ENTRY

The Founding of the Virginia Technical College System

SUMMARY

The Virginia Technical College System, predecessor to the Virginia Community College System, was founded in 1964 in response to circumstances created by Massive Resistance, Virginia’s reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling outlawing segregation in public schools. Massive Resistance led to the closing of schools in Norfolk, Charlottesville, and Arlington for part of the 1958–1959 school year and the closing of the entire public school system in Prince Edward County for five years. The school closings cast doubt on Virginia’s ability to educate and train a modern workforce. Once seen as a business-friendly state, industrial investment in Virginia was brought to a virtual standstill due to the lack of confidence in the state’s education system. The development of a statewide system of technical colleges was recommended by the Virginia Industrialization Group as a key element to restoring Virginia’s education integrity and preparing its workforce for modern industry. The development of these colleges not only addressed the damage caused by Massive Resistance but also brought the promise of post–high school education and job training to Virginia. The founders of the technical college system created a plan to locate twenty-two colleges throughout the state. The first schools, Roanoke Technical College and Northern Virginia Technical College, opened to students in September 1965 with larger-than-expected enrollments. In March 1966 the Virginia Technical College System became the Virginia Community College System.

From Massive Resistance to School Desegregation

Massive Resistance in Virginia

Beginning in 1956 to 1959, Virginia established a policy known as Massive Resistance in response to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that desegregated public schools. Massive Resistance had a profound effect on public education in Virginia, resulting in the closure of schools in Front Royal, Charlottesville, and Norfolk for a time during the 1958-1959 school year and the five-year closure of the Prince Edward County school system. In addition to closing schools, massive Resistance eroded Virginia’s reputation as a desirable location for industry. As a result, no new industry came to Virginia in 1958, a year that marked the height of the school closings. Concerns of the business community in Virginia were highlighted in the report issued by the Commission to Study Industrial Development, chaired by Charles Abbott, in 1957. The commission stressed the importance of education to a healthy business climate. “Of all the normal functions of state and local governments that may affect and influence industrial development favorably, or unfavorably, none is more important than education at both the secondary school and college levels,” the commission said. The report noted that uncertainty surrounding a stable public education system would undermine industrial development in Virginia, leaving young adults unprepared for the workplace and signaling to potential investors that Virginia was not a sound business climate because it did not encourage the development of an educated workforce. Even the U.S. Navy voiced its concern about the closure of schools in Norfolk, fearing that naval personnel, mostly young families, would not be able to enroll their children in public schools.

Virginia Industrialization Group

In 1958 a group of some of Virginia’s most influential business leaders came together to form what would become the Virginia Industrialization Group under the leadership of four individuals: Stuart Saunders, president of the Norfolk and Western Railway in Roanoke; Harvie Wilkinson, president of the State Planters Bank of Commerce & Trusts in Richmond; Frank Batten, publisher of the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk; and Lewis Powell, an attorney in Richmond. All were gravely concerned about the effects Massive Resistance was having on Virginia’s business community. Saunders later stated that the purpose of the Virginia Industrialization Group was to bring an end to Massive Resistance. In a memo to Wilkinson and Saunders dated December 15, 1958, Powell referred to the “school crisis” caused by Massive Resistance and said, “I doubt that enlightened business leaders elsewhere would consider Virginia an attractive place to move until we decide to rejoin the Union.” Originally, according to Saunders, the group intended to “operate in the background” and exert influence like a modern-day lobbying group might. But as its influence grew, it was difficult to keep its name and the names of its leadership out of the newspapers.

Governor J. Lindsay Almond Jr. turns away from the camera lights before or after giving a televised address to Virginians

The Virginia Industrialization Group’s first meeting took place in December 1958 at the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond. The guest of honor was Governor J. Lindsay Almond. Following the governor’s speech, a discussion ensued between Almond and those present. The group’s membership pointed out the negative effects Massive Resistance was having on Virginia’s economy and image and the futility of continuing such measures. The exchange between the membership and Almond became contentious as Almond refused to yield and vowed that Virginia schools would never be integrated. In January 1959, both state and federal courts declared Massive Resistance unconstitutional, and Almond withdrew his support for its continuation.

