UVA and the History of Race: Confronting Labor Discrimination

UVA and the History of Race: Confronting Labor Discrimination

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Editor’s note: Even an institution as historic as the University of Virginia has stories yet to be told. Some are inspiring, while the truths of others are painful, but necessary for a fuller accounting of the past. As Baptist minister and former Southern Christian Leadership Council leader Fred Shuttlesworth once said, “If you don’t tell it like it was, it can never be as it ought to be.”

The president’s commissions on Slavery and on the University in the Age of Segregation were established to find and tell those stories. “UVA and the History of Race” – a joint project of UVA Today, the president’s commissions, and faculty members and researchers – presents some of them, written by those who did the research. The project reflects UVA’s educational mission and the commission’s charge to educate, and to support the institution as a living laboratory of learning.

Find all of the stories published to date at UVA Today.

On Jan. 16, 1943, 28 Black women employed at the University of Virginia Hospital staged a walkout after hospital Superintendent Dr. Carlisle S. Lentz refused to accept their petition for higher wages.1 The University employed all of the women as “ward maids,” a position that the hospital had reserved exclusively for Black women. They assisted nurses, changed linens and performed other essential work that enabled UVA health care providers to care for hundreds of patients each day. Among the hospital’s paid staff, they also earned the lowest wages and worked the longest hours.

In response to the walkout, Lentz laid off all 28 women and temporarily replaced them with white women volunteering for the Red Cross and the UVA Hospital Circle of the King’s Daughters.2 While Lentz sought replacements for the ward maids, members of Charlottesville’s Black community formed a citizen’s committee to discuss a resolution to the walkout with University President John Lloyd Newcomb.3

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With persistently lower pay and longer work weeks than white employees, Black employees of the University Hospital organized to push for improvements in the 1940s and ’50s. Here, Black workers are seen in a segregated cafeteria in February of 1954. (Claude Moore Health Sciences Library)

On Jan. 23, the committee – consisting of African American community leaders T.J. Sellers, Rev. E. Lloyd Jemison and Douglas Edwards – wrote Newcomb to request a meeting and to describe the reason for the walkout: “They [the ward maids] contend that the original petition, asking for a moderate salary increase was made after they had found it impossible to meet the mounting costs of living in our city on their $7.00 per week base pay scale.”

The committee’s letter even detailed the financial straits low wages put Black hospital workers in: “The average maid has to spend $2.00 per week for room rent, $2.50 for food, $1.40 for transportation, 25 cents for uniforms, $1.70 for shoes and clothing. 35 cents for industrial insurance, 25 cents for church dues, 50 cents for recreation, and 35 cents for miscellaneous items, or a total of $9.30 for the basic necessities of life. … It is becoming more difficult each day to stretch their pay check to cover these essentials.”4

Newcomb declined to meet the citizen’s committee.5 Instead, he spoke with each of the women individually and offered to raise their salaries to $9.00 a week because the hospital needed the women back at work. Lentz could only temporarily rely on volunteers to do the work of the ward maids, and in wartime Virginia’s tight labor market, the superintendent would have difficulty hiring other women on a permanent basis to do the job at such low wages.6 If UVA went much longer without the ward maids and their essential contributions, Lentz and Newcomb would need to close whole wings of the hospital. Thus, they offered the raises in a bid to keep the hospital open and also in hopes of ending future work stoppages through a refusal to engage in any sort of collective bargaining. The new wages offered to the ward maids were still 30 cents less than a living weekly wage. Nonetheless, many of the women accepted the offer to resume their work at UVA Hospital.7

That walkout was part of a broader campaign during the 1940s and 1950s that the hospital’s Black employees waged for fair compensation and equal opportunities. Their victories were rarely complete, but through this fight, Black men and women made meaningful progress toward dismantling the racism embedded in UVA Hospital at its founding.

Nineteenth-century faculty at the University of Virginia dehumanized African Americans and contributed to the development, locally and nationally, of a discriminatory medical culture. When, in the early 20th century, the University decided to build its own hospital for clinical training, it created an institution that reflected and reinforced this culture.

