UVA and the History of Race: The Era of Massive Resistance

UVA and the History of Race: The Era of Massive Resistance

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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 an August evening in 1956, a racist demagogue threatened an interracial group meeting to promote better race relations in Charlottesville. John Kasper, who was fomenting violent resistance to school desegregation throughout the South, denounced the 30 or so members of the Virginia Council on Human Relations who were present.

Randolph White, publisher of the local African American newspaper, warned that he was ready to have him arrested. “Mr. Kasper,” he declared, “you’re on the edge of it!” Upon leaving, the Virginia Council on Human Relations members were greeted with a burning cross on the lawn of their meeting place, Westminster Presbyterian Church on Rugby Road.1 Such violent public behavior was unusual for Charlottesville, especially on the doorstep of Thomas Jefferson’s university.

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After a 1956 meeting in support of better race relations in Charlottesville, members of the Virginia Council on Human Relations were greeted with a burning cross on the lawn of Westminster Presbyterian Church on Rugby Road. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

The struggle to end racially segregated education dominated the Old Dominion’s public life in the 1950s. Much like the dispute over slavery and secession in the preceding century, the school crisis after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision involved and deeply affected the University of Virginia. The state government under which the University operated was firmly committed to the racial caste system, especially to the maintenance of public school segregation. In their initial reaction to the landmark U. S. Supreme Court rulings, the state’s leadership offered a plan strictly limiting, but not totally preventing, any crossing of the color barrier. That course changed markedly in 1956 when U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd, leader of the powerful Democratic Party faction that controlled Virginia’s government, called for a stand of massive resistance to Brown. Virginia, Byrd believed, should defy the federal courts and block desegregation everywhere in the state. Byrd’s turn to defiance meant the University and Charlottesville would be embroiled in a momentous clash of state policy and federal law.

The University’s leadership was involved in the first direct challenge to Virginia’s “separate but equal” schools. After a 1951 protest strike by Black students in Prince Edward County, NAACP attorneys filed a federal lawsuit attacking legally mandated racial separation. The state’s attorney general called upon UVA President Colgate W. Darden to testify in defense of the state’s practices. In its opinion, the federal court found Darden’s testimony convincing; it ruled in favor of segregated schooling, albeit with more attention to the equal aspect.2 On appeal, the Virginia case was grouped with similar cases in three other states. In its 1954 decision, the Supreme Court declared segregation in public education unconstitutional. The implementation decree issued the next year gave an ambiguous directive: to end segregation “with all deliberate speed.”

Whites in the University community and Charlottesville reacted to the ruling in three ways. A large but unorganized segment appeared reluctantly to accept token desegregation (as it existed at the University), perhaps with a state subsidy for those wishing to send their children for segregated private instruction (a plan Darden advocated). Another group called for unyielding defense of the caste system and the protection of white supremacy. This view found organizational expression as the Defenders of State Sovereignty and Individual Liberties (the Defenders), led by University mathematics professor E.J. Oglesby. Under Oglesby’s leadership, the Charlottesville-Albemarle Defenders chapter became one of the largest, most active, and well-funded chapters in the state. A smaller group, including Sarah Patton Boyle, who was married to a UVA professor, and members of the Virginia Council on Human Relations, openly supported the Brown decision. They experienced harassment and threats throughout the period.3

The active, well-led Charlottesville NAACP chapter took the initiative in responding to Brown in October 1955. Representing 43 African American students, NAACP attorney Oliver W. Hill petitioned the Charlottesville School Board to begin implementing desegregation. The board tabled the petition for further study, and after it failed to act by 1956, Hill filed suit in federal court seeking a desegregation decree. Federal District Judge John Paul – who earned his law degree from UVA in 1906 – heard the case in July and issued what NAACP lawyer S.W. Tucker termed “a beautiful ruling”: that the school board start ending race assignments of pupils in September.4 Paul’s ruling immediately evoked a strident, defiant outcry from segregationists. The Defenders held a mass rally at Lane High School with UVA Board of Visitors member Judge J. Segar Gravatt, who earned two degrees from UVA, as keynote speaker. In a fiery address, Gravatt advocated no compromise on segregation; it would be, he declared, a “compromise with evil.”5 The Defenders pledged to use only legal and political resistance, but racist agitators from the Deep South, who had made no such commitments, sought to organize in Charlottesville. During August 1956, the city was filled with tension, but a last-minute federal appeal delayed the September deadline.6

