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.

Segregation during the Jim Crow Era

Chinese student at Virginia Military Institute

In Plessy v. Ferguson, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” public accommodations for blacks and whites were constitutional. Both before Plessy and for long afterwards, African Americans were categorically excluded from “white” public institutions of higher education. Asians and Latinos, by contrast, began to gain access to such schools long before World War II. Virginia schools at this time are therefore better understood as “non-black” rather than “all-white.” Chinese cadets enrolled at Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in Lexington as early as 1904, and already by then Latino students from Cuba, Mexico, and Argentina had enrolled at Virginia Polytechnic Institute (VPI) in Blacksburg. In the 1920s, Chinese native Cato Lee not only lived on campus at VPI but also represented his school on the track team and the tennis team, and Art Matsu, whose father was Japanese, starred on the varsity football team at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg.

While segregated black access to higher education in the South was a tremendous advance over absolute black exclusion, black access in practice under “separate but equal” in no way brought equal access. Categorical exclusion from a wide range of programs, especially graduate and professional curricula, remained the rule. When change came, it came first in those graduate and professional programs.

Letter from Alice Jackson to the University of Virginia Rector and Board of Visitors

Alice Jackson’s fight for admission into a public graduate program epitomized the era of higher education during the generation before the beginnings of desegregation—an era when black citizens launched efforts, albeit unsuccessful ones, to whittle away at black exclusion. In 1935 she applied for graduate admission to the master’s program in French at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Before 1920, she would have been barred on the basis of her gender. In 1935, she was rejected on the basis of her racial identity. The university would not admit her—nor would the state have permitted it to—and the lawyers for the NAACP decided not to press her case in the courts. Her application to the University of Virginia did not lead to her admission there, nor did it lead to litigation against her exclusion, yet it had a considerable impact on how Jim Crow operated in Virginia.

The Virginia General Assembly responded to Jackson’s challenge to segregation by enacting a new law that would assist her, and other black Virginians, in going out-of-state to take courses for which there was no in-state equivalent to the courses available to white Virginians. The new funds helped Alice Jackson make her way to Columbia University in New York City, where she completed the master’s degree that she was barred from earning in her native state.

Luther Porter Jackson

In 1937, for the first time, the Virginia State College for Negroes, founded in 1882 in Petersburg as Virginia’s only public institution of higher education for African Americans, had faculty members with doctoral degrees, among them historian Luther Porter Jackson, and began to offer master’s programs for teachers at black high schools. Moreover, federal assistance under New Deal legislation financed a new library and other buildings at Virginia State. Hundreds of black Virginians took advantage of one or the other of the two new sets of opportunities, those at Virginia State and those out-of-state.

This was the situation in Virginia at the end of the 1940s. The case of Plessy v. Ferguson did not introduce segregation to higher education so much as it legally and socially entrenched it. It also provided the legal opening to undermine it. The formula “separate but equal” introduced a standard that the proponents of enhanced black opportunity could call on federal courts to apply in greater measure, even if within segregation. Black plaintiffs, seeking to seize more of the “equal” in “separate but equal,” brought suits in some southern states that resulted in decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court upgrading the substance required to meet the test of “equal.”


Gregory Swanson

On June 5, 1950, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Sweatt v. Painter that a Texas law school for blacks was not “equal” to the school for whites. More than that, the ruling suggested a new standard for equality, one that took into consideration such factors as the prestige of faculty and the influence of alumni. For all intents and purposes, this made true equality within segregation nearly impossible, setting the stage for a new challenge to segregation.

In Virginia that summer, Gregory Swanson filed suit to gain admission to the University of Virginia’s law school and, with the help of the NAACP, he won in federal court and gained admittance. Where Alice Jackson had failed, Swanson succeeded. In the aftermath of his court victory, black applicants were permitted to enroll in the University of Virginia’s doctoral programs and in the medical school, as well as in some programs of study at the College of William and Mary, so long as these programs were unavailable at Virginia State College.

African Americans also began applying, sometimes successfully, to professional programs even at the undergraduate level. Irving Peddrew, as a senior at his all-black Newport News high school in 1953, applied to white colleges as well as black ones. When he expressed an interest in studying engineering and joining the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), the Virginia Military Institute pointed him toward Howard University in Washington, D.C., but Virginia Polytechnic Institute admitted him.

Poll on Racial Attitudes at the University of Virginia

Schools have often been classified as “desegregated” when the first black student enrolled. Such a view—such language—misstates the situation. An end to categorical black exclusion in a law school, or a graduate school, did nothing to end black exclusion from general undergraduate programs. The first black undergraduates to enroll—whether at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 1953 or at the University of Virginia in 1955—were admitted into engineering programs, curricula that, like law, had no counterpart at a black school in Virginia. Such concessions did not bring an end to black exclusion from a wide range of other programs. Both of these institutions, and the College of William and Mary as well, remained segregated institutions into the 1960s—even though all three, no later than 1953, had enrolled the first of what were small numbers of black students under the restrictions of a new version of “separate but equal.”

