Segregation during the Jim Crow Era
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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"
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.
1904 - Chinese cadets begin to enroll at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington.
1935 - Alice Jackson applies for admission to the University of Virginia's graduate program in French but is rejected because she is African American.
1937 - 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.
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.
1951 - The College of William and Mary admits Hulon Willis as a student in a graduate program because the program was unavailable at Virginia State.
1953 - Virginia Polytechnic Institute admits Irving Peddrew as an engineering undergraduate and the University of Virginia graduates Walter N. Ridley, a doctoral candidate.
1968 - The Virginia Military Institute in Lexington enrolls five black cadets, its first African American students.
1972 - 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.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Wallenstein, P. Desegregation in Higher Education in Virginia. (2011, April 7). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Desegregation_in_Higher_Education.
- MLA Citation:
Wallenstein, Peter. "Desegregation in Higher Education in Virginia." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 7 Apr. 2011. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: January 30, 2009 | Last modified: April 7, 2011