African Americans at VCU
In its effort to help document the history of African Americans in Virginia, this section of the Virginia Black History Archives web site focuses on the history of African Americans at Virginia Commonwealth University. Transcripts of oral histories, student newspaper articles, images, and other materials focusing on the history of the black experience at VCU will be added to this site. The first two features come from the Summer 1995 issue of Shafer Court Connections, the academic campus alumni magazine of VCU. If you have any comments or questions, please email Special Collections and Archives.
In "This Was My Time" Integrating RPI and VCU, alumni discuss the integration of the Academic Campus of VCU in the 1950s and 1960s. This article is found below, as well as letters from readers of Shafer Court Connections discussing integration. Accompanying this article is a time line highlighting the changes and accomplishments of African Americans at VCU. Special Collections and Archives would like to thank the editors of Shafer Court Connections for permission to re-publish these materials.
"This was my time" Integrating RPI and VCU
By Gloria Thomas '92BA/H&S and Mary Ellen Mercer, editor of Shafer Court Connections, the alumni magazine of the Academic Campus of Virginia Commonwealth University. This article appeared in the Vol. 2, No. 1, Summer 1995 issue of Shafer Court Connections.
"My parents were not aggressive in challenging the system," says Hilda Yates Warden '52 Cert/SW'64MS/AH(RC). But even as a child growing up in the 1920s and '30s, "I never could understand how another individual could say, `This is your place.'"
By 1950 the 32-year-old former school teacher (shown on the left) was working for Richmond social services in the Department of Welfare. Warden well understood that to be promoted a black woman needed more education than a white social worker. In 1950 Richmond Professional Institute was the only college in Virginia offering graduate-level social work courses. The mother of two applied to take one evening class.
At registration the week before class started, Warden was told to see the director of the School of Social Work. The Board of Visitors (in Williamsburg--RPI was still a division of William and Mary) had not decided whether to admit black students. "In terms of the attitude of the people who controlled educational resources, we were less than people--we were still in an entirely segregated situation," she says. Director Dr. George Kalif told Warden to submit a full application. (Other part-time students were filling out half-sheet forms.) In a week she pulled together transcripts and three references, had a physical, and filled out a lengthy application. "At that moment I decided this was my time," she says. "I would have no chance of advancement without social work credits."
A nervous Kalif called the Director of Public Welfare to ask whether a pressure group was backing Warden. "I think they were fearful that an organization like the NAACP would sponsor court action," she says. Warden prevailed, and desegregation began at RPI. Yet, as the only black student, Warden found, "For the most part it was like there were two worlds. It was a sort of a chilly situation."
Still, in some ways the school was more ready for integration than its community. RPI was no stranger to struggle--or raised eyebrows. Founder Dr. Henry Hibbs had "started the school in 1917 with an eye toward human service," says Dr. Ed Peeples '57BS/E (shown on the right). Hibbs created a different kind of college, training professionals in social service and public health nursing, using the city itself as classroom. When Theresa Pollak founded the School of Art in 1928, the arts cachet added to the school's unconventional reputation.
RPI students were among the leaders of the Richmond Intercollegiate Council, an interracial student group formed by local schools in 1944 (see timeline). "We live in a world that can be changed," said Russell Jones of Virginia Union bravely in a keynote address to 300 people at MCV's Egyptian Building. Their dual purpose was to show that "religion is a living reality in our hearts" and to find outlets for social responsibility. Jane Weaver Poulton '47BA/H&S says, "The Council offered the first integrated class in the South, a one-credit course taught by integrated faculty from the different schools."
Hibbs' ongoing struggles to fund the college added to the school's willingness to do things differently. There's a persistent and undated story about Hibbs' response when he was told that six black students wanted to register for the evening college--"Have they got the tuition money?" Hibbs' pragmatism was effective in building an unconventional college. He "got away with enrolling blacks because people didn't look at RPI," suggests Peeples. The community didn't concern itself much with the school, because "it was where working class people went."
Whatever the reasons, Warden's enrollment in 1950 didn't raise alarms, and in 1951 she and four other black students applied and were quietly admitted full-time to the School of Social Work. Precedent was established, but no policies were set and long-instituted practices and habits of separation didn't disappear. The three black students from out of town were not allowed to live in the dormitories, so black families near campus offered room and board. After their first visit to the dining room, Warden remembers two instructors admonishing them not to eat there because they were not living on campus. Other students living off campus ate there regularly.