UVA Hospital complex buildings photographed sometime between 1907 and 1915. (Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library)

UVA opened the hospital in 1901 to support the University’s medical education program and provide subsidized health care to Virginians who could not afford it. It was also an institution that was designed to uphold white supremacy. In this foundational period, medical racism flourished at the University, and prominent members of the medical faculty promoted race science as critical to understanding the high prevalence of illness and death among African Americans.

Paul B. Barringer, a professor of medicine, the chair of the University Faculty from 1895 to 1903, and the first superintendent of UVA Hospital, was nationally known for a series of abhorrent addresses that promoted white supremacy. In 1900, while spearheading the construction of the hospital, he proclaimed: “I may state as a Southerner and a physician, I am familiar with the physicians of the South, and it is the almost universal opinion of these men, who should and do know more of the Negro than all classes combined, that the Negro, as a race, is steadily degenerating both morally and physically.”8

Like many hospitals in the United States, UVA Hospital assigned patients to segregated spaces according to their race, wealth and gender. By 1907, all male patients were assigned to the hospital’s North Pavilion, while women were assigned to the matching South Pavilion. In both buildings, middle-class and wealthy white patients were assigned private rooms on the well-lit ground and second floors, while indigent white patients were assigned to open wards on the ground floor. Indigent Black patients were assigned to inferior open wards in the basement, and a few smaller rooms in the basement were made available for paying Black patients.9

In the early 20th century, the hospital assigned indigent Black patients to open wards in the basement. This view shows one of the wards as it exists today. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

The men and women who worked in the hospital were similarly sorted into a strict hierarchy where race and gender determined opportunity. Administrative positions, medical faculty appointments and trade positions (e.g., electricians, carpenters) were reserved for white men. Nursing and clerical positions were reserved for white women. Black men and women, however, could gain employment only as orderlies, cooks and ward maids.10

These men and women were essential to the hospital, but the University did not value Black workers. Positions reserved for white employees paid more, received better benefits, required fewer hours and were more prestigious than the jobs reserved for Black employees. This racial division of labor ensured that no white man or woman employed at the hospital earned as little or would be in as desperate a financial situation as those Black women who walked out in 1943. The hospital’s discriminatory practices against Black employees remained unchanged until World War II, when developments in the national labor market and the Second Great Migration provided Charlottesville’s Black community with new opportunities to fight.

A modern view of the area in UVA Hospital that once housed wards for Black patients and staff spaces for Black employees. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

As early as January 1941, Superintendent Lentz reported to President Newcomb that U.S. mobilization for war was causing a shortage of orderlies, janitors and maids at UVA Hospital: “We experienced increasing difficulty in getting the right type of help for this work. While it does not appear to be generally known, a great many of the colored population have gone to the larger centers, being attracted by the much higher wages paid in munition factories, etc.”11

Those who remained at the hospital campaigned for better wages and hours. Initially, their efforts were loosely organized. On March 2, 1942, Black men employed as orderlies during the night shift threatened a work stoppage. The next day, Lentz reported the situation to the hospital’s leadership team: “At first, they stated that they would quit work unless an immediate pay increase was given them. Notices were placed on the bulletin board, presumably by them, which threatened anyone who took their place. Finally, the night orderlies agreed to work until March 12 but said that they would quit then unless a raise was received.”12

Lentz and Newcomb apparently prevented a strike by promising that the University of Virginia would lobby the General Assembly to fund a wage increase.13 In 1942, they made a similar promise to the ward maids, and, in 1943, when it was clear that Lentz and Newcomb would not fulfill their pledge, the 28 ward maids staged a walkout.14

After the walkout, Black workers at the hospital continued to act collectively. On March 7, 1944, the men employed as orderlies threatened to walk out unless the hospital immediately reduced their workday from 12 hours to eight hours. Hoping to avoid another work stoppage, Newcomb and Lentz hurriedly secured support within four days from the Board of Visitors and the Virginia State Director of Budget for an eight-hour work rule.15