NAACP attorney Oliver W. Hill, right, petitioned the Charlottesville School Board to implement desegregation. After the board failed to act, Hill filed suit in federal court. (Arthur J. Morris Law Library)

Even before the Charlottesville suit was filed, Sen. Byrd took his stand for the utter defiance of Brown – for massive resistance. In late August, Virginia’s legislature met in special session to give the new policy legal form. Seeking to influence the special session, Oglesby and the Charlottesville-Albemarle Defenders presented a pro-segregation petition at the state Capitol containing 22,000 signatures. By contrast, President Darden testified against defying the federal courts and in favor of permitting token desegregation in compliant areas.7 Supporters of Byrd’s massive resistance proved stronger and prevailed, adopting a multifaceted defense of the color line in education. The pivotal law, though, was a mandate that the governor close any school under a federal desegregation order. As the Charlottesville case made its way through the federal appeals process in 1957, a General Assembly investigative committee unsuccessfully tried to intimidate several of the Black parents involved. “The people stayed strong under the pressure,” Oliver Hill later recalled, though one parent lost her job in consequence.8 In addition, the newly elected governor, J. Lindsay Almond Jr., rhetorically doubled down on massive resistance and pledged to enforce the policy. Almond, who was born in Charlottesville and grew up in Orange County, earned a degree from the UVA School of Law in 1923.

Attempting to block a judge’s order to admit Black students, Gov. J. Lindsay Almond Jr. in 1958 ordered the closing of two Charlottesville schools rather than admitting 12 Black students. (Small Special Collections)

Appeals and delays in the Charlottesville case ran out in May 1958, when Judge Paul ruled that his original order would take effect when schools opened in September. Through a last-minute series of ostensibly non-racial geographic assignments and tests, the school board attempted to maintain racial separation. Judge Paul, however, directed the admission of 10 Black students to Venable School, a white elementary school located in the University community, and two Black students to Lane High School, the city’s only white secondary school.9 Hoping for some way to avoid the crisis, the school board delayed the fall semester by a week. When the doors opened on Sept. 22, Gov. Almond ordered the closing of Venable and Lane. In obeying the school closing law, the state was denying education to 1,700 white students to block the admission of 12 Black students.

In ordering the closing of Venable School, shown today in this photo, and Lane High School in 1958, Gov. Almond denied education for 1,700 white students to block of admission of 12 Black students in Charlottesville. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

Anticipating the school closings, two groups formed to address the educational needs of the displaced white students. The Charlottesville Education Foundation, organized months earlier, had ties to the Defenders. Its goal was to create private elementary and secondary schools to perpetuate segregation. State grants to parents were expected to cover a portion of tuition charges. Nine mothers whose children attended Venable School set up the Parents’ Committee for Emergency Schooling in the weeks prior to the closings. Their declared aim was to operate only until the public schools reopened. The Charlottesville Education Foundation held classes in an old estate on Park Street near downtown Charlottesville; the Parents’ Committee for Emergency Schooling conducted classes mostly in the basements of private homes in the community bordering the University.

A ruling by Judge Paul in early October illustrated another defining difference between the groups. City teachers could not receive their pay and benefits at the temporary schools, Paul said, if enrollment was based on race. The Charlottesville Education Foundation clearly based enrollment on race; the Parents’ Committee for Emergency Schooling did not. Hence, most Venable teachers worked for the latter (none of the African American students applied to attend).