Even so, dedication to the common goal of learning together overcame some barriers, especially within the social work program. "We worked on projects and occasionally studied together--I made a few friends," Warden says.
Lawrence Bussard '54 MSW/SW remembers that as a white student, "We tried to make the black students feel wanted and accepted." Since black students couldn't go out with white students anywhere else, they occasionally ate together at Virginia Union University. Why no organized protest? "Those weren't the days of protest," says Bussard--echoing the reluctance of Warden's parents to challenge the status quo.
Without a policy on integration, Warden's admission to RPI was no guarantee that others could follow. And as Warden observes, "the rules seem to change at the whim of the people who run the programs." Dr. Grace Harris '60MSW/SW was denied admission to the graduate School of Social Work in fall 1954, and instead Virginia paid her tuition at Boston University. (This practice was standard in Virginia and other southern states at the time.) She stayed in Boston for the first year of the two-year MSW program and later finished her MSW at RPI.
Athletic competition at RPI was also providing room for support of racial equality. Peeples played forward for RPI's basketball team, the Green Devils, from 1953-1957. He strongly remembers Coach Ed Allen, who quietly but effectively made his dislike of segregation clear to the team. Peeples also remembers a significant moment from the time when Virginia's massive resistance laws prohibited interracial sports competition at public institutions. One night in the mid-1950s, Bridgewater, one of the few private state colleges that admitted blacks, came to play RPI in the then-new Franklin Street gym. A young black player ran lay-ups and then sat on the bench. When his coach called him into the game, the young man stood, and the small crowd of basketball fans started to applaud. "I had a chill...he came on the floor in defiance of the massive resistance law," says Peeples. "RPI basketball fans were saying in their own modest way, `We're ready for the future.' I was changing and so were people around me."
Change was reflected in a 1954 poll by RPI's student newspaper, The Proscript , a majority of RPI students agreed with the Supreme Court's desegregation decision in Brown vs. the Board of Education. During the next few years, the ground swell of change built quietly at RPI, Massive Resistance countered by passive defiance.
By the end of the decade, angrier protest appeared. In 1959-60, The Ghost, an RPI underground newspaper, delivered blistering editorials, many against racism. Ghost writers (Peeples among them) reported the mysterious cancellation of a basketball game between RPI and Union Theological Seminary in 1960. "It seems there is a Negro player on Union's team, and there is a vague policy . . . somewhere in the W&M administrative scheme, restricting [its schools] from competing against anyone but blond, blue-eyed Aryans on state property." Words led to action during the '60s when many RPI students joined civil rights protesters, picketing and boycotting Richmond stores.
On campus, Willie Dell '70MSW/SW says black students began confronting RPI's administration, asking for increases in black faculty and students, more scholarships for black students, and diversified field placements. At the time, white women students were not placed with black women field supervisors. Dell (shown on the left) remembers students being told that the rationale was that black women had lower morals. The dean "admitted it was true and said that racism existed as part of the culture we were in. He said, 'Sometimes you are operating out of that old system.'"
Dr. Norma Goode (shown on the right) '60MSW/SW adds, "The advisors in the School of Social Work took great pains to insulate us from anything anyone might say that would make us feel uncomfortable. Yet, it still could not prevent people who had been brought up to believe certain things about African Americans from saying things."
Even so, the School of Social Work was something of a haven for black students in the '60s. It had a large share of the teachers Ed Peeples calls "educational missionaries"-- people like Dr. Alice Davis, Archer Michael and Dean Elaine Rothenberg, who mentored Grace Harris among many others. Peeples was struck by some startling ideas. "I had never before in my life heard anyone say anything bad about Harry Byrd or `our way of life in Virginia,'" he says. Ruby Walker thinks, "Those doors were opened because of the values we believe in as a profession--to seek social justice and democratic principles in terms of the way we relate to people in society."
"All of us were caught up in the racism of the '60s," says Ellen Jordan '65MSW/SW--like the Grace Street restaurant that still refused to serve blacks. But she remembers that "the issues were with society. Few were with classmates." In fact, Jordan says, "I think my mom was amazed when I would call and say somebody was coming home with me, and then they would get there and it was a white person." When Hilda Warden got her second degree in rehabilitation counseling in the '60s, she says, "the attitudes were changing--I felt the school was very open-minded."