In the wake of these early victories, Black employees at the hospital formally organized themselves as Local 550 of the State, County, and Municipal Workers of America (SCMWA-CIO).16 In 1948, an uncredited author in Local 550’s newsletter, “The Beam,” described the reasons for forming the union: “It was born here at the University of Virginia during the chaotic days of World War II at a time when many service employees, because of having to work excessively long hours at pitifully small salaries, were quitting in alarming numbers. It was then, that those who had decided to stay and keep the ‘ball a-rolling’ decided to organize and, through affiliation with the CIO, seek better wages and working conditions.”17

The names of a few of the men and women who formed Local 550 have survived in the University’s archives. One of the most prominent, and a figure who loomed large in the history of Charlottesville’s civil rights movement, was Randolph Lewis White. In 1990, Eugene Williams, a leader in the fight to desegregate Charlottesville’s public schools, had this to say about White: “He was a legend. He had the vision to see civil rights when others didn’t even want to mention the words.”18

When White moved to Charlottesville in 1931, he first gained employment as a janitor in UVA Hospital, but he was overqualified for the position, as he had served as a clerk in the U.S. Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Office and later worked as a machinist.19 After a short period of time, Superintendent Lentz quickly recognized White’s abilities and made him the supervisor of orderlies, ward maids and janitors – the highest position a Black man could achieve in UVA Hospital.20 Today, White is more widely remembered as the founder of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Tribune, a weekly newspaper that primarily served the region’s African American community.21

White joined other Black employees who risked their livelihoods to form Local 550. They enlisted UVA alumnus F. Palmer Weber (BA ’34, MA ’38, Ph.D. ’40), who served in the FDR administration, was a member of the NAACP’s National Board and also the CIO’s Political Action Committee.22 Weber, White and others frequently met to strategize.23 Years later, White recalled that he participated in the union drive because the established economic and political powers “didn’t care nothing about the individual.” He added, “Whether you’re white or Black, they’ll just cut you down, like mowing hay. But when people band together, you can do a whole lot.”24

In 1944, Lentz knew that the hospital’s Black employees held meetings, but he did not entirely know their purpose. He reported to President Newcomb: “The orderlies and janitors, numbering variously from 62 to 76, were in an ugly mood on several occasions. There were many clandestine meetings throughout town when they were harangued by members of their own group and outside agitators.”25

After almost a year of organizing, the Virginia regional office of the CIO informed Lentz that the hospital’s attendants, orderlies, maids and janitors had formed Local 550 of the SCMWA-CIO. Union leaders also asked Lentz for a meeting to discuss a collective agreement within the framework of Virginia’s public employee laws.26 Lentz and Newcomb met with the union leaders, but they stalled negotiations in spring 1945 while they waited for Virginia Attorney General Abram Penn Staples to provide a legal opinion on the right of public employees to unionize.27 When Staples finally wrote that state law prohibited UVA from recognizing the union, the CIO and the leaders of Local 550 ignored the opinion and continued to demand recognition.28

Carlisle Lentz served as UVA Hospital superintendent from 1931 to 1950, a period during which Black employees organized to force Lentz and President John Lloyd Newcomb to concede to improvements in pay and working conditions. (Claude Moore Health Sciences Library)

By the summer, Lentz and Newcomb relented and negotiated an agreement that guaranteed better hours, benefits and wages for the hospital’s Black employees.29 While University leaders stalled negotiations in the spring, Local 550 continued to organize and persuaded the hospital’s dietary workers to join the union. After adding these men and women, Local 550 had successfully recruited 80% of the UVA Hospital’s Black workforce into the union.30 Furthermore, Local 550, through the CIO regional office, developed a relationship with the office of Virginia Gov. Colgate Darden.31 If Lentz and Newcomb did not recognize the union that summer, they might have faced a devastating work stoppage without the support of the governor’s office.

