The Trailblazers: Their Stories

Robert Bland

Class of 1959

Navy ROTC at UVA

First African American Undergraduate at the University of Virginia 1959

Currently: Department Manager for Missiles and Launching Systems for the Navy in California

Robert Bland on desegregating UVA

 

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

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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

 

And then there was one.......

Born and raised in Virginia, Bland was aware of the University of Virginia growing up. He knew it was an all white male school, he knew it was proudly Southern, and he doubted he would get in. Even though traditionally white public Southern universities were slowly being forced to desegregate after Brown v. Board had passed through the courts during 1954, Bland never thought, when he put in his application, he would get into the University of Virginia. He did.

“I always thought it was the premier academic institution of the state,” said Bland. “ And it had a good reputation so I was looking forward to studying there”. Though black men and women had attended the University during the fifties, it was primarily through the law School, medical School, and the education school. Robert Bland would be in the class of the first African American to enter as an undergraduate in the engineering program at the University. He was not alone, at least not at first. In the Fall of 1955, two other men entered the University with him, George Harris, and Theodore Thomas were his fellow black classmates. Bland roomed with Harris in McCormick Road Dorms. And Thomas received single room housing down the hall from them. Together they made their own community separate from what was the daunting world that was the University.

Entering the University, Bland did not fool himself as to what he was to expect at an institution like UVA. “ I was very aware of it [social pressure]. During the time that I applied there was a bunch of things going on with the primary and secondary school system. Counties closing down their school systems instead of admitting students of color. Other places throughout the South, lots of problems when blacks tried to enter the institutions,” reflected Bland, ““the climate of the time was one could not be oblivious to the fact that there was going to be some kind of pressure”

Bland chose electrical engineering as his major. Of his classroom experiences, he remembers nothing out of the ordinary. I didn’t think we were treated any differently in the classroom,” said Bland. “People in the classroom ignored the fact that we were there.” If they did overtly hate Bland’s presence, Bland said they more than likely steered out of their way. “It’s not hard to do with three of us on a campus that size,” replied Bland. Through the quiet hostility and forced civility of white classmates, Bland, Harris, and Thomas were virtually isolated from University social life. At that time, the fraternity life dominated the University, and Bland, Harris, and Thomas knew they would never be allowed in that turf. As a result, they looked elsewhere for friendship and companionship. They found it in the black community of Charlottesville. “Charlottesville was graciousness in accepting us,” said Bland. “There was some pride in that black students were finally attending the University. It was pretty much our social outlet, going into town”.

Though the black community provided a great amount of social support for Bland, Harris and Thomas, the environment was overall stressful. They never thought though to protest about their situation or knew of any Civil rights protests happening in Charlottesville to alleviate some of the tension desegregation an all white institution was giving them. “I don’t recall there being any types of demonstration or protests going on in the Charlottesville or University during the time that we were there. Certainly if there were, we were not aware of them. I think we would have participated had there been some. But for the most part we focused on our academic career.”

Toward the end of the year, probably from a combination of stress from academics and attending the University, Harris and Thomas left in the Spring of their first year, 1956. Bland was on his own.

On Bland’s own part, he never considered leaving the University. “I never considered leaving voluntarily. After my second year, I was on academic probation so I certainly was the verge of not being asked to return” Bland realized, his high school training in math and sciences was lacking, and electrical engineering at the University’s engineering school, along with any other engineering program was not forgiving to someone who was still struggling with the skills. Bland constantly found himself studying to keep up.

Though he was the only black student in the Class of 1959, he was not alone for long, Harold Marsh, Rupert Picot who entered the University in the Fall 1956. Amongst his new classmates, Bland and the rest tried to depend on each other as academic resources but oftentimes being in different engineering majors made it difficult to assist each other. “What me missed was a resource for academics. We were the first and was constantly finding are way as a result,” explained Bland.

When Bland finally graduated in 1959, it could not have been a moment sooner. “ It wasn’t an overall pleasant experience. It was a struggle,” said Bland. Mostly academic,” he added. However, says Bland, there were lots of incidents that made me feel not welcomed to the University. But none of them really big enough that I carried many of them with me”

For all of his perserverance, and for being the first black undergraduate who stayed to successfully graduate, Bland does not look at himself as a pioneer. He is humble and recognizes those who made it possible for him to attend the University. “ I think that I was a pioneer by chance. I was the first undergraduate to finish the University of Virginia, said Bland. “That wasn’t because of me at least not getting in. [There was] lots of work that had gone on by people before me. I only thing I take credit for is sticking it out long enough to graduate”.

Bland returns to the University of Virginia for Black Alumni Reunion gatherings. Bland does not attend the general alumni reunions for the Class of 1959. As he feels no connection with his class, and does not believe anyone would remember him. Bland like his fellow alumni feel the University has tremendously changed since his time there, despite the stories he’s heard in the media over the last couple of years about race problems UVA has had. “I would send my children there now, the University is a very different place from the University that I attended”.

Despite Bland’s modesty, many of the alumni that followed him remember him as a prime example of pure determination at its finest. “Bobby stayed”, was a popular saying amongst black students who would come later in the fifties and the sixties, and endure racial hostility if not a consuming feeling of invisibility. To them he was a beacon, and he is fondly remembered by the undergraduate black men who followed him, in those early years of desegregation at the University of Virginia.

Currently, Bland works for the Navy as a Department Manager of Missile and Launching Systems in California.

Works Cited