Diversity March Honors U.Va.'s First African-American Graduate and Marks End of Black History Month

March 2, 2007 -- “This is where it started,” said Sonny Smith, president of the University chapter of The National Society of Black Engineers, as he took in the view of the Old Dorms quad on Wednesday afternoon.

Smith, along with other U.Va. students and faculty, gathered in the quad on Feb. 28 to celebrate the end of Black History Month by holding a march, organized by the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Center for Diversity and the University’s NSBE chapter.

The event, an attempt to incorporate engineers into the celebration of Black History Month, also hosted Robert Bland, the first African-American graduate of the University, as the keynote speaker.

“I was on the third floor of that first building,” Bland said, pointing through the quad to where he first lived when he arrived at the University in 1955.

As the march commenced, Bland, who graduated in 1959 with a degree in electrical engineering, took the lead, proudly holding the NSBE banner in front of him.

As the group walked down McCormick Road and through central Grounds, students held up posters with images and statements of the “March in Celebration.” The day’s itinerary encouraged singing along the way, and some began chanting, “Bobby stayed,” their voices echoing through the Bryan Hall colonnade.

“We thought the march would be something that not only African-American students could benefit from, but the entire University community,” said Carolyn Vallas, director of the Center for Diversity in Engineering. “When you think about Robert Bland being a trailblazer, considering the history of that time, what better way to honor him than a march on the last day of Black History Month?”

As the group gathered in the center of South Lawn, a moment of silence was held to “pay homage to the past and salute the present,” Bland said.

The gathering of people then continued on to Newcomb Hall Ballroom for a short ceremony, with Bland being the main speaker.

In his speech, Bland not only gave insight to the struggles he went through at the University, comparing his time here to the journey in “The Wizard of Oz,” but he provided motivation for students today to persevere.

“Sometimes, what you believe is more important than what you know,” Bland said, crediting his belief in God for getting him through tough times.

Third-year engineering student Ashley Rock said she is inspired by Bland’s story, especially because his path led him through the engineering school, which is what she is currently doing herself.

“He should be somebody’s hero, and he’s mine, definitely,” Rock said.

Bland concluded his speech by offering advice and hope for the new generation, commenting how, though the sun is setting on his generation, it is just rising for students of today.

“You are the future, this is your time,” Bland said. “So stand up, turn your face to look at the sun and step forward to meet your destiny, because it is in that destiny that we will find salvation for the world.”