UVA and the History of Race: Winds of Change in the 1950s

March 8, 2021 By Brendan Wolfe, brendanwolfe@yahoo.com Brendan Wolfe, brendanwolfe@yahoo.com

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.
Today’s story, “Winds of Change in the 1950s,” commences the second half of the series, which includes six installments to be published in March, exploring topics primarily ranging across UVA during the 20th century. Topics included in the second half of the series include:

  • Momentum for a more inclusive University in the 1950s.
  • The UVA experience for Asians and Asian Americans.
  • Gentrification’s impact on African American communities.
  • Segregation’s legacy in the UVA hospital.
  • UVA in the era of Massive Resistance.
  • The University’s allies in integrating Virginia public schools. 

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

Colgate W. Darden was the first University of Virginia president to imagine a student body that extended beyond the top tier of elite white men. After serving in Congress and as Virginia’s governor, he came to Charlottesville in 1947 with the idea of democratizing Grounds.

“During the next twelve years he rejuvenated the university,” historian Ronald L. Heinemann wrote. “Attempting to make it a more democratic institution – over the objections of many students, some of whom burned a cross on his lawn – he encouraged the enrollment of public school students, diminished the role of fraternities, and constructed a student activities building. When a faculty member accused him of trying to make the university ‘a catch-all for everybody who wants to go to college in the state,’ Darden replied, ‘That’s what it’s supposed to be.’”1

But that’s not at all what UVA had been in the more than 120 years leading up to Darden’s tenure. Instead, the school accepted only “young men from the best families,” as another historian put it, and the new president’s policies caused anxiety in all corners of the University.2

To see how that anxiety played out, and how it mixed with other historical concerns, consider four consecutive editions of the Cavalier Daily student newspaper from the spring of 1954. They throw into sharp relief prevailing attitudes about race, class and sex, while also helping to provide context for events during those years that don’t otherwise square with the clean-cut image of 1950s UVA.

FRIDAY, MAY 14, 1954

Toward the end of the school year, the Cavalier Daily published a satirical story that imagined life at UVA in 1960. Headlined “University Transformed Into ‘State U,’” the piece tells of a 1954 graduate returning to Grounds six years later. He bemoans how UVA has been “eliminating all out-of-state men and making it a point to let in all the meat balls they could find in the state.” There was nowhere left to drink and party, fraternities had begun to atrophy, and too many people were hanging out at the Student Union.3

The “masses,” in other words, had taken over.

From this point of view, a “State U” functioned as that dreaded “catch-all,” a place where anybody could attend – public school kids, African Americans, maybe even women. But UVA, according to the article, had always been different. It had been exclusive.

Related Story

Tree on the Lawn changing colors and dropping leaves. Colors are yellow, green, red, and orange
When a faculty member accused President Colgate Darden of trying to make the university “a catch-all for everybody who wants to go to college in the state,” Darden replied, “That’s what it’s supposed to be.” (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

It hadn’t, though, always been a great place to learn. In 1937, Life magazine took note of the school’s “broad gentlemanly attitude” and suggested that it “does not breed or encourage scholars.” While UVA “does not enjoy top rank as an educational institute,” the magazine wrote, its students “are indisputably among the ablest college drinkers in the country.”4

Being a university for the elite did not necessarily translate into being an elite university. Darden raised faculty salaries and admission standards and threatened to eliminate the fraternities as a means of changing that. But student pushback proved to be intense. In 1951, students stole a laboratory cadaver and hanged it from a tree in front of the Rotunda to protest administration policies.5 They also burned crosses on Carr’s Hill so frequently that Darden publicly protested the harm the flames had done to a particular oak tree.6

Students feared change, but their methods of protest suggested concerns that went beyond simply public-school boys.

TUESDAY, MAY 18, 1954

Newspaper clipping
The front page of the May 18, 1954, Cavalier Daily reported on the Supreme Court’s ruling on school segregation. The paper’s editorial of that day (right) opined that “the people of the South are justified in their bitterness concerning this decision.”

After an off day on Monday, the next issue of the Cavalier Daily addressed these fears. The front page announced the Supreme Court ruling that declared public-school segregation to be unconstitutional.7 In an editorial, the paper’s editor, Frank M. Slayton, wrote, “To many people, this decision is contrary to a way of life, and violates the way in which they have thought since 1619” – or the year that the first enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia. “Because the Supreme Court has said ‘Thou Shalt Not,’ it does not follow that the people of the South will adopt a new set of mores as easily as a man changes his coat.”8

Gregory Swanson, UVA’s first black student, had entered the Law School 3½ years earlier, in the fall of 1950, and only after winning a lawsuit. At the time, UVA fashioned itself an outpost of the old Confederacy. At football games, the band played “Dixie” and fans waved the Confederate battle flag. Swanson left after the program’s required one year in residence, and reopened his practice in Martinsville, but he (nor any other member of his cohort) did not finish the required thesis to receive the advanced degree. Swanson “frequently felt the sting of discrimination outside the lecture hall.” When visiting Corner businesses, he found himself the only University man barred from its restaurants, barbershops and movie theater, which excluded blacks entirely. In his 1981 history of UVA, Virginius Dabney insisted that “the black” – i.e., Swanson – “was well received” and that in Darden’s view Swanson had not been well enough prepared for graduate work, despite already having a law degree.