An end to segregation on campus was yet another story. The privilege of taking classes at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, William and Mary, or the University of Virginia did not immediately bring with it a right of access to other dimensions of campus life, including living in residence halls. The black engineering students at VPI in the 1950s—always at least one beginning in 1953, but never more than four—were required to live off campus. Moreover, as at most historically nonblack institutions in other southern states, the first black students were not permitted to represent VPI or the University of Virginia in varsity athletics—football in particular—until the late 1960s.

Desegregation at the Virginia Military Institute

VMI enrolled its first black students much later than did VPI or the University of Virginia, so there the process of full desegregation proved much shorter. The five black cadets who enrolled at VMI in 1968 participated fully in the life of their college. They had their choice of majors, lived in the barracks, played sports, and attained leadership positions in various activities. Electrical engineering major Richard Valentine Jr., for example, played varsity football, while history major Philip Wilkerson Jr. was commander of F Company. By 1972, black students also had enrolled at the four public institutions that had originally been established to train white women to be teachers in Virginia’s white public schools: Longwood College (now Longwood University) in Farmville, Madison College (now James Madison University) in Harrisonburg, Mary Washington College (now the University of Mary Washington) in Fredericksburg, and Radford College (now Radford University) in Radford.

VPI and the University of Virginia changed their policies and practices on both race and gender between the early 1960s and the early 1970s. Embodying the changes, Marguerite Harper enrolled at VPI in 1966 as a freshman. An African American female, she lived on campus and pushed for change there, protesting the waving of Confederate battle flags and the cadet band’s playing of “Dixie” after every touchdown by the Hokie football team in Lane Stadium. In 1970, she earned a history degree. Conditions had changed in ways that permitted her to do things Alice Jackson could not, but Harper reflected Jackson’s spirit in pushing hard against the limitations of “separate but equal.”

After “Separate but Equal”

First African-American Graduate at the University of Virginia

Desegregation was spurred on by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Higher Education Act of 1965. By the 1970s, previously nonblack institutions were not only enrolling black students but also beginning to hire black faculty, staff, and administrators. Yet Virginia’s institutions of higher education that started out all-white—like the University of Virginia and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University—have remained largely white and, especially, nonblack. And the historically black schools, like Virginia State University, have remained predominantly black.

May 18, 1896
The U.S. Supreme Court rules in Plessy v. Ferguson that "separate but equal" public accommodations are constitutional. The decision provides the legal basis for Jim Crow laws and the tradition of strict segregation. It, however, also provides an opening for African Americans to demand equal facilities and opportunities.
Chinese cadets begin to enroll at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington.
Alice Jackson applies for admission to the University of Virginia's graduate program in French but is rejected because she is African American.
For the first time, the Virginia State College for Negroes, which was founded in Petersburg in 1882, can boast faculty members with doctoral degrees and can offer a few master's programs in education.
June 5, 1950
The U.S. Supreme Court, ruling in Sweatt v. Painter that a Texas law school for blacks was not satisfactorily "equal" to the school for whites, establishes a new standard for equality that sets the stage for desegregation in Virginia.
September 15, 1950
Gregory Swanson registers as the first black student admitted to an historically white public institution of higher education in Virginia after winning a case in federal court and gaining admission to the University of Virginia.
The College of William and Mary admits Hulon Willis as a student in a graduate program because the program was unavailable at Virginia State.
Virginia Polytechnic Institute admits Irving Peddrew as an engineering undergraduate and the University of Virginia graduates Walter N. Ridley, a doctoral candidate.
The Virginia Military Institute in Lexington enrolls five black cadets, its first African American students.
Black students can enroll in any curriculum, live and eat in campus facilities, play varsity sports, promote black studies programs, and form black student unions at all Virginia public institutions of higher education.
  • Strother, Warren H., and Peter Wallenstein. From VPI to State University: President T. Marshall Hahn Jr. and the Transformation of Virginia Tech, 1962–1974. Macon: Mercer University Press, 2004.
  • Wallenstein, Peter. Cradle of America: Four Centuries of Virginia History. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007.
  • Wallenstein, Peter, ed. Higher Education and the Civil Rights Movement: White Supremacy, Black Southerners, and College Campuses. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2008.
APA Citation:
Wallenstein, Peter. Desegregation in Higher Education. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/desegregation-in-higher-education.
MLA Citation:
Wallenstein, Peter. "Desegregation in Higher Education" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 20 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2022, July 26
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