The University’s official recognition of Local 550 was short-lived. On Feb. 8, 1946, the Virginia General Assembly passed a joint resolution to prohibit state officers and agencies from recognizing public employee unions. Without recognition, the union could not directly engage in collective bargaining with the University.32

Undeterred, Local 550 did not disband. The union survived into the 1950s, and its leaders continued to press for improved working conditions and fair compensation indirectly through internal “employee committees.”33

Black workers at UVA Hospital achieved significant victories through collective action. Between 1944 and 1948, their workweek was reduced from 72 hours to 48 hours; overtime pay went from nothing to time-and-a-half, holidays with pay rose from four to 13 days, sick leave doubled, and salaries increased by more than 100%. After 1948, they successfully fought to have long-time temporary workers classified as state employees and gained both health insurance and retirement benefits.34

Meetings between Black workers and hospital management during this period also brought about changes to UVA Hospital’s division of labor. In 1948, Gussie P. Harris and Lucile Blakey were the first Black women to be promoted from ward maid to hospital aide.35 Three years later, another breakthrough occurred when the hospital looked to the Black community to address persistent nursing shortages. That year the hospital hired its first Black registered nurses: Honor Mobley, Weda Gilmore and Annie White. UVA Hospital also partnered with Burley High School to develop a program to train Black men and women as licensed practical nurses.36

A breakthrough for Black employees arrived when the hospital partnered with Burley High School to address its nursing shortage by establishing a program to train Black men and women as licensed practical nurses. This photo shows program graduates in 1954. (Claude Moore Health Sciences Library)

The gains that hospital workers achieved in pay, hours and opportunities had a significant effect on the overall economic wellbeing of Charlottesville’s Black community. By 1950, the UVA Hospital employed hundreds of African Americans and it is likely that it was the largest employer of Black men and women in Charlottesville.37 Personnel decisions made at UVA Hospital possibly had a more significant impact on the Black community’s economic wellbeing than those of any other employer in Charlottesville.

In the 1940s and 1950s, Black workers at the hospital made significant progress toward breaking down its racial division of labor, but their victory was far from complete. In 1965, federal investigators responded to a complaint from the NAACP that the hospital was not in compliance with the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. When they visited the UVA Hospital, the investigators wrote in their report that none of the facility’s 170 attending physicians or 196 interns, residents and fellows were Black. Approximately 5% of the hospital’s 200 graduate nurses were Black, while about 95% of the 90 lower-paid practical nurses were Black. And of the remaining 700 administrative and support staff, 400 were Black.38

Another 1967 report from the UVA Hospital’s Housekeeping Department shows that the division was racially integrated in the 1960s, but the vast majority of employees were Black. Of the 170 people who worked in the department, 136 were Black.39

These two reports show that the racial division of labor established at the hospital in 1901 was still in place in the 1960s. Black men and women were denied opportunities in the hospital’s most powerful positions, and their opportunities were primarily limited to essential but less valued jobs.

In 1963, 20 years after the citizens committee asked to meet with President Newcomb, two leaders of Charlottesville’s Black community, the Rev. R.A. Johnson and the Rev. James B. Hamilton who met with UVA Hospital Director John Stacey. They discussed discriminatory wage scales, unequal employment opportunities and segregated patient facilities.40 Soon after their meeting, Stacey dismissed their concerns in a letter. He also suggested that the hospital, not the Black community, should be credited with the hard-fought progress that had already been made. He wrote: “Your committee might wish to recognize the leadership exerted by the hospital in establishing employment opportunities, in providing education and training for the advancement of Negroes, and in accepting the Negro many years ago as an integral member of the hospital team working on behalf of our patients regardless of color.”41

By 1970, Charlottesville’s Black community could not expect University leaders to enact the change needed to eliminate UVA Hospital’s racial division of labor. A new generation of activists would need to continue the work of Randolph Lewis White, Local 550 and the other Black men and women who campaigned for fair compensation and equal employment opportunities more than 20 years earlier. 

