Colgate Whitehead Darden was born on February 11, 1897, in Southampton County. He was the son of Colgate Whitehead Darden, a farmer and businessman, and his first wife, Katharine Lawrence Pretlow Darden. His younger brother, J. Pretlow Darden Sr., became a reform mayor of Norfolk after World War II.
Darden grew up on the family farm and attended the Franklin public schools. He studied at the University of Virginia for two years beginning in 1914. After World War I began in Europe, Darden volunteered with an ambulance corps of the American Field Service in France, contracted malaria in the trenches near Verdun, and then returned home. Undeterred by the experience, he won his pilot’s wings and returned to France as a marine aviator after the United States entered the war in 1917. About two weeks before the 1918 armistice, Darden was seriously injured in a bomber crash and required about ten months’ hospitalization.
Darden, who signed his name with Jr., even after his father died, completed work on his BA at the University of Virginia in 1922. During summer sessions he studied public law and received an MA at Columbia University in June 1923 and an LLB the following October. Darden won a Carnegie Fellowship in international law and studied at the University of Oxford for a year before returning to Virginia to begin practicing law in Norfolk in 1924. He married Constance Simons du Pont, a member of the wealthy du Pont chemical-manufacturing family, in Wilmington, Delaware, on December 3, 1927. They had two sons and one daughter.
As a Legislator
Politically ambitious, Darden joined the dominant Democratic Party organization headed by Harry F. Byrd Sr. He won election to the House of Delegates in 1929 and again in 1931. Darden served on the Committees for Roads and Internal Navigation; on Counties, Cities, and Towns; on Currency and Commerce; and on Federal Relations and Resolutions. He defied organization policy early in thewhen he proposed diverting money from road construction to keep the public schools open. His plan was defeated, but it likely encouraged the state to take over operation of the county road systems in order to make more money available for financially strapped localities.
In 1932 Darden defeated the incumbentcongressman Menalcus Lankford for an at-large seat in the House of Representatives. He won reelection in 1934 from the district comprising the cities of Norfolk, Portsmouth, South Norfolk, and Suffolk and the counties of Isle of Wight, Nansemond, Norfolk, Princess Anne, and Southampton. He served on the Committee on Naval Affairs and supported some of the New Deal programs. In 1936 Norman R. Hamilton, publisher of the Portsmouth Star, defeated Darden, but two years later Darden defeated Hamilton, 18,984 to 17,283 votes, in a race marred by race-baiting tactics that Darden’s supporters employed. Darden was reelected without opposition in 1940 but resigned his seat on March 1, 1941, to run for governor. He was never an enthusiastic legislator, and no major piece of legislation bears his name.
Darden was a moderately conservative Democrat with a solid record on national defense and close ties to the Byrd Organization, which made him a good prospect for the gubernatorial nomination in 1941. Byrd gave him the nod, and because Darden had not been involved in party infighting between Byrd loyalists and Governor, he had not alienated many Democrats. Darden easily defeated two other candidates in the Democratic Party primary and the Republican Benjamin Muse in the general election in spite of an appendectomy that limited his campaigning.
Inaugurated on January 21, 1942, weeks after the United States had entered World War II, Darden set an example of sacrifice by reducing the costs of the ceremony, dispensing with the traditional military parade and nineteen-gun salute to conserve ammunition, and placing the governor’s automobile in the garage and walking or taking public transportation whenever possible. He replaced the state and regional defense councils with a new Office of Civilian Defense directly under his supervision and transferred responsibility for aircraft spotting, fire watches, and blackouts to city and county officials. A companion office of Civilian Mobilization, relying primarily on women, operated dozens of service projects that included rationing, salvage, victory gardens, child-care facilities, carpooling, nursing, and recreation programs for servicemen. About 400,000 Virginians volunteered for civilian defense service during the war, their only compensation being a service ribbon. Darden also created the Virginia Reserve Militia to assist localities with security problems. Known as the minutemen, the unit did little during the war, but its existence allayed public fears about an enemy attack.
Darden pushed through the General Assembly several reforms that his predecessor had requested and others that he proposed. The assembly created the Board of Corrections and a state prison farm system, as well as the Virginia Parole Board and the Virginia Board of Pardons and Reprieves, to upgrade Virginia’s penal system and end the state’s abysmal treatment of prisoners. Darden later stated that these changes were among the most important of his administration. At the governor’s request, the assembly increased appropriations for the state’s mental and tuberculosis hospitals, abolished the fee system for sheriffs, expanded workmen’s compensation, and reduced small-loan interest rates.
