The Trailblazers: Their Stories

James Roebuck

Class of 1977

Ph.D Candidate in History

Member, Young Democrats at UVA

History Club, Member

First African-American to be Student Council President 1969-1970

Currently: Serving 17th year as a State Representative in the Pennsylvania State Legislature

James Roebuck on UVA Student Council

 

 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

 

"Born Leader"

Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania James Roebuck was born to serve and to lead other people. Through school career while being a diligent student, Roebuck maintained a constant interest in student government and social activism. While at Virginia Union University, a private historically black university in Richmond Virginia, for his undergraduate career, the culmination of his leadership and activism there led him to President of VUU’s Student Council. “I’ve always been an individual who does not accept things as they are, if there are things that I believe to be wrong. I was willing to be an advocate for change”said Roebuck recently. When Roebuck matriculated into the University of Virginia for his graduate studies in 1966, Roebuck had no way of knowing how he would use that leadership at a school enduring rapid social change.

The University of Virginia at the time of Roebuck’s attendance, had finally been hit by the revolution of the 1960s. Many Universities across the country, particularly the elite universities that intellectually nurtured some of America’s brightest, were experiencing an unusual amount of campus unrest. The need for social change and the eradication of old systems, the ones their fathers and mothers had built, was in order. And first of the baby boomers, children of the World War II generation, decided they would be the ones who would demand that change.

The University of Virginia, always an institution proud of its long running traditions and ideals, and was the last of the Universities to break with the conservative ideals of the past. As one University historian noted: “the University in the 1960’s had cast away ideology that always agreed with the status quo”. Vietnam and the mobilizing words of Dr. King and other Civil Rights Activists moved students to action. The long time silence of black students, against the injustices and racism they had faced since attending the University since the early fifties, was now mobilizing into solidarity and loud demands for treatment and respect.

Enter James Roebuck. Roebuck had a substantial scholarship to get his graduate degree in history and as a graduate student in the History department at the University, surprisingly did not encounter as much of the racism as his undergraduate counterparts. “I was certainly aware of the social pressures”, said Roebuck speaking to attending a historically all white Southern male institution. “Grad school was different from undergrad school,” he added, “the faculty were very open and receptive. They actively encouraged aspects of integrating the University”. The Graduate program in history, prestigious even then, attracted students from all over and not necessarily Southern in birth or experience. Although Roebuck was quick to acknowledge there were the share of those who might not as enlightened as others, in the graduate department. I can remember “ a fellow student had trouble pronouncing the word “Negro”, said Roebuck, “and he lapsed into calling everyone “nigras”, that sort of thing was rare though”.

Sensing the turmoil on Grounds and always one very interested in student government and overall leadership Roebuck joined Student Council in 1968. Roebuck was the second African American to join Student Council. The year before, James Gay a representative from the Law School had had the honor of being the first black Student Council representative on Council.

Through his charisma, ideas, and commitment to social activism, James Roebuck was selected by his Council peers to be there Student Council President for the 1969-1970 school year. Roebuck couldn’t have joined in a year more filled with turmoil and change for the University. Roebuck served as Student Council President to a undergraduate community that would be the last year that a class of only men would attend the College of Arts & Sciences. Due to a lawsuit, women would be attending the College in the Fall 1970. Roebuck was also President, as the Vietnam war issue was escalating. October 15th, 1969 1500 students skipped class to attend a rally at the Rotunda against the Vietnam War. The invasion of Cambodia was an outrage to many of those against the war. This spawned a demonstration at Kent State University, that provoked National Guardsmen to fire into crowds killing four Kent State students. News traveled rapidly to UVA students, they demanded then University President Edgar Shannon call off classes. He refused. 1500 students swarmed to the Rotunda again to protest the violence against students. And for three days University students did not attend classes, engaged in a general strike later dubbed "May Days" by University students.

During that time, Roebuck spent many of his hours in meetings with President Shannon. “I tried to keep him focused on the things that need to be addressed in the ways of meaningful change”, said Roebuck of that time, “of course we didn’t always agree. But he was always receptive in listening to the concerns I raised”. Shannon, until that time, had remained fairly quiet on the issues of the War and oftentimes what the University was doing for racial equality. It was not until the seizure of the UVA campus during May Days by the Virginia State police did Shannon feel compelled to make a statement on May 10th, 1970 to 4,000 students and faculty members denouncing the war and advocating for racial equality at the University.

Roebuck remained in the background advocating for the students promoting their needs and their frustrations in such a time of turmoil. “Shannon responded in the context of a campus that was strongly conservative,” said Roebuck, “in which, he felt more comfortable perhaps in avoiding that type of social involvement and it was a process of bringing him to a greater awareness of the need for him to be indeed to be more active and responsive to the need for change that brought about his involvement in the Spring 1970. I think it was in part of his growth and his understanding of the need to respond in a different way”.

While actively working with the University President, Roebuck also assisted many of the black undergraduates and graduates in forming the Black Students For Freedom, later called the Black Student Alliance. Roebuck alludes to the small number of African Americans in the graduate program and undergraduate program that made it possible for the inception of the Black Student Alliance. “In reality, there were so few African Americans on Uva’s campus that there wasn’t really a division between graduate and undergraduate, in many ways of those lines of separation didn’t exist, we were cohesive in that we were small in number and therefore interacted on a fairly constant basis”, said Roebuck.

Even with the uniqueness and quality of his leadership in that time, Roebuck refuses to tout his own horn. He is more concerned with the continuity of black leadership. I was served as Student Council president in 1970, and I believe the next person who was elected was in 1990 and he hadn’t come in 20 years,” said Roebuck. The change that you promote has more immediate and lasting impact, opens a door and breaks down a barrier that stays broken down and changes perception the way people see things,” he says thoughtfully. “So hopefully those who come after me, have the ability to change the same things and to be successful”. Since 1990, there have been five black Student Council Presidents, this past year April 2003, the University welcomed a sixth Student Council President, who is not only of African American heritage but Korean heritage as well, Daisy Myong-Hui Lundy.

And continuing on in the leadership tradition James Roebuck has successfully served as a state representative for Pennsylvania State Legislature, for nearly 20 years.

 

 

Works Cited