The University in the 1960s

The Rotunda in 1963

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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

As it was for America, the early sixties was still relatively calm for the University of Virginia. Contrary to popular belief, many of the social movements that make the sixties "tumultuous" did not escalate until the mid to late 1960s. By the 1960s, American universities boomed with the first of the baby-boomer children. These were the children of post-war America. Nurtured on the stories of their father and mother's gallant fight to save the world from Hitler, and taught the ideals of American democracy. The baby boomers became possessed with revolutionizing their nation. It was a contagious notion, as US historian James Patterson noted: "Many came to believe that they had the knowledge and the resource to create a progressive, advanced society like none before in human history". One such movement that held that motivated that firm belief was the Civil Rights Movement.

March on the Lawn to protest racial inequality at UVA, 1969.


The Civil Rights Movement had started the sixties off in full swing.On February 1, 1960 four Greensboro students staged a sit-in at Woolworth's Department store. That same year, a 1960 Civil Rights Bill became law, while the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which was to lead many sit-ins and marches of the movmement, organized a following. The most significant earth-shattering events of the Civil Rights Movement that would rivet the nation, such as the bombing of a Birmingham church with four little girls inside, or the FBI hunt for three Civil Rights workers who vanished in the deltas of Mississippi, would happen later. At the University, many student activists in the early 1960s, as well as faculty activists, were still trying to spark the fire for the civil rights struggle.

In 1960, UVA's black students Wesley Harris and Virginius Thornton had entered the University. Harris was an undergraduate striving to attain his degree in aeronautical engineering. Virginius Thornton was a graduate student, the first black graduate student to enter the doctoral program at the University. These two men were activists around Grounds and greater Charlottesville. Together they picketed such places as Buddy's Restaurant on the Corner and the Holiday Inn because they would not serve blacks. They served on the Thomas Jefferson Council on Human Relations, which worked to promote interracial equality in Charlottesville and the University. Harris was chair of the committee when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to speak at Old Cabell Hall to 900 people, in 1963.

The administration at the University in early 1960s seemed resistant to change. Those like Wesley Harris and his fellow classmates endured a lot to prove themselves worthy of such an institution. Some left in utter frustration, and some were more determined to make a statement. Wesley Harris made a statement with his academics. He was the first man, black or white, to complete the newly installed Engineering Honors Program and was the first African-American to be selected to join the Jefferson Literary & Debating Society. Harris was also the second African American to live on the Lawn in 1964.

University students relaxing, 1969.

Graduate student Virginius Thornton made a statement through his loud activism and aptitude for staging sit-ins. Another door was blown open when the first black student, Leroy Willis was allowed to enter the College, in 1960. To that time, the blacks at the University were only allowed to attend specialty schools like the School of Engineering. UVA still operated under the old letter law of "seperate but equal". Being able to attend the College of Arts & Sciences had been denied to black students, in spite of the 1954 ruling of the Supreme Court all schools were to desegregate "with all deliberate speed". Though Brown vs. Board of Education had ruled on public schools K-12. Public universities were subject to follow the same rules. Another federal case clarified this issue in 1955. Frasier vs. Board of Trustees of the University of North Carolina, opened undergraduate universities and colleges to black students. The University of Virginia had decided to remain with the old law of "seperate but equal", until Leroy Willis decided to challenge the University's adherence to "seperate-but-equal. Willis was quietly allowed into the College in 1960. He majored in Chemistry. Willis also had the privilege of opening yet another door. He was the first black student to live on the Lawn.

In the Winter of 1959, Colgate Darden had stepped down as University President and handed the torch to Edgar Shannon. At first, Shannon, as cautioned by Darden, handled the question of race at the University very carefully. In fact all of Shannon's administration inherited and conformed to Darden’s fear that involvement and policies too clearly or loudly spoken would create sharp criticism and angry turbulence throughout the state and in turn it would arrest the growth of the University, while bringing them adverse publicity.

However, what made Shannon different from Darden, was that unlike Darden who was somewhat resistant to desegregation and believed the races were separate for a reason. Shannon did hope that blacks would attend the University and become as much a part of University life as anybody. However, it was not until the mid-sixties, when Shannon realized black students were actively choosing not to attend the University and would keep doing so without any encouragement to consider the option. Shannon began working heavily with the administration, the Black Student Alliance, that would form by the end of the decade, and other student leaders to implement the change that would make it possible for blacks to want to attend the University and become a part of University life. These changes would come to fruition in the last years of his Presidency in the early to mid-seventies.

UVA's black students demand change

By the late 1960s, the University finally came alive with activism that was infecting many a college campus. UVA students participated in many demonstrations, black and white alike. The University never lost its tradition to look its best no matter what it was doing. UVA was the only school, in the country, that held demonstrations or marches in coats and ties. However the University was finally embracing changing, and slowly detaching from the tradition that had made it so hostile an environment. There was the March at UVA supporting the Selma March in Alabama, in 1965, to several hundred UVA students attending Martin Luther King's speech at Old Cabell in 1963 before King's famous March On Washington later that year. UVA students also protested Vietnam and the exclusion of women in the undergraduate class. Indeed, like Bob Dylan's famous song, the times were a changing.

Like every elite college and university that attracted the brightest minds, the University finally actively embraced the ideals of a changing the world and making a better democracy for everyone. At the end of the decade, those changes would be demonstrated in the election of the first black Student Council President, James Roebuck and the first African American women to enter the Law School Elaine Jones. Jones is currently the Director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, carrying on in the tradition of Thurgood Marshall and Charles Houston. The close of the decade of the 1960s promised interesting things in the decade of the 1970s for America and the University.




The Trailblazers: Their Stories

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



Works Cited