The University in the 1950s

The Lawn, as pictured, in 1955

"In a complex society of individuals such as the University of Virginia the college experience holds different emphasis for each student. Carroll's and term papers, Sunday flicks and Saturday classes, Sweet Briar and extracurricular activities, dance weekends and exams--all are included in life around Grounds"

Corks & Curls-1955

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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

Life at the University resembles the relatively peaceful period of America in the 1950s. Historians remember 1950s America as the postwar period of boom and technological progress. In 1945 69,500 Americans owned cars. This number jumped to 2.1 million in 1946 and by 1950 40.3 million cars were registered to 39.9 million families. Marriage rates peaked as fast as families and the use of the automobile grew with the strength of the American family. Consumer culture exploded, producing the opening of such recognizable American chains like Holiday Inn and McDonalds. By the late 1950’s Boeing 707 passenger jets replaced America’s standard travel around the world until that time was train or boat. The 1950s saw the rise of tobacco, soft drinks, food processing companies, chemicals, plastic and pharmaceutical industries. There was a greater availability of leisure time, most Americans could look forward to the paid annual vacation. While there was greater time for a break, Americans could also live longer, up to 70 years. Indeed, it was a time of expansion and progress for Americans.

A University fraternity, as pictured in 1955.

As America thrived many of its children from the pre- World War war years entered college. Up to that time, many of those who could attend college were from upper middle class families, one such University that reflected this was the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia. An institution, that except for women in their nursing schools and education schools, was an elite white male Southern university. These men who attended the University of Virginia in the 1950s, and had attended up to that time, were from among some of the finest families in Virginia, and throughout the South.The men of the University were sons of fortune. Their families names would come to grace the future buildings built at the University, if they did not already. They knew privilege and they knew wealth. It was a far cry from the life provided for many African Americans in the 1950s.

The unemployment level of blacks was high in post-war America, doubled that of whites. Poverty affected more than fifty percent of blacks even in the solid post-war boom America. Many black children came from poverty stricken or broken homes and attended schools that lacked in supplies such as books, magazines, writing tables, or even pens and pencils. By the mid 1950’s racial discontent was at an unusual high. For blacks in America, the seeds of malcontent had been a long time sprouting. The roots took firm hold after World War II. Having come back from World War II in 1945, many black male GIs looked forward to starting as prosperous a life as their white male counterparts. After all, they too had fought for freedom as valiantly. Coming back was a shock, as many blacks who tried to actively assert their new lives and freedoms were quickly reminded of their place in America’s society. One such former black GI received a very brutal reminder. In 1945, on a bus ride to meet his wife in North Carolina, Isaac Woodward, was insulted by a bus driver for taking too long in the “colored” bathroom, when Woodward protested the insult, a heated disagreement broke out between the bus driver and Woodward. The bus driver called for help from the police department. Woodward then received a vicious beating from white police officers, where once taken to the police station had his eyes gouged out by a police nightstick. This incident blinded him permanently.

Incidents of lynching increased in the post war forties there were over eight by the end of the forties. Race riots occurred all over the South. When a race riot broke out in Athens, Alabama over a biracial veterans organization trying to win a local election one white complained. “It’s got to the place white folks can’t walk on the streets for the niggers. It’s the nigger GIs that’s getting out of their place.”
The violence of the forties spilled into the 1950s. In 1955, eight of the eleven lynchings of blacks in the 1950s occurred in 1955. The violence reached its peak in the the vicious murder of And Emmett Til. Til was a fourteen year-old black boy, who was shot, beaten and castrated for whistling at a white woman in Missipppi. Til’s murder trial received national attention. Those that had been unaware of the Jim Crow South’s brutality, were forced to deal with the reality that America was not completely a land of the free.

UVA Football, 1955. It was and still is a great part of University tradition.

Though there were many tragedies across the country due to racial discrimination, there were also many triumphs. In 1955, Elston Howard, an African American athlete made the New York Yankees. Althea Gibsonwas the first African American, man or woman to win the Wimbledon Championship, the highest honor in tennis, in 1957. And across the country, on May 17th, 1954, when the Supreme Court struck down segregation in America's public schools forever, many African American men and women dared to attend the universities and colleges across the nation, and in particular the South, that were once closed to them.

In the early fifties, there had been some black students who entered the University's specialty schools, like Law, Medicine, and Education under the old "seperate but equal" clause, such as Gregory Swanson who entered the University of Virginia Law School in 1950. The undergraduate community, however, had not been desegregated. This fact was to change. In 1955 three men bravely made history by having the honor to be the first three to desegregate the University of Virginia’s undergraduate community. Their names were Robert Bland, George Harris, and Theodore Thomas.They came to Colgate Darden’s University of Virginia, Colgate Darden, was the University President during the fifties. Bland, Harris, and Thomas all had hope of receiving a prestigious degree from the Southern institution in UVA's Engineering program.

Oftentimes, University men would escort ladies from nearby ladies colleges to University social events, as pictured above in 1955

However, they found their efforts to be exhausting. For Bland’s experience, he recalled very little that was unpleasant about being in the University classrooms. However he did not recall anything particularly pleasant either. All Bland recalled was spending a lot of times with his textbooks. Bland was determined to do well in his classes, his math and science background was strong, but not near the preparatory status to which his fellow white classmates had been exposed .

Alienated from their classmates, Bland, Harris, and Thomas studied and socialized together. Bland and Harris were roommates and Thomas was right down the hall from them in his own single. They lived in McCormick Road Dormitories. The social life of the University was centered primarily around fraternity life. If one was not in a fraternity or not allowed to be in a fraternity, opportunities for socializing were very few. The University even then had a reputation as a hard drinking school., as far back as 1928.
As the doors to fraternity life and other social clubs were closed to Swanson they were also closed to Bland, Harris & Thomas.

In each other they sought academic support and strength. Bland, Harris and Thomas, did not have to worry about not having a social outlet for long. The black community of Charlottesville welcomed Bland, Thomas, and Harris into their homes, churches, and social events. Charlottesville blacks were proud that finally black men were attending the University for an education, not to clean yet another hall or dormitory. But whatever the support the young men received. At the end of the first year, Harris and Thomas were to withdraw from the University and to transfer to other universities. Bland stayed and as a result was the only African American to graduate in the Class of 1959.

The young black students that followed Bland in the fifties would quickly find him or each other upon acceptance to the University. Those other trailblazers that followed Bland were Harold Marsh and

UVa partytime, 1955.

Rupert Picot who made up the the Class of 1956. Elmer Dandridge, Nathaniel Gatlin, Aubrey Jones, Walter Payne, and James Trice were the black students in the Class of 1957. Leroy Willis was among them that entered in 1958. There were less than 10 each year, just a few brave ones who decided instead of attending an all black university with their friends they would attend the University of Virginia be it for academics or for principle. Many of them though felt swayed to go due to academics, if not a combination of both.

During the fifties, particularly post-Bland years of the fifties, very little change occurred at the University concerning desegregation policy. Though many other Universities across the South were being forced to desegregate, Darden and the administration regarded desegregation as a necessary evil. To abide by the law, was better than to make the news for violent resistance, as many other Universities in the Deep South were doing. Colgate Darden was also a product of Southside Virginia. Darden allowed the racism or preconceived racial notions of his upbringing alter his views. As University historian Brian Kay noted in his piece on desegregation at the University: "Relative to desegregation, leadership and enlightenment fell to negative emotions engendered by custom, and the often cold expediences practiced in running a state school"


The Trailblazers: Their Stories

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



Works Cited