Casual encounters and first overtures between black and white students could produce some awkward moments. There were three black students out of twenty-five in Jordan's first-year class. "Sometimes if people saw one of us, they would say, `Where are the other two?'" One evening Donna Greene Kaiser '65BFA/A and her husband Robert Kaiser '65BFA/A (not yet married) found only two seats left in the cafeteria. The two white students joined a table of older, black graduate students. "They were all very congenial," she says. "But they didn't talk other than to say a polite `Hello.' There was still sort of that barrier there."
Ruby Clayton Walker '65 MSW/SW, assistant professor in the School of Social Work, was one of the "three." To cope with racism, she found it essential to work on her own personal growth and share openly with her friends. "Many of the white students were also sensitive to these issues. But I don't know that they always understood the personal pain."
But sometimes the white students caught a glimpse of it. Walker remembers visiting a recreation hall with white friends. Though it was white-owned, only blacks were welcome. When her friends were turned away, "For a moment they were very indignant. I laughed and said `this is what I encounter everyday.' In some ways I got a little pleasure from it. That's the kind of complexity you struggle with. Sometimes you are relieved even when other people are denied. And yet you know within your heart and moral fiber that is wrong. I wanted them to have that indignation that I had." Walker says they all grew from the experience and many became lifelong friends.
And then there was the night that RPI met the UDC. Walker, Jordan and several white friends had gathered at the Jefferson Hotel, where some of them were staying--and where the United Daughters of the Confederacy was holding a conference. The integrated group of college students attracted stares, so Walker's friends draped a black shawl around her like a royal robe. She marched slowly and regally down the mythic Gone with the Wind staircase while her white friends bowed repeatedly in humble deference. The murmurs of the onlookers rose in volume with the students' laughter. So, Jordan finishes, "Ruby Walker became the grande dame of the South."
Jim Elam '73 BS/SW was one of seven young black men hit by sniper fire in Richmond in 1962. He was 17. Five of them were killed, and Elam is still partially paralyzed and walks with a cane. His experience shocked him into protest--and into an education. "It became clear to me that I could no longer use my brute strength to be a brick layer," says Elam. He realized that "African Americans as a people could only look forward to jobs that were menial. I had to speak up." In 1963, the apolitical Elam joined the NAACP and marched for civil rights. His parents worried about his safety; but Elam says, "You can't walk around being afraid of life. You might slip up, fall and die from your head hitting the curb."
Elam enrolled at VCU in 1969. "The university, when I began, was all white other than having made some token steps toward integrating the student body." Gathered around a table in the Hibbs Building's Campus Cafe, Elam and his friends discussed the upcoming 1970 Student Government Association election. They were disappointed that current student leaders didn't seem to be dealing with real issues.
The radicals mounted their campaign on "The Art of the Possible." Elam's platform included working for fair and equitable treatment of all students and improving school and community relations--especially with Oregon Hill. He wanted more student input on curriculum, hiring more minority professors and establishing an Afro-American studies program.
They didn't expect to win. Then on the way to file his petition, Elam encountered a student on the other side. "You're kidding," the white student said, "You don't think you could win do you? This is a white school." It was just the push Elam needed to push back, hard. "After that--I just thought I could beat anybody."
Much of the support for Elam's campaign came from the School of the Arts. "You would be amazed at how much silk-screening and flyers by the thousands we used to get the message out." He took his message to small groups of students in the dormitories. "I went out to get the ones that were not involved." By a vote of 726 to 465 Elam became the first black president of VCU's SGA.
President Elam gave speeches in Shafer Court denouncing the war in Vietnam, condemning what he believed were racist practices at VCU and asking for the resignation of Richmond's Chief of Police. The Black Panther party came to Monroe Park. He says, "we brought quite a bit of turmoil to the university." VCU dealt with it. Elam graduated, more black students followed him to VCU, and more black faculty members and administrators were hired.