Reflecting his commitment to education, Darden appointed George H. Denny chair of a commission to investigate Virginia’s public education system. After the resulting report highlighted grave inadequacies in the public schools, Darden won the General Assembly’s support for increased teachers’ salaries, creation of a teacher retirement system, more funds for school buses and audiovisual aids, and larger appropriations for higher education. In his final address to the assembly, he recommended consolidating the many one- and two-room rural schools and constructing new schools.
Darden faced a difficult decision in the case of Odell Waller, a black sharecropper convicted and sentenced to death for killing his white landlord. Darden ultimately rejected a request for commutation, which was supported by liberal groups who blamed the conviction and sentence on racism, and Waller was executed in July 1942. Darden pursued a moderate course on racial issues. He increased aid to black colleges, notably to the Norfolk Division of Virginia State College (later Norfolk State University), and during World War II ignored laws requiring segregated seating on buses, although he refused to sponsor a bill repealing mandatory segregation on streetcars. He requested legislation to make it easier for black men to serve on juries and personally opposed (but nevertheless enforced) thethat restricted voter participation.
Darden’s ingratiating personality, absence of strident political posturing, and sincere desire to do what was best for Virginia contributed to his success as governor. He used his contacts with powerful friends in the assembly and his own considerable powers of persuasion to pass his moderately progressive agenda. Appeasing both factions of the Democratic Party with his handling of patronage, he retained several of Price’s appointees but restored Byrd’s closest confidant, Everett R. Combs, to the chairmanship of the powerful State Compensation Board. Byrd’s control of Virginia politics, aided by the weakness of the anti-Byrd faction, which lacked money, candidates, and issues, was never more secure than during Darden’s governorship, which observers considered one of the best of the twentieth century.
As President of the University of Virginia
The Inauguration of Colgate W. Darden as President of the University of Virginia
Using his influence with the General Assembly, Darden increased faculty salaries and improved facilities and the beauty of the university’s grounds. He significantly enlarged the endowment, raised admissions standards, and supported the creation of a graduate school of business administration that was named for him in 1974. As an early advocate for a system of two-year junior colleges in Virginia, Darden established a university-affiliated college at Clinch Valley (later the University of Virginia’s College at Wise), constructed partly on land his family donated, and another two-year branch in Northern Virginia (later George Mason University). Under court order, graduate programs at the university were racially integrated in 1950. When Darden retired in 1959, a university faculty that had initially been skeptical praised his administration, having honored him the previous year with the Thomas Jefferson Award for his wise leadership. He never accepted a salary for his service at the university, which he regarded as the most important of his career.
Darden broke ranks with the Byrd Organization in 1956 when it adopted a policy of Massive Resistance to desegregating public schools. He supported a plan that allowed a local option—i.e., allowing local municipalities to decide how to desegregate—and publicly opposed the law that permitted the closing of public schools under court orders to desegregate. Years later Darden remarked, “An assault on public schools, democracy’s one instrumentality for improving itself, was bound to be terribly damaging … If you turn away from that you draw down a curtain of darkness.”
Darden served as an American delegate to the United Nations, toured Asia and Europe as a member of a presidential committee on foreign aid and security, and chaired a commission to examine southern education. He chaired the Civilian Advisory Committee on Naval Affairs in 1946. President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed him to the Commission on National Goals in 1960. Early in the next year the governor named Darden to the State Board of Education, on which he served for eight years, and in 1963 another governor asked him to reopen the Prince Edward County public schools, which had been closed in 1959 to avoid integration. Working with officials of the U.S. Department of Justice and local African American leaders, Darden helped create the Prince Edward Free School Association, which offered a rudimentary education until desegregated public schools reopened the following year. In 1968 a third governor appointed Darden to a commission to revise the state constitution. He was instrumental in writing into the new constitution a guarantee that every Virginia child receive a high-quality education.
Residing in retirement in Norfolk, Darden and his wife loved the arts and gardening and were generous philanthropists, notably supporting the University of Virginia, the Boy Scouts, and Norfolk music groups. Always a voice of quiet reason, and with a ready smile and quick wit, Darden became one of the state’s most widely respected elder statesmen, best remembered for his political independence and his commitment to education. His Republican opponent in 1941,, later called him “the noblest Roman of them all. He has never hesitated to follow his convictions.”
Darden died of heart failure on June 9, 1981, in Norfolk and was buried in the family cemetery at Beechwood (later Jericho), the Southampton County farm near Sedley that had been in his mother’s family since the eighteenth century.