January 22, 2008 — On Sept. 9, 1957, James Trice boarded a train in Richmond, Va. His destination: Charlottesville and the University of Virginia, where he was to be one of four African-American students enrolled in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. To this day, he remembers the other three by name.
It was only three years after the Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional; the Civil Rights Movement was still in its infancy. Trice entered a difficult period of his life, but one he remembers as incredibly important, both for himself and those who came after.
He spoke to some of those who came after on Jan. 20 in Newcomb Hall at U.Va.’s annual Harambee II, a celebration of African-American first-year and transfer students completing their first semesters at the University. During the ceremony, students who finished the semester with honors and high honors were recognized, and Trice urged all the students to continue to forge ahead, not only for themselves, but for all those others who come behind.
Trice, the keynote speaker, spent time recognizing the students for how well they had done, and expressed amazement at how far African-American students have come at the University. "My entering class of 1957 had only four black undergraduates. Now there are 1,200 African-American undergraduates at U.Va., and I learned that this year a record of 360 enrolled."
Trice reflected on the past, on his own peers. He told the story of his roommate, Leroy, the first black student able to transfer into the College of Arts & Sciences, and the first black student to apply to and live on the Lawn. He spoke of the "11,600-plus African-American alumni," who laid the foundations for today's students.
He told the stories of the African-American students who succeeded against the odds at U.Va., including one who was the only black student at the Law School. "He probably had it the hardest," Trice said, "because he was the only one. In the engineering school and the medical school, there were always a few people to talk to."
Each of these students, he said, succeeded based on hard work. "Depend on hard work for success," he urged them, "smart work, thorough work, hard work."
He urged the students to have fun, and enjoy all that the University has to offer, but to "always keep an eye on the basics, and why you’re here at U.Va. — to gain the best education you can. … You also play a part in your education, through hard work and preparation."
Trice's hard work led him after graduation to Monsanto, a leading maker of agricultural products. He retired from Monsanto after 27 years as the director of human resources for marketing and began consulting on leadership development and diversity issues in the workplace. He developed a report on best diversity practices in the business world that was used by the University's Commission on Diversity and Equity, of which Trice is a member.
In the spirit of Harambee, "a day of celebration, a day of recognition, a day of forging ahead," Trice urged the young students to stand on the shoulders of those past as they reach into the future. "Our nation needs leaders, heroes and citizens of good will … who will stand steadfast and do the just and honorable thing. Push on, too, because the success you have may one day allow a little African-American boy or African-American girl to dream dreams of greatness. So push on, and please hurry."
In closing his speech, he quoted Albert Schweitzer, who said, "I don't know what your destiny will be, but one thing I do know: The ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve."
Sylvia Terry, associate dean of African-American Affairs, addressed the group at the end of the program, after performances by Black Voices and a first-year student who sang an original piece titled "Still I Rise," and after the students achieving honors were recognized. She spoke of the Peer Advisor program, an embodiment of the legacy being left by many of the African-American students. She read aloud comments sent to her when she solicited nominations for Peer Advisor of the Semester, which said things like, "My Peer Advisor is my sanity" and "I love my Peer Advisor." The program is an important part of the African-American community at U.Va, she said, and has been nationally recognized for "exemplary practice in achieving campus diversity."
Terry, too, encouraged the students to press on through tough trials, pointing to Trice's example. "Had [Trice] not come, had he not stayed, where would we be?" she asked.
Terry then closed the program by holding up a model of the Rotunda she had been left by one of the University's societies with a note saying, "Remember, this is your University too."
She then asked the crowd, "Whose University is this?"
The response was loud and clear: "My University!"