Lane High School, which today serves as the Albemarle County Office Building, was one of two Charlottesville schools that would serve as battlegrounds for public school integration. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

A University engineering professor, Frederick Morton, headed a joint committee to provide education to the high school students.10 In September, an advocacy group formed to support public schools: the Charlottesville Committee for Public Education. The group held a large rally at Memorial Gymnasium on the University Grounds. The group was not interracial and avoided taking a position on integration or segregation, stressing that its stand was only pro-public education. By November, the Charlottesville group became a chapter in the statewide Virginia Committee for Public Schools.11

On the same day in January 1959, state and federal courts ruled the school closing laws unconstitutional. In an unexpected move, Gov. Almond backed away from defiance and persuaded the legislature to enable the closed schools to reopen in February. Unlike Norfolk and Arlington, Charlottesville’s schools opened with segregation temporarily in place. The school board’s attorney convinced the federal appeals court to allow a stay until the September school term. The city needed more time to prepare, he argued, and would give tutoring to the dozen African American students remaining out of school. Finally, as the new school year began in September 1959, nine Black students entered Venable School and three attended Lane High School without overt incident.12

Parents accompany their children up the stairs to enter Venable Elementary School in September 1959, after Venable and Lane High School were forced to admit Black students. (The Daily Progress)

Reopening the schools did not settle the future of desegregation and public education in Virginia. Gov. Almond called a special session of the General Assembly and appointed a legislative commission with a mandate to create a plan limiting desegregation. Leon Dure, a retired newspaper editor living in Charlottesville, put forward a concept with the attractive title “Freedom of Choice,” which proved popular with the commission and a large cross section of the white public. Dure’s plan would subsidize parents wishing to educate their children in segregated, private schools.

Hardy C. Dillard, a UVA law professor, publicly predicted – accurately, it turned out – that the federal courts would eventually find the proposed state grants an evasive scheme and ban them.13 In addition to tuition grants, the General Assembly considered other methods, such as a pupil assignment plan and state constitutional amendments, to facilitate creation of private schools. University economists offered significant – and conflicting – commentary on the proposal to weaken constitutional protections for public education. Lorin A. Thompson, director of the Bureau of Economic and Population Research, issued a report skeptical of substituting a privately operated system for public schools; moreover, the attempt could do lasting damage to Virginia’s economy.14

Two members of UVA’s Economics Department, James M. Buchanan and G. Warren Nutter, provided a study to the legislators holding that a private system could be created without harming the economy. In addition, Buchanan and Nutter followed up with two Richmond newspaper articles summarizing their points while the constitutional change was under General Assembly debate.15 The attempt at constitutional change failed, but the adopted plan provided generous tuition grants for private education, created a state Pupil Placement Board, and made changes in the local school budgeting process. E.J. Oglesby, Almond’s appointee to the Pupil Placement Board, used his position as chair of the three-member board to slow desegregation to a trickle over the next four years. The county board of Prince Edward County used the budget changes to close that county’s public schools from 1959 to 1964.16

Historical markers at Venable School and the former Lane High School summarize the events that led to the desegregation of Charlottesville schools, and list the students who became known as the “Charlottesville Twelve.” (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

Subsidized by tuition grants, the Charlottesville Education Foundation created private, segregated schools: Robert E. Lee and Rock Hill Academy. Dean Ralph W. Cherry of the University’s School of Education stated his opposition to tuition grants as a matter of principle but accepted them as a temporary expedient in the current crisis. Leon Dure enthusiastically embraced the new private schools as an expression of “educational choice” and became their chief fundraiser. After retiring from the University, Oglesby taught mathematics in the private high school. In fall 1959, almost one-third of the white students from Venable and Lane High School attended the segregation academies. Their enrollment, however, steadily waned through the 1960s, and fell sharply in 1969 after federal courts disallowed tuition grants as unconstitutional evasions of desegregation. The academies finally closed their doors in 1979.17

From left, Sandra Wicks Lewis, Charles Alexander and Donald Martin descend the steps of Venable Elementary School during a 60th anniversary commemoration in 2019 of the desegregation of Charlottesville schools. Lewis would also become one of the first Black women to graduate from the College of Arts & Sciences, in 1972. She and her husband, who earned two UVA degrees, established the Lemuel E. and Sandra Wicks Lewis Bicentennial Scholars Fund for the College. (Photo by Andrew Shurtleff, The Daily Progress)

Prodding from additional federal court suits brought more gradual desegregation in Charlottesville’s schools. Just as in the University, serious efforts to desegregate did not develop until the late 1960s.18 The school closing law fell in 1959 and other legal remnants of massive resistance followed a few years later, but its mark was more lasting. The divisiveness, ill will, and sheer delay in that period rendered the achievement of true racial integration in Virginia’s public schools a far more elusive goal in the years ahead.

