February 10, 2010 — University of Virginia President John T. Casteen III honored 1962 U.Va. graduate Amos Leroy "Roy" Willis with a plaque at 43 West Lawn on Tuesday, recognizing him as the first African-American graduate of the College of Arts & Sciences, the first African-American student to live on the Lawn and a pioneer for racial equality.
The ceremonies in the Colonnade Club at Pavilion VII included addresses from both Maurice Apprey, dean of the Office of African-American Affairs, and Casteen, who gave a short introduction to Willis and his lifelong achievements.
"You will find very few plaques around Grounds," Casteen said. "They are reserved for the most extraordinary people and extraordinary things."
Willis, currently the CEO of Roy Willis and Associates Inc., a California-based real estate development consulting firm, graduated in 1962 with a B.S. in chemistry after transferring from Norfolk State College in 1959. He originally gained admission to the University through the School of Engineering and Applied Science with the intent to earn a degree in chemical engineering. but quickly realized his passion lay elsewhere.
Willis then requested that University administration grant him admission into the College, but found that they resisted due to the fact that the College only provided for white students at that time.
Willis charged forward, determined to gain admission and break the barrier of segregation in the College.
"One of the reasons I came to the College was to redeem the fact that the College of William & Mary turned me down strictly because of race," Willis said. He added that while his initial interest in Sputnik sparked a desire to explore chemical engineering, he ultimately wanted to contribute to the liberal arts.
Citing University founder Thomas Jefferson's famous "all men are created equal" quote from the Declaration of Independence, Willis eventually coerced the administration into granting him the transfer, making him the first African-American student to enroll in Arts & Sciences.
Willis' first few years at the University proved successful, and he was ultimately selected to live on the Lawn from 1961 to 1962, years during which selection was based solely on academic achievement.
"It was great living on the Lawn," Willis said. "It was a real honor to live there and it's so beautiful. I often tell folks I've lived a lot of different places, but this might have been my best address," referencing 43 West Lawn.
After graduating in 1962, he earned an MBA from Harvard University.
Throughout his stay at the University, Willis also engaged in activities to promote racial equality. After the historical Greensboro sit-ins took place, Willis and several other African-American students picketed the off-Grounds University Theater, which was segregated.
Casteen called Willis "not just a pioneer, but the pioneer" in terms of equality at the University.
Willis said that he became interested in business after realizing that there were "far too few blacks who understood business and economics."
"I recognized that a lot of our progress would eventually be dependent upon our ability to get involved in this economic development and finance and business," he said. "That was the way I pursued working in social justice programs and lower-income urban communities."
Today, many of Willis' real estate projects are deeply intertwined with these social justice programs, a concept he refers to as "redevelopment."
"Redevelopment addresses blighted urban communities and that's kind of what my career has always focused on, improving and redeveloping our cities socially, economically and physically," Willis said.
"It's the cloth that I'm cut from. And today is about legacy," he said, citing several instances of family members who pursued noble professions.
His twin children also graduated from the College, Nia in 1993 and Maceo in 1994. The plaque mentions their names as "among the first second-generation African-American graduates from the College."
Willis ended his speech by giving his grandson, Robert, the podium. He read a short story about going to see his grandfather honored at a reception in Virginia.
Apprey acknowledged that Willis' recognition is somewhat past due, but said that good things take time.
"Rome wasn't built in a day," Apprey said.