The Road to Desegregation: Jackson, NAACP, and Swanson


Swanson being admitted to UVA Law School in 1950 (Photo Courtesy of UVA's Special Collections)

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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 Road to Swanson

Unknown to many at the University, desegregation at UVA commenced much earlier than Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, which officially mandated, the desegregation of all public schools. The desegregation of the University of Virginia began in 1950, when Gregory Swanson sued to gain entrance into the University’s Law School. Swanson’s entrance was successful due to a series of court cases that was on the national level slowly unraveling the sanctity of the “separate but equal” clause mandated in 1896 with Plessy vs. Ferguson.

The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) under the brilliant leadership of Charles Houston and Thurgood Marshall led the court cases that began to challenge “separate but equal” in the 1930s. Since “separate but equal” meant that blacks and whites had separate but equal facilities including public schools, Marshall and Houston looked for schools that were glaringly not equal. Challenging the “separate but equal” doctrine would also mean to challenge the courts to uphold the 14th amendment guaranteeing everyone equal rights under the law, even if blacks and whites were separate.

The NAACP’s hope was eventually to challenge the validity of segregation on its own. But for now, a strong foundation could be laid if they presented the obvious discrepancies between white and black education in the US.

Through a series of higher education court cases like Murray vs. Pearson set the standard for challenging the “separate but equal” doctrine. Gaines vs. Missouri was the case of Lloyd Gaines who wanted to attend the University of Missouri Law School. He couldn’t attend the law school at the premier black institution in the 1950s in Missouri, Lincoln University, for there was not any such institution. Missouri could not send Gaines out of state for law school while promising to build a law school of equal comparability to Gaines, argued the Supreme Court.

When in 1950, Swanson applied for entrance at the University, the Supreme Court decided on the final two higher education lawsuits, McLaurin vs Oklahoma and Sweatt v Painter . In McLaurin vs Oklahoma case, McLaurin was an older black student in need of an advanced degree. Although Oklahoma agreed to desegregate, they did not agree to desegregate the University’s classrooms. McLaurin was segregated within the school. He was not allowed to eat or attend class at the same time as his white counterparts, if he did he had to sit at the back of the classroom. Supreme Court also ruled this unconstitutional. In Sweatt v Painter, Herman Sweatt could not be denied acceptance at the Texas Law school because the University would eventually build one of equal caliber. It was not fair, the Supreme Court ruled, for all qualified blacks like him to wait on schooling when they had a fine facility already available.

With Sweatt v. Painter, Murray v. Pearson, McLaurin v. Oklahoma and Gaines v. Missouri, the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors and then President Colgate Darden saw the writing on the wall. Virginia State University was the comparable university for black students in Petersburg, Virginia. However, VSU did not have an engineering school, medical school, education school, or a law school. Then Dean Frederick Ribble of UVA’s Law School investigated the possibilities of building a new law school for black students. At a glance, there was no reason to reject him. Swanson was an extremely qualified candidate. Swanson, having attended Howard University Law School, and was already a practicing lawyer in Martinsburg, Virginia. So, Swanson, not satisfied with the rejection, filed a lawsuit against the University in July of 1950. Swanson sought to end discriminatory practices against blacks that were as qualified as he. On board as counsel, were several NAACP lawyers from the state chapter. Swanson’s chief counsel was none other than Thurgood Marshall. When Swanson’s lawsuit, the University, never a stickler for massive media attendion knew they had to admit quicly.. The unprecedented strength of the NAACP’s prior higher education lawsuits was damning.

Swanson’s Arrival
The University won the original court case but it was the appeals court that ruled in Swanson’s favor. Giving him access to a school that had for a long time been closed to blacks. Though Swanson attended UVA, he was forced to take residence off Grounds unlike the other students. Social life at UVA was centered around the fraternities and sororities and Swanson was not allowed to join that and at the football games, after each touchdown, elated students would yank out the Dixie Flag and sing “Dixie” before singing Uva’s Good Ol’ Song. In June 1951, Gregory Swanson left the Law School and expressed the hope that his stay at the University would allow other blacks to gain.admission with less difficulty. University students did not reflect the true spirit of Thomas Jefferson, said Swanson, because they did not care about racial equality or the welfare of the country.

The years following Swanson, came a few black graduate students. Walter N. Ridley, the first black man to receive a degree at the University of Virginia and at any major white Southern institution. Ridley received a doctorate in education. And today’s Ridley Scholarship Fund, given out to outstanding African American students was named in his honor. In the fall of 1953, Edward T. Wood and Edward B. Nash were the first two African-Americans to matriculate to the University of Virginia’s medical school. Hannibal E. Howell and Albert H. Luck, quickly followed Nash and Wood, when they matriculated to the medical school in 1954. Little known to history, Ann Franklin-Savage was the first African American woman to attend the medical school in 1955. She left in 1958 due to illness in her family. That same year, the Law school was to receive another eager student by the name of John F. Merchant who entered the Law School in 1955 and successfully graduated. It was not until 1955, did the first black undergraduates attend the University.



The Trailblazers: Their Stories

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