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.
(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.
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,
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
Sweatt v Painter . In McLaurin vs Oklahoma case, McLaurin was an older
black student in need of an advanced degree. Although Oklahoma agreed to
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.
Sweatt v Painter, Herman Sweatt could not be denied acceptance at the Texas
school because the University would eventually build one of equal caliber.
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.
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
other blacks to gain.admission with less difficulty. University students
did not reflect the true spirit of Thomas Jefferson, said Swanson, because
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