James Hershman is a lecturer in the Graduate Liberal Studies Program at Georgetown University. He is a former lecturer at UVA, where he earned his Ph.D. in Southern History.

Up Next: Our final installment, “Allies of Integration: The Consultative Resource Center for School Desegregation at UVA” and the challenges of change.

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Notes

1. “Kasper Says Will Run Human Relations Council Out Of Town,” Charlottesville Daily Progress (hereinafter cited as CDP), 24 August 1956, 3. Kasper was head of the Seaboard White Citizens Council. There were four cross burnings in Charlottesville during 1956, “Fourth Cross Burned On Charlottesville Lawn,” The Washington Post and Times Herald (hereinafter cited as WP), 9 December 1956, B6.

2. Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Va., 103 F.Supp. 337 (1952); Richard Kluger, Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America’s Struggle for Equality (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1976), 499-500.

3. For divisions among whites, see Dan Wakefield, “Charlottesville Battle, Symbol of the Divided South,” The Nation, 183 (15 September 1956), 210-213; Paul M. Gaston, Coming of Age in Utopia (Montgomery, AL: New South Books, 2010), 184-186. On the threats to Boyle and her allies, see Kathleen Murphy Dierenfield, “One ‘Desegregated Heart’: Sarah Patton Boyle and the Crusade for Civil Rights in Virginia,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 104(1996):251-284.

4. Benjamin Muse, “Why Charlottesville Is a Racial Test-tube,” WP, 22 July 1956, E1; Interview with George R. Ferguson, 4 December 1975, Charlottesville, VA; Interview with Oliver W. Hill, 5 October 1976, Richmond, VA; Interview with S.W. Tucker (quote), 19 September 1974, Richmond, VA .

5. “Speech of J. Segar Gravatt of Blackstone, Virginia Before The Defenders of State Sovereignty and Individual Liberties, Charlottesville, Virginia, July 23, 1956,” reprint in the Donald R. Richberg Papers, Manuscripts Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., Box 49 (quote); “Mass Meeting Backs Proposal To Ignore Integration Orders,” CDP, 24 July 1956, 1.

6. James H. Hershman Jr., “A Rumbling in the Museum: The Opponents of Virginia’s Massive Resistance (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Virginia, 1978), 251-253; Wakefield, “Charlottesville Battle,” 212. Richmond editor James J. Kilpatrick added fuel to the fire, “Alternatives in Charlottesville,” Richmond News Leader (hereinafter cited as RNL), 8 August 1956, 12.

7. Tom Hawley, “22,288 Sign Petition Against Integration,” RNL, 31 August 1956, 1; “Text of Darden’s Statement,” WP, 2 September 1956, A14; Robert E. Baker, “Va. U. President Testifies Against Stanley Plan,” WP, 6 September 1956, 1.

8. Ferguson and Hill interviews (quote); “Brief Case Believed Secret Hiding Place Of Tape Recorder,” CDP, 17 May 1957, 1. E.J. Oglesby, at the time vice-chairman of the Albemarle County School Board, predicted Charlottesville schools “will never be integrated,” “Charlottesville Official Vows No Integration,” WP, 14 August 1957, A15.

9. “Integration Set In Virginia Area,” The New York Times (hereinafter cited as NYT), 13 May 1958, 1; “Judge Paul Refuses Blanket Approval of City School Plan,” CDP, 27 August 1958, 1. The sequence of actions is outlined in Dodson v. School Board of Charlottesville, 289 F. 2d 439 (1961), 441.

