making recommendations to President Shannon about hiring the first black professor.

During his time, Gavins saw much activism on Grounds. Those aligned with the black Panther movement and often challenged Gavins about his use in getting a Ph.D. “Were you an intellectual scholar and therefore selling out…..? or more politically active than that…..?” It wasn’t a view shared by most supporters of the movement as many went on to attain higher degrees and forge on in that movement.

Whatever activism that the Black Panthers or those affiliated with similar organizations didn’t think Gavins had, certainly could not be questioned by active opposing stance against Vietnam.

Gavin never thought about leaving the University. “ I never considered leaving the University, once you were on the road to earning your Ph.D. I don’t know if I ever thought about turning back. There were moments when you got discouraged and wondered when you were going to get to the end of the road,” Gavin said.

In 1967, Gavin earned the Southern Fellowship Fund and then later a Cincinnati Historical Fellowship. “My moments of discouragement had probably come prior to the Southern Fellowship fund,” said Gavin. His wife was expecting and they needed money for the rent.

All in all, the experiences at the University left an “indelible” mark on Gavin’s life. “I wouldn’t be here where I am now, had I not been there,” said Gavin.

Gavin has close ties to the University community. Some his students have become professors. And Gavins was a Carter G. Woodson Institute Fellow between 1989-90
Gavins, like other alumni, have heard of recent turbulent events dealing with race. “Those are all reminders that we still have a long way to go, but my sense is that the diversity program at the University of Virginia has been proceeding at pace, that is my sense,” said Gavins. Gavins sees this reflected in the faculty he now meets at the University. “I don’t see an all white cast anymore,” Gavins explains, “and I don’t see an all-male cast anymore either.”

Does Gavins see himself as a pioneer? “I don’t know if I’ve ever really attached any particular role in the civil rights movement in that respect. I just sort of quietly earned my degree,” says in his soft Georgian accent Gavins. “I see it as an accomplishment.”

Gavins sees his work primarily done through mentor black and white students. “I think my presence has been critically important with getting more African Americans into the pipeline [of academia].”

As the first black man to be a professor in Duke University’s history department. Gavins will continue to be an educator and influence and inspire those around him as he did when he was a doctoral student at the University of Virginia



Works Cited