Diamonds Amidst the Dust: Virginia Student Life in the Depression


The University of Virginia, much like the surrounding county and Virginia in general, weathered the storm of the Great Depression with relative ease. Ronald Heinemann points to the fiscal conservatism of Virginia government, along with a greater reliance on agriculture, as factors mitigating the damage (172). Virginia certainly did not avoid the Depression, but the balance between agriculture, industry and commerce, subsistence level farming, and federal monies formed a shelter for the state, and with it the University's students. Further, writes Heinemann, the nature of the society and the strength of traditionalism helped to insulate the Old Dominion. The same case could be made for the University. Virginia's sons, and the sons of other mid- and south-Atlantic states, matriculated at UVA because it promised a certain typed of education--and one not integrally connected with academics, per se. That is to say, Virginia's ruling elite, composed of the First Families, big farmers, professionals, local politicians, and white collar workers subsisted on accumulated wealth and their protected positions of influence (176.)

The University of the 1930s, naturally, counted fewer students than today. With a single-sex educational philosophy, the school felt more like a club or even a raucous, rambunctious family. Less serious academically, Virginia filled a more defined market niche than the large-scale university that rolls from the steps of the Rotunda today. A club isn't an inaccurate appraisal of the University during the early half of the 20th century. Virginia may be best characterized as a regional finishing school, attracting a man of a certain cloth, and delivering him the social education which would cement his ties to the Virginia (or more generally Southern) aristocracy.

An event of cataclysmic proportions like the Great Depression surely impacted the University and its denizens in myriad ways. It must have left its mark on the minds and souls of students and professors, blazoned for all time.

     Well, not really.

As before, the University withstood the blows with equanimity. But money from home can't begin to tell the whole story of Virginia in the 1930s. UVA survived, and flourished, by relying on its past to carry it into the future. Tradition and the large set of underlying myths that hold the values of the University community acted as a buffer against the prevailing economic travails. The ideal of the Virginia Gentleman, holdover from Southern genteel society, commanded more day to day respect and adherence than did the unsettling financial troubles. The stories that Virginia men told 1st year boys became the very real world in which a decade of graduates lived and breathed.

Mosse writes in the _Toward the Final Solution_,:

Myths describe the various breakthroughs of the supernatural sacred stories which provided models for human rites and indeed all human activity. ...these models do not remain abstract, but are personalized through symbols, whether by commemorative rites recalling a sacred story, or pictures and edifices which represent a sacred past and in a tangible way project it into the present. (6)

Tradition ordered the lives of Virginia's men in all realms of student life. Academics, athletics, social activities, and intellectual pursuits all wear the subtle embossing of the UVA way of life. As with any account of the times, the stories themselves tell the best tale. What follows are whispered words detailing the student's life at Virginia. Listen closely.

Athletic Tales | Academic Tales | Social Tales | Community Tales | Progressive Tales | Introduction

American Studies at Virginia