10. Andrew Lewis provides an excellent discussion of PCES and its role in his essay, “Emergency Mothers: Basement Schools and the Preservation of Public Education in Charlottesville,” in The Moderates’ Dilemma: Virginia’s Massive Resistance to School Desegregation, ed. Matthew D. Lassiter and Andrew B. Lewis (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1998), 72-103; Anthony Lewis, “ ‘Private’ Classes Directed To Stop Using Virginia Aid,” NYT, 9 October 1958, 1; Hershman, “A Rumbling in the Museum,” 308; a series of editorials and Letters to the Editor in the RNL offers perspective on the private school effort, “Random Notes on Private Schools,” 29 September 1958, 12, “Purposes of Charlottesville School Groups Vary,” 4 October 1958, 8, and “An Answer in Private Schools,” 10 October 1958, 10.

11. Lewis, “Emergency Mothers,” 88; Hershman, “A Rumbling in the Museum,” 305-6; Interview with Dr. James Bash, 15 April 1972, Charlottesville, Virginia. Susan McBee’s story, “University Remote From School Furor,” WP, 22 September 1958, B1, presents facts contradictory to the title. The article indicates the faculty was clearly affected by the school closings.

12. Charlottesville School Board v. Allen, 263 F.2d 295 (1959); James H. Hershman Jr., “Massive Resistance Meets Its Match: The Emergence of a Pro-Public School Majority,” in The Moderates’ Dilemma, ed. Matthew D. Lassiter and Andrew B. Lewis (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1998), 118-119; Don Devore, “Integration At Lane, Venable Carried Out Without Incident,” CDP, 8 September 1959, 1; Lisa Provence, “On Brown’s 50th: Why Charlottesville’s Schools were closed,” The Hook, 8 April 2004.

13. Hershman, “Massive Resistance Meets Its Match,” 127-128; Ted McKown, “When Is a Private School Public? Forum Argues ‘Free Choice’ Plan,” CDP, 20 February 1959, 17.

14. Robert E. Baker, “Economic Peril Cited In Closing of Schools,” WP, 11 December 1958, A17. See also, James H. Hershman, Jr.,”James M. Buchanan, Segregation, and Virginia’s Massive Resistance,” Institute for New Economic Thinking, 8 November 2020.

15. James M. Buchanan and G. Warren Nutter, “The Economics of Universal Education,” Report of the Thomas Jefferson Center for Studies in Political Economy, February 10, 1959, copy in Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, VA ; articles by Nutter and Buchanan in the Richmond Times-Dispatch: “Different School Systems Are Reviewed,” 12 April 1959, D3; “Many Fallacies Surround the School Problem,” 13 April 1959, 7. A proposal, the Wheatley Resolution, to remove constitutional protections for public education was introduced on 9 April and defeated on 20 April 1959, Robert E. Baker, “State’s Control of Education Would Be Ended,” WP, 10 April 1950, D1; “Segregation Bill Loses In Virginia,” NYT, 21 April 1959, 25.

16. “’Defenders’ Chief Heads Pupil Board,” WP, 26 July 1960, B2; Bash interview. In 1963, the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors removed Oglesby as school board chairman in a policy dispute, “Albemarle Reinstates 2 School Men,” WP, 12 July 1963, A5.

17. “Dean Sees Tuition Grants As A Necessary Expedient,” CDP, 22 July 1959, 15; Interview with Ralph W. Cherry, 20 April 1972, Charlottesville, Virginia; “CEF to Launch Fund Drive, Leon Dure is Chairman,” CDP, 20 April 1960, 13; Gaston, Coming of Age, 187; Griffin v. State Board of Education, 256 F. Supp 1178 (1969).

18. Allen v. School Board of Charlottesville, 203 F. Supp. 225 (1961); Interview with S.W. Tucker. Mr. Tucker was the lead NAACP attorney in the cases after 1959. Brian J. Daugherity, Keep On Keeping On: The NAACP And The Implementation Of Brown v. Broad of Education in Virginia (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016), 105-146.

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