Dan Cavanaugh is the Alvin V. and Nancy Baird Curator of Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library.

Up next: The University in the era of Massive Resistance.

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Notes
1. The present-day University of Virginia Medical Center was called “The University of Virginia Hospital” or “UVA Hospital” during much of the 20th century. This name will be used throughout this article when referring to the UVA Medical Center. Letter from T.J. Sellers, Reverend E. Loyd Jemison and Douglas Edwards to J.L. Newcomb. Jan. 24, 1943. Papers of the President, 1943-1944. RG-2/1/2.541 Subseries I Box: 7 Folder: Medical Department—Hospital 1943-1944. Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.


2. Lentz, C.S. Report of the UVA Hospital Superintendent, Jan. 18, 1943. Annual Reports to the President, 1942-1943. RG-2/1/1.381. Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.


3. Letter from T.J. Sellers, Reverend E. Loyd Jemison, and Douglas Edwards to J.L. Newcomb. Jan. 24, 1943. Papers of the President, 1943-1944. RG-2/1/2.541 Subseries I Box: 7 Folder:Medical Department—Hospital 1943-1944. Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.


4. Ibid.


5. Letter from J.L. Newcomb to T.J. Sellers. Feb. 2, 1943. Papers of the President, 1943-1944. RG-2/1/2.541 Subseries I. Box: 7 Folder: Medical Department—Hospital, 1943-1944. Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections, University of Virginia.


6. When asked by a Hospital administrator, presumably Lentz, whether they would take over dishwashing from volunteer canteen workers, Mrs. Clemons of the Hospital Circle said that “she wished it clearly understood that the organization did not do this, as the case was definitely a labor situation.” Minute Book of the Regular Meetings of the University of Virginia Hospital Circle, September 1940-June 1945. The University of Virginia Hospital Auxiliary Collection, 1908-2014. MS-13. Box: 1 Folder: 4 Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, University of Virginia.


7. Lentz, C.S. Report of the UVA Hospital Superintendent, May 4, 1944. Annual Reports of the President. RG-2/1/1.381. Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.


8. Barringer, P.B. (1900). The Sacrifice of a Race. Raleigh, N.C.: Edwards Broughton, Printers and Binders. p.28.


9. Moll. W. and Savitt, T.L. (September, 1975). The Early Years of the University of Virginia Hospital: An Analysis of Patients’ Records. Virginia Medical Monthly. Volume 102. p. 718.


10. This division of labor is apparent in a personnel report the University of Virginia submitted to the Governor of Virginia in 1937. In the report the term “Negro worker” is used interchangeable with the job titles of “Hospital Orderly” and “Ward Maid”. [Personnel Report to the Governor]. Circa April 7, 1937. Papers of the President, 1937-1938. RG-2/1/2.491 Subseries III Box: 12 Folder: Personnel (survey papers), 1937-1938. Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.


11. Lentz. C.S. Report of the UVA Hospital Superintendent, Jan. 15, 1941. Annual Reports to the President, 1940-1941. RG-2/1/1.381. Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.


12. Meeting Minutes of the Executive Committee of UVA Hospital. March 3, 1942. Hospital Executive Director’s Office Papers. MS-7. Box: 1 Folder: 27. Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, University of Virginia.


13. Ibid.


14. Letter from T.J. Sellers, Reverend E. Loyd Jemison, and Douglas Edwards to J.L. Newcomb. Jan. 24, 1943. Papers of the President, 1943-1944. RG-2/1/2.541 Subseries I Box: 7 Folder--Medical Department—Hospital 1943-1944. Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.


15. Lentz, C.S. Report of the UVA Hospital Superintendent, May 4, 1944. Annual Reports to the President, 1943-1944. RG-2/1/1/1.381. Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.


16. In later years, Local 550 changed its affiliation from SCMWA-CIO to United Public Workers-CIO (UPW-CIO).


17. “Local 550 Launches Intensive Drive for New Members, New Votes.” Dec. 6, 1948. The Beam. Published by Local 550 United Public Workers-CIO.


