Author: Peter Wallenstein

the author of Tell the Court I Love My Wife: Race, Marriage, and Law—An American History and many other books, and professor of history at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
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Desegregation in Higher Education

The desegregation of higher education in Virginia was the result of a long legal and social process that began after the American Civil War (1861–1865) and did not end before the 1970s. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” public accommodations for blacks and whites were constitutional in the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson, the court established a sturdy legal basis for segregation. This ruling encouraged the Jim Crow era of legalized discrimination against blacks in the south. But the terminology of “separate but equal” eventually also created an opening for African Americans to demand educational opportunities and facilities equal to those available to whites. Educational opportunities for blacks were vastly inferior to whites, and segregation in higher education was entrenched in Virginia through World War II (1941–1945). But during the 1950s and 1960s, the first black students entered various graduate programs at the University of Virginia and the College of William and Mary, then undergraduate engineering programs at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and the University of Virginia, and finally general undergraduate programs at all historically white colleges and universities. In 1935 Alice Jackson failed to win admission to a graduate program at the University of Virginia, but Gregory Swanson, with the help of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and a ruling from a federal court, gained admission to the university’s law school in 1950. Admittance into programs did not mean an immediate end to unfair and unequal treatment on campus, but by 1972 black students were able to enroll in Virginia in any curriculum and also live and eat in campus facilities.

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