The University of Virginia is nationally known for its adherence to tradition.
Walking across the Grounds, the depth of University’s pride in its traditions
is apparent. The air is thick of yesterday, but yet the students are the future of the new millenia
and not of a white male Southern society. Amongst these first graduating classes of the new millennia, there
are blacks and women, Asians and Latinos, gays and international students.
It is an eclectic group of people, selected to attend Mr. Jefferson’s
University, and entirely not reminiscent of the first graduating classes of the
University of Virginia in the 1830s. The University has come a long way from
the small white male Southern institution it once was.
For all the pride the University brags in its traditions, from dressing up
and attending football games to calling UVA affectionately, “Jefferson’s
University”. One finds that sometimes stubborn adherence to tradition can jeopardize the
complete history of the University. Glaringly omitted until four to five years ago, was the story of African-Americans
and women and how they came to be part of Jefferson's University, in the University Guide tours.
Beginning as a tour entitled "Women and Minorities at UVA" tour, they have expanded to two very popular tours
called "Slave to Scholar: The History of African Americans at UVA" and "How They Did It: The Story of Women at UVA".
Long overdue, these tours recognize the voice of women and
many African American students who attended the University during the US Civil Rights Movement and the Women's Rights Movement. But
as the University begins to learn their names and their accomplishments, many
of them have still gone unnoted or never have been recognized. This project, in short aims to tell the
story of the first African Americans who were students, not as University history
traditionally remembered them, which were slaves and servants.
Although desegregation at UVA began in 1950, this project covers the years
1955-1975. The reasons are threefold: 1) these were explicit years of turmoil
for the United States in the national movement for Civil Rights, Women’s
Rights, and the Vietnam War. During this time change happened nationally that
was the catalyst for change at UVA. 2) The number of black students attending
UVA increased rapidly throughout this time and with their increasing number
and tireless tenacity doors were blown open from which later generations of
black students were to benefit. 3) Many today at the University still are unaware
of the achievements of African American students during the years of 1955-1975
and have never heard them tell their story.
This project is only a beginning, as the seven interviewed are certainly not all of the "trailblazers".
Hopefully many more alumni will leave their stories behind for the University and other interested persons
to savor. But for now, this is to the best of my knowledge, an account of African American History at the University,
1955-1975, including the early years of the 1950s for their historical importance.
This is the story of the first African-Americans to take that first step onto University Grounds, home to an all white Southern
male institution and Southern tradition, and who defiantly trailblazed against tradition.
This project was funded by a Student Research Award from
the David A. Harrison Undergraduate Research Award Fund
at the University of Virginia.
Research and interviews compiled by Atima Omara-Alwala, UVA Class of 2003