Satellite view of the convergence of rivers into the Hampton Roads harbor

With Massive Resistance in retreat, the Virginia Industrialization Group set out to establish and carry out an agenda designed to promote the business climate in Virginia. In February 1959, Batten wrote a report outlining the group’s priorities, including the development of the port of Hampton Roads, the strengthening of the Department of Conservation and Economic Development and the state’s Chamber of Commerce, and the development of a statewide system of technical education. To lead these efforts, the Virginia Industrialization Group in 1961 chose as its inaugural executive director former General Electric executive Richard Holmquist. In September of that year, Holmquist was installed as industrial development consultant to Governor Almond’s office. In 1962, under newly elected Governor Albertis Harrison, Holmquist became director of the Virginia Division of Industrial Development, with his annual salary of $25,000 paid by the Virginia Industrialization Group. Holmquist recognized that if Virginia wanted to be industrially competitive it would need an educated and well-trained workforce, which would require training on a statewide scale. To make this vision a reality, the Virginia Industrialization Group used its clout and political connections to lobby for the creation of the Department of Technical Education and recommended that Harrison hire Dana B. Hamel.

The Watchmaker’s Son

Black yearbook cover with silver title, year, and logo for the school that includes depictions of technical instruments, symbols, and books

Hamel arrived in Virginia in the summer of 1962 after being hired by the Virginia Polytechnic Institute (known today as Virginia Tech) to oversee the Roanoke Technical Institute, its new branch campus in Roanoke. Born in Maine in 1923, Hamel grew up in the heart of coal country in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, as the son of a watchmaker and attended college in the neighboring state of Ohio at the Ohio Mechanics Institute. After graduating from OMI, Hamel stayed on as a faculty member and went on to hold a variety of leadership positions, including acting president. As director of the Roanoke Technical Institute, Hamel was in a position to get to know Virginia’s industrial arena through his association with the advisory board of the Roanoke Technical Institute, which included representatives from General Electric, Norfolk & Western Railway, and International Business Machines Company.

In February 1964, Holmquist and Hamel began speaking at events to discuss the benefits of industrial development for a state rapidly outgrowing its agrarian past. Holmquist spoke of the prosperity that industry could bring to Virginia communities and asserted that the qualities necessary to attract businesses to Virginia included “good government, a progressive attitude, and a well-trained labor force.”  Hamel familiarized audiences with the value of technical education in preparing students for modern industrial work. He noted that “one of the state’s major liabilities is insufficient vocational and technical training” and pointed out that new personnel hired for a Waynesboro General Electric plant had to be “imported from outside the state.”

As Holmquist and Hamel traveled the state touting the benefits of technical education, legislation was making its way through the Virginia General Assembly that established the State Board for Technical Education and the State Department of Technical Education, declaring that “an emergency exists” in the state with its stagnant industrial climate.

Governor Albertis Sydney Harrison wears a dark suit and holds a pair of glasses in this three-quarter length oil portrait

In July 1964, Governor Harrison offered Hamel the position of director of the state’s newly formed Department of Technical Education. Shortly after the announcement of his hiring, Hamel told the Richmond Times-Dispatch he envisioned that the technical institutes would become a series of “comprehensive community colleges” offering technical training, medical training, two-year programs for college transfer, and continuing education opportunities for adult learners. There were some post-secondary vocational facilities in the state at the time, but they were not colleges per se. Hamel knew that by combining technical and academic education, these technical colleges could produce not only industry-ready labor but also students prepared to pursue education beyond the two-year college level.

Establishing the System

First Students at Northern Virginia Technical College

The founding of the Virginia Technical College System was the culmination of years of ideological discussions by Virginia’s political and educational leaders. As a predominantly rural state with most of its inhabitants at the time living in either Northern Virginia or on the peninsula stretching from Richmond to Virginia Beach, there was a need to locate the colleges where they would be accessible to the majority of students. A 1944 report by the Virginia Education Commission had recommended that “opportunities for this training should be placed within reach of all prospective students who may be benefited by it.” The new system provided regional coverage throughout the state within reasonable commuting distance for students.

There was also the issue of segregation at a time when the state’s public universities were only slowly desegregating. Reflecting the social climate of the times, the 1944 report had recommended that any new facilities be segregated. Other southern states had grappled with the challenge of establishing a statewide system of technical education in a pre-Brown world. In 1949, Florida established a separate system of twelve two-year colleges for Black students that lasted until the late 1960s. In the 1950s, North Carolina attempted to establish a two-year college system, but was stymied by the supposed need to create separate systems for white and Black students. In contrast, in a reflection of the post-Brown society of the early 1960s, there is no evidence the founders of the Virginia Technical College System discussed establishing segregated colleges. The focus was on creating an educated and well-trained industrial workforce as quickly as possible.

