September 8, 2009 — Almost two dozen of the first African-American students to attend the University of Virginia in the late 1950s and '60s reunited Friday for a panel discussion titled "Looking Back, Moving Forward," part of the two-day Early Days Alumni Reunion celebrating pioneering black alumni who desegregated the University.
Three of the alumni joined two current students on the panel, moderated by Deborah McDowell, director of the Carter G. Woodson Institute of African-American and African Studies. The panelists talked about why they came to U.Va. and how they feel now in staying connected to the University.
John Merchant, who in 1958 became the first black student to graduate from the Law School, peppered his serious comments with a sharp sense of humor. As the only black student enrolled in the school all three years, he said the first year the other students ignored him; the second year, some students practically apologized that he couldn't attend their social events because of the venues' prevailing whites-only policies; and by his third year, they were begging him to come if they changed the locations for events.
Merchant, whose parents moved from the South to Connecticut, where he was raised, said, "It was not my idea to come here. I had no interest in being a pioneer, especially in a negative majority community." Samuel Proctor, vice president of Virginia Union University, talked him into it, he said.
Although it took 17 years for him to return to the Grounds after getting his law degree, Merchant said it is worth it to come back and see the changes that have been made.
"I came, I survived," he said. "I don't talk about my negative experiences, and I probably never will. I want to move forward."
One of Merchant's daughters also went to U.Va. Law School, entering as the first black legacy student in law. He predicted there will be many more.
Dr. Vivian Pinn, who in 1967 was the second African-American woman to graduate from the School of Medicine, had a similar message for the alumni and current students in the audience. Despite the loneliness she felt being the only woman and only black person in her class, she has continued to be involved as an alumna, she said.
A Lynchburg native, Pinn said she was upset some years ago about one of the medical departments accepting a big donation from someone who worked for segregation, and she considered rescinding her own donation. She realized it was more important to make her voice heard, she said.
Pinn, who gave the University's commencement address in 2005, commended subsequent medical school deans and President John T. Casteen III for their dedication to improving the racial climate at U.Va.
While she was a student, she said the dean at the time never spoke to her, but when years later she became director of the Office of Research on Women's Health at the National Institutes of Health, she received a handwritten, congratulatory letter from him, which enabled her to forgive him.
Despite the pressures she felt and the way she was treated – as much for being female as for being black – she said she learned a lot from it.
"I am grateful for the University giving me the education to stand up and hold my own," she said.
Pinn did have a close friend at U.Va. She lived with Barbara Starks Favazza, who was the first African-American woman to graduate from the School of Medicine.
"If she hadn't been there, I'm not sure I would've made it," Pinn said, acknowledging Favazza, who sat in the audience.
Alumnus David Temple, who earned his bachelor's degree in psychology in 1969 and his master's in special education in '72, was instrumental in establishing on Grounds a chapter of Pi Lambda Phi fraternity, the first fraternity in the U.S to accept male students without regard to race or religion. It began at Yale University in 1895.
Temple recalled the U.Va. dean (now called provost), B.F.D. Runk, tried to prohibit the students from creating the fraternity chapter, but they did it anyway. By April 1969, there were about 40 members and more than 20 pledges.
Now a senior research scholar at the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement, Temple has had a varied career, including being a school principal, a program director at the National Science Foundation and working for Virginia Gov. Gerald Baliles.
Coming back to U.Va. for this reunion was "an uplifting experience," he said. "Seeing all the young students and the graduate students makes it feel … like we did something right."
Lauren Boswell, a fourth-year student who is president of the Black Student Alliance, said her parents did not want her to attend U.Va, preferring that she stay in the Northeast.
"I wanted to go to the University of Virginia to prove to my parents and my peers that it was a different place from what they thought," said Boswell, who is in the Jefferson Public Citizens program.
Her mother has seen that is true, Boswell said. Recently she told her daughter, "Look how far you all have come."
"My main goal has been to make sure black students feel that U.Va. is their own," she said.
Tim Lovelace is one of those students who has made the University his own; he has been actively involved for a decade. He earned his undergraduate degree in 2003, a law degree in '06 and is working on his doctorate in history.
Being the student member of the Board of Visitors in 2002-03 was an eye-opening experience, he said.
"It taught me to step back and look at the bigger picture, to reframe the discussion about what democracy means here," he said. Other areas to examine, he said, include the diversity of the faculty and staff and the use of minority contractors, toward which the University has committed serious efforts and resources in recent years.
In 2003, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the University of Michigan admission policy that awarded extra points to minority applicants, U.Va. had the dedication and courage to stand up for affirmative action, Lovelace said.
After the discussion, alumnus Charles Yancey said that even though his father worked as a custodian at U.Va., he always carried himself as if he owned it, and he encouraged his son to do the same.
Yancey, who graduated with a civil engineering degree in 1964, lived at home and walked to the Grounds every day.
"I moved from one world to another. It was like taking a trip every day," he said.
The current students are the reason he continues his involvement, he said. "What inspires me is … their enthusiasm and their participation in all aspects of student life."
Yancey's family regularly invited other black students to dinner and other social events, making them part of the local community.
McDowell said, "We know historically that African-American communities provided hospitality to these first black students."
She pointed out two other community members who attended the alumni events, Teresa Jackson Price and Maye Jackson, and acknowledged them for their support of the early students.
"We made our house their home away from home," Jackson said. "We had Saturday dinners and just tried to make it a fun evening."
The Early Days Alumni Reunion: "Living the Promise, Celebrating the Journey" also featured the "Slave to Scholar" guided tour focusing on the history of African Americans at U.Va., a reception at Carr's Hill and Saturday's home football game against the College of William & Mary.
Sponsors were the University's and Health System's offices of diversity, the Office of African-American Affairs and the president's office.