“Walter Ridley was an extraordinary educator and leader,” said Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education and Human Development. “His life and career demonstrate the values, conviction and commitment to action and equality that serve as models for the work we do as a school of education and human development. Recognizing his legacy and making visible his contributions and courage are just one way that we can carry his work forward.”
Early Details of His Life
Ridley was born April 1, 1910, one of eight children of Mary Haywood Ridley and John Hoskins Ridley; John Ridley’s father had been enslaved in North Carolina and eventually bought his freedom and his wife’s. Walter Ridley’s parents moved to Newport News, where John Ridley worked in shipbuilding, rising through the ranks and then cofounding Crown Savings Bank. Mary Ridley, a musician, taught piano.
Walter Ridley earned a bachelor’s degree, cum laude, in psychology and a master’s in educational administration from Howard University in 1931 and ’33, respectively. Two years later, he joined Virginia State College (now Virginia State University) in Petersburg as a psychology professor and director of extension.
In 1939, he married another trailblazer, Henrietta Bonaparte, who was the only Black student to graduate in her class from Macalaster College in St. Paul, Minnesota. (And yes, she was a distant descendant of Napoleon Bonaparte.)
Going to UVA
When Ridley, determined to pursue a doctoral degree, applied to UVA in the 1940s and was denied, he wrote back, “My father has paid taxes in this state since before I was born and I am entitled to study here,” according to the biography accompanying some of his papers housed at Elizabeth City State University.
Under the commonwealth’s laws segregating education of Black and white students, Virginia was willing to pay for Ridley to go to another university out of state to pursue his doctorate. He attended the University of Minnesota and The Ohio State University and was researching audiovisual materials, but developed a hemorrhage in his eye and was advised to stop that research. He returned to work at Virginia State.
The lawsuit of another potential Black student, Gregory Swanson, enabled Ridley to push on the door of admission again in 1950. Swanson, with the support of NAACP lawyers, won his case and was admitted to the UVA School of Law for a master’s program (although he left before earning that degree).
At that time, University administrators, beginning to grapple with integration, decided to recruit African American students deemed “highly likely to be successful.” Education Dean Lindley Stiles, a proponent of desegregation, was visiting Virginia State when he met Ridley and encouraged him to reapply to UVA. Ridley was accepted in the fall of 1951, changing UVA history when he walked the Lawn two years later, graduating with high honors and as a member of Kappa Delta Pi honor society.
Because he was commuting from Petersburg, Ridley did not encounter the room and board problems that Black students who came later faced. As his papers note, his time at UVA did not appear to be marked by open resistance to his presence, or the violence that occurred several years later when other African Americans integrated other Southern schools. His pioneering achievement in desegregating the University, however, was noted in the national and international press.
When the Curry School published an interview with Ridley in its newsletter 25 years later, he said he had always been treated with respect at the University. Both Black employees and white University students told him on multiple occasions they were proud of his achievement, he said.
In a 2008 documentary film made about Ridley, his daughter, Yolanda Ridley Scheunemann, and UVA alumna Teresa Bryce told the story of African American janitors surreptitiously watching Ridley through a window as he demonstrated a statistics problem at the blackboard in class. Apparently he felt that eerie sense that he was being watched, but didn’t know who was there until he left the building. Scheunemann said the men parted to let him pass and said, “Oh, Mr. Ridley, we’re so glad you’re here.”
Scheunemann, who died in 2011 at age 69, remembered her father’s graduation on the Lawn, her mother’s sense of happiness and pride, and that the crowd noticeably applauded when her father received his degree. (Scheunemann’s younger brother, Don Leroy, who was there, too, died in 2004.)
“It was just a peaceful, beautiful, fulfilled day,” she recalled.
Ridley not only broke the color barrier in enrolling at UVA, but also continued to enhance higher education for African Americans throughout his career.
He returned to Virginia State College where he had been teaching since 1936, and after a total of 21 years there, served for a year in 1957 as academic dean of St. Paul’s College in Lawrenceville, Virginia. Then, in 1958, he was hired as president of Elizabeth City State Teachers College, a position he held for 10 years and “regarded as his most significant academic work,” according to his biography.
Those who worked with him recalled a strong leader with a bold vision who had exacting principles as he worked to improve the academic standing of this small institution of higher education, especially during the growing civil rights movement.
“The challenge to move forward was there,” said Evelyn A. Johnson, a leading professor at Elizabeth City State College at the time. “This strong, courageous, fearless man began planning, driving and pushing obstacles aside with alacrity, as if every moment could not and should not be lost. A perfectionist at heart, he was admired by some and disliked by others.”
He didn’t back down in his plans for improvement and quest for equity in education, at Elizabeth City State or for African Americans generally. He pushed for increased funding and was outspoken in his views, which wasn’t always appreciated by the North Carolina Board of Higher Education. Some say that he was pressured to resign.
“Schools are not equal in a democracy,” Ridley said in a speech to the student body in the early 1960s. “Southern schools are not equal to Northern schools; rural schools are not equal to city schools; and Negro schools are not equal to white schools. ... We must catch up to the other schools, and all students must have the opportunity to take responsibilities because this is a part of a democracy.”
Under his leadership, the college grew significantly, with the construction of new buildings and expansion of academic offerings, from one major in elementary education to 13 majors, and dropping “Teachers” from its name. Student enrollment at the college jumped from 400 in 1958 to more than 1,000 by 1965. For the first time, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools granted full accreditation in 1961. His efforts laid the groundwork for the college to join the University of North Carolina system in 1969.