Creation of Northern Virginia Technical College

The Virginia Technical College System opened in the autumn of 1965. Virginia Western Technical College, previously Roanoke Technical Institute, and the Northern Virginia Technical College were the first schools to open. Northern Virginia Technical College began in a rented facility at Bailey’s Crossroads, just north of what is now the Alexandria campus. These colleges were joined by five regional vocational-technical schools: the Danville Technical Institute, Peninsula Vocational-Technical Education Center (Hampton), New River Vocational-Technical School (Radford), Valley Vocational-Technical School (Waynesboro), and Washington County Vocational-Technical School (Abingdon).

The original design of the Virginia Technical College System called for the creation of twenty-two colleges throughout the state. When the Virginia Technical College System became the Virginia Community College System in March 1966, the original vision was developed into the current twenty-three college system with the addition of Rappahannock Community College, established in 1970. By 2017, the Virginia Community College System accounted for half of Virginia’s total undergraduate enrollment.

MAP
TIMELINE
May 17, 1954

The U.S. Supreme Court rules in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, that segregation in schools is unconstitutional, but fails to explain how quickly and in what manner desegregation is to be achieved. The decision leads to the Massive Resistance movement in Virginia.

1955

“A Crisis in Higher Education,” a report by the General Assembly of Virginia, leads to the creation of the State Council of Higher Education in Virginia to recommend ways to advance higher education in Virginia. 

May 31, 1955
The U.S. Supreme Court issues a vague ruling outlining the implementation of desegregation to occur "with all deliberate speed," a ruling now commonly known as Brown II.
February 25, 1956
U.S. senator Harry F. Byrd calls for a strategy of "Massive Resistance" to oppose the integration of public schools in Virginia.
November 5, 1957
J. Lindsay Almond Jr. is elected governor of Virginia thanks to a platform that promises a continuation of Massive Resistance.
December 1958

The Virginia Industrialization Group meets with Governor J. Lindsay Almond Jr. to express their concerns and demand an end to massive resistance. Governor Almond refuses to relinquish his support for massive resistance.

1958

The Virginia Industrialization Group is formed in opposition to massive resistance.

September 15, 1958
Governor J. Lindsay Almond Jr. closes Warren County High School, the first school held in violation of his statewide mandate against desegregation.
September 19, 1958
Governor J. Lindsay Almond Jr. closes Lane High School and Venable Elementary School in Charlottesville to prevent desegregation.
September 27, 1958
Governor J. Lindsay Almond Jr. orders white secondary schools in Norfolk to close to prevent desegregation.
January 19, 1959
Both the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals and the U.S. District Court overturn the decision of Governor J. Lindsay Almond Jr. to close schools in Front Royal, Charlottesville, and Norfolk.
February 2, 1959
With Governor J. Lindsay Almond Jr.'s barrier to desegregation broken by Virginia's Supreme Court of Appeals, seventeen Black students in Norfolk and four in Arlington County peacefully enroll in white schools.
September 1959
Though Massive Resistance has already ended, the Prince Edward County School Board closes its public schools to resist desegregation.
1961

Richard Holmquist becomes executive director of the Virginia Industrialization Group.

1962

Albertis Harrison becomes governor of Virginia and establishes the Virginia Department of Industrial Development with Richard Holmquist as its first director.

July 1964

Dana B. Hamel becomes director of the Department of Technical Education and outlines his vision for a system of “comprehensive community colleges.”

Fall 1965

The Virginia Technical College System opens with Virginia Western Technical College and the Northern Virginia Technical College as well as five regional vocational-technical schools in Danville, Hampton, Radford, Waynesboro, and Abingdon.

FURTHER READING
  • Day, John Kyle. The Southern Manifesto: Massive Resistance and the Fight to Preserve Segregation. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2014.
  • Green, Kristen. Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County: A Family, a Virginia Town, a Civil Rights Battle. New York: HarperCollins, 2015.
  • Muse, Benjamin. Virginia’s Massive Resistance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1961.

 

CITE THIS ENTRY
APA Citation:
Hodges, Richard A.. The Founding of the Virginia Technical College System. (2022, July 27). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/the-founding-of-the-virginia-technical-college-system.
MLA Citation:
Hodges, Richard A.. "The Founding of the Virginia Technical College System" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (27 Jul. 2022). Web. 09 Aug. 2022
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