18. Maurer, D. “Yesteryears: Randolph White.” Daily Progress. July 29, 2014.


19. Ibid.


20. Lentz, C.S. Report of the UVA Hospital Superintendent, Jan. 18, 1937. Annual Reports to the President, 1936-1937. RG-2/1/1.381. Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.


21. Maurer, D. “Yesteryears: Randolph White.” Daily Progress. July 29, 2014.


22. Sullivan, P. (1996). Days of Hope: Race and Democracy in the New Deal Era. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press. p. 83.


23. Ibid.


24. Ibid.


25. Lentz, C.S. Report of the UVA Hospital Superintendent, May 4, 1944. Annual Reports to the President, 1943-1944. RG-2/1/1.381. Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.


26. Lentz, C.S. Biennium Report of the UVA Hospital Superintendent, Jan. 16, 1946. Annual Reports of the President, 1945-1946. RG-2/1/1.381. Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.


27. Letter from J.L. Newcomb to Abram P. Staples. March 12, 1945. Papers of the President 1943-1945. RG-2/1/2.541 Box: 18 Folder: Medical Department--Hospital. Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.


28. Superintendent Lentz reported that in the spring of 1945 the Attorney General prohibited him from engaging in collective bargaining with the Union. Lentz, C.S. Biennium Report of the UVA Hospital Superintendent, Jan. 16, 1946. Annual Reports to the President 1945-1946.  RG-2/1/1.381. Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.


29. Lentz, C.S. Biennium Report of the UVA Hospital Superintendent, Jan. 16, 1946. Annual Reports to the President 1945-1946.  RG-2/1/1.381. Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.


30. Letter from Ernest B. Pugh to J.L. Newcomb. May 3, 1945. Papers of the President, 1943-1945. RG-2/1/2.541. Box: 18 Folder: Medical Department–Hospital, 1945.


31. Lentz, C.S. Biennium Report of the UVA Hospital Superintendent, Jan. 16, 1946. Annual Reports to the President 1945-1946.  RG-2/1/1.381. Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.


32. Virginia-General Assembly, Regular Session: 985-1056 1946. Senate Joint Resolution No. 12 Unionization of Officers and Employees of the Commonwealth Agreed to Feb. 8, 1946.


33. “Local 550 Launches Intensive Drive for New Members, New Voters.” The Beam. Dec. 6, 1948. Published by Local 550 United Public Workers-CIO.


34. Ibid.


35. “Sisters Gussie P. Harris and Lucile Blakey, Appointed Hospital Aides A Precedent.” The Beam. July 19, 1948. Published by Local 550 United Public Workers-CIO.


36. “U.Va. Hospital Employs Negro Registered Nurses: Trains Negro Girls for Practical Nursing.” Roanoke Tribune, XI:28. Aug. 9, 1952.


37. There were 255 regularly employed Black men and women in UVA Hospital’s Housekeeping, Attendant, Dietary, and Housekeeping Departments. “210 U.Va. Hospital Negro Employees win Job Reclassifications, Salary Boosts, Retroactive to July 1, 1948.” The Beam. Aug. 30, 1948. Published by Local 550 United Public Workers-CIO.


38. “Report of an Investigation of Compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act on the Part of the University of Virginia Hospital.” April 30, 1965. Papers of the President, 1964-1965. RG-2/1/2.681 Box: 25 Folder: Medical Center-Hospital 1964-1965. Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.


39. “Report on the Racial Composition of the Housekeeping Department.” Nov. 3, 1967. Hospital Executive Director’s Office Papers. MS-7. Box: 21 Folder: 18. Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, University of Virginia.


40. Letter from John M. Stacey to Reverend R.A. Johnson. Sept. 24, 1963. Papers of the President, 1963-1964. RG-2/1/2.671. Box: 24 Folder: Medical Center-Hospital-General, 1963-1964. Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.


41. Ibid.

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