Bruce Twyman '74BS/MC was one of those students. In 1989, he and a few other alumni established the African American Alumni Council to bring more of their fellow graduates into active involvement with VCU. "We wanted to tie the particular interests and concerns of African Americans to VCU and make a strong connection with the school, something many of us did not feel as students. We needed to establish that positive sense of warmth and welcome for African American alumni--and for students, so they will feel the connection and want to continue it." Gail Nottingham '82MPA/H&S, who was the Council's second president, continues to focus "on the students who are here, to provide the nurturing they need to be successful and graduate. Often,we know better than the university what they need; we needed to take responsibility for our own." She adds, "We were also looking outward to increase support for VCU from the African American alumni."
Perhaps President Grace Harris has the most dramatic sense of times changing. "From a university that four decades ago would not admit a highly-qualified undergraduate student because she was black," Harris says, "VCU has now become a university where that same student has moved on to become the Dean of the School of Social Work in 1982, then in 1990 Vice Provost for Continuing Studies and Public Service, then Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs in 1992, and, most recently, Acting President for the summer of 1995. While each of these appointments represents great advancements in my career, becoming dean was the most significant professional accomplishment and personal victory for me given the complete turn of events it entailed."
RPI was indeed a different kind of school. Because of that, a core of RPI faculty, students, and staff were ready to deal with racial issues early on, in an unofficial and quiet way. As Ed Peeples comments, "A lot of RPI students were older, more mature, worked and knew what the world was like." Their legacy is an essential trait in VCU's character today, its diversity. One of VCU's strengths is its varied student body with the largest minority enrollment--16 percent African American, 10 percent other minorities--of any of Virginia's traditionally white universities and its strongly diverse faculty--5 percent African American, 7 percent other minorities--and administration--12 percent African American, 2 percent other minorities.
In social work, in the arts and other disciplines, individuals at RPI reached out for change and toward each other. For many of them, as Ruby Walker says, those values of social justice and democracy "were in the hearts of the people."
The following issue of Shafer Court Connections printed several letters from readers commenting on "The Was My Time." Some of these letters are reprinted below.
"This Was My Time" brought back many memories of my days at RPI, 1947-50. I was active in the interracial Richmond Intercollegiate Council and worked closely with students from other local colleges. Our faculty mentors were RPI's Dr. Alice Davis and Rev. Samuel Gandy, chaplain at Virginia State University.
When Paul Robeson gave a concert at the segregated Mosque, I was president of the RIC. We decided to attend as a group, with Dr. Davis as our leader. When we started to go up the stairs to the balcony, the guard said, "Upstairs is for colored." Very calmly, as was her style, Dr. Davis responded, "We all have colored blood." We went to the balcony and thoroughly enjoyed the performance.
Dr. David Jeffreys '48BS'50MS/SW
Reading "This Was My Time" in the summer issue was fantastic for me. I had no idea that RPI had admitted Hilda Warden as a student the year after I graduated.
I was an active member of the Richmond Intercollegiate Council for two or three years. The experience was was both very rewarding and very frustrating. After a year of meetings, my group from the council sent out questionaires and survey cards to RPI students asking whether they would approve, disapprove, or were undecided about having Negroes in class or attending special meetings and institutes with Negro students within the School of Social Work. Council members from RPI were called into Dr. Hibbs' office and told 1) leave the college or 2) quit doing the surveys.
Students at RPI were receptive to integration. I'm not sure that parents of these students were too pleased with the prospect, and I think Dr. Hibbs had already heard from a few of them. This was the last semester of my senior year. I chose to graduate.
The council also worked toward an integrated church service. This failed as well. The pastor of the church at the last moment had the black students ushered to the balcony.
Forty-six years later, I realize that our committee perhaps did some good after all.
Joy Mathis Post
Thank you for sharing your cover story on integration. It reminds me that things really aren't as awful as they used to be--and haven't improved as much as they should have, either. Historically it's a good persective on RPI and VCU for someone unfamiliar with it; this truly is an interesting university.
I would like a couple of copies of your excellent Shafer Court Connections magazine for a couple of special people in there that I would like to distribute this to. You did a beautiful job with the cover story.
Dr. Francis M. Foster Sr.,
historian and VCU professor of dentistry
Thank you for sending me copies of the Sumer 1995 issue of Shafer Court Connections. I am pleased that the article on the integration of Richmond Professional Institute and Virginia Commonwealth University turned out so well.
Dr. Grace E. Harris '60MSW/SW
Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs
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