Image of two mean standing looking at two pieces of paper that they are holding
In 1950, Gregory Swanson became the University’s first black student after winning a federal lawsuit to allow his admission to the Law School. He completed the one-year program and then returned to Martinsville to reopen his practice. (Photo courtesy the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library)

For its part, the Cavalier Daily ignored Swanson while he was on Grounds and did not mark his departure. In 1952, however, Staige Davis Blackford Jr. became the paper’s editor. He was a Rhodes Scholar who supported both integration and Darden’s efforts to end UVA’s reputation as a “Southern country club.”9 On the newspaper’s editorial page, Blackford battled and, some have argued, even bettered the powerful University dean Ivey Foreman Lewis, a longtime segregationist and supporter of eugenics. The editor and his allies argued that UVA must change, while Lewis responded that slavery had benefited African Americans and that integration would lead to race mixing, or as he derisively put it, “a brown America.”10

Two years later, when the Supreme Court finally made its ruling, this tempest had died down and the Cavalier Daily, now under Slayton’s editorship, returned to referencing, without reproach, the traditions of slavery. Darden, meanwhile, preferred to mostly stay out of the fight. Had there been more pressure, this might have been impossible, but during the 1950s the numbers of black students remained low.

Group of editors from the Cavalier Dailey talking

Frank Slayton served as editor of the Cavalier Daily in the 1950s. His editorials reflected some of the conflicting views of the time about cultural changes that were gaining momentum at UVA. (Photo courtesy UVA Library)

“Time … has a habit of correcting all problems,” Slayton wrote in the paper’s May 18 editorial. Time having been denied in this case, “we will now have the opportunity of seeing what effect legislative morals will have on a way of life.”


The next day, another urgent issue occupied Slayton’s mind, although it’s difficult to understand, from reading only the paper, what exactly had happened. Titled “Unwarranted Political Pressure,” Slayton’s editorial mentioned “the dismissal of eleven students from the University,” but did not explain the circumstances. Instead, the editor worried that some of the perpetrators may win appeals of their punishment due to their elite status.

Other sources reveal that in April an all-night party on the East Lawn, attended by 12 men and a 19-year-old woman, resulted in what appears to have been a sexual assault. After being contacted by the woman’s parents, Darden reported that “the girl had come home that day in a dazed condition, apparently beaten and brutalized, covered with bruises.”11

The Cavalier Daily never reported on the incident. The Charlottesville Daily Progress did not publish a report when the incident occurred, either, referring only to a “sex scandal” and that the woman was “struck” by the men, according to the paper’s later coverage of the Board of Visitors’ deliberations on the incident.12

The historian Henry Wiencek has argued that the attack is important in part because it highlights hypocrisy shown by the state, which in 1950-51 vigorously prosecuted and executed the black men known as the Martinsville Seven, who were convicted of raping a white woman. Virginia’s attorney general insisted at the time that justice would have looked no different had the accused been white. But at UVA, where this ended up being the case, the local authorities apparently never even investigated.13

Instead, the Student Council called a mass meeting at Newcomb Hall, claiming among other things that Darden had tread on the council’s authority by looking into the assault. In one of the speeches delivered that day, a student referenced the satirical “State U” piece that had recently appeared in the Cavalier Daily. He said that it rightly noted how UVA had “turned into a 1984 – a state of distrust and police action.”14

Darden responded with understatement. “Too many University students who insist on complete liberty are not enthusiastic about self-discipline,” he told the paper. The alleged attack and its victim, meanwhile, remained unmentioned.15

THURSDAY, MAY 20, 1954

The day after Slayton’s editorial on political pressure, the Cavalier Daily reprinted an essay paying homage to Thomas Jefferson. In a section called “Shadow of One Man,” the writer, a history instructor, noted that “Charlottesville has changed much since 1826 when Mr. Jefferson finally left it. But it has changed as he would have wished.”16

That assertion seemed very much up for debate in 1954.

Jefferson could hardly have imagined a world in which African Americans and women were guaranteed equality under the law. And many faculty, alumni and students at the university he founded struggled with opening the gates of UVA any wider than they already had. While many, like Staige Blackford, supported a rethinking of UVA, whom it should educate, and how, others thought more like the first-year student who wrote to the Cavalier Daily during this time: “A woman’s place is not in a gentleman’s university” –conjuring up the many complicated dimensions of being a “gentleman” in Virginia.17

Darden Class of 1954 walking the Lawn to graduation
President Colgate Darden walks the Lawn with officers of the class of 1954. He is credited with attempting to make the University a more inclusive institution. (Photo courtesy the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library)

In the 1920s, on the occasion of UVA’s centennial, the historian and alumnus Philip Alexander Bruce published an exhaustive five-volume history of the school. In its pages, Bruce praised “the absolute correctness” of Jefferson’s foresight and his willingness to uphold “the general principles of our race.”18

Ironically, the next century – where race, class and sex are concerned – can be understood as a challenge to that part of Jefferson’s vision. During the 1950s, UVA demonstrated an ambivalence on these issues that sometimes erupted in ways that were disturbing and even violent. Only during the next decade or two would change arrive in full force.

Brendan Wolfe is the former editor of Encyclopedia Virginia at Virginia Humanities and author of “Mr. Jefferson’s Telescope: A History of the University of Virginia in 100 Objects.”

Up next: “A Race So Different,” coming on Friday, explores the experiences of Asians and Asian Americans at UVA and more broadly in the U.S. in the 19th and 20th centuries.



1. Ronald L. Heinemann and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, "Colgate W. Darden (1897–1981)," Encyclopedia Virginia (Virginia Humanities, Nov. 9, 2015; accessed March 6, 2019).

2. Virginius Dabney, Mr. Jefferson's University: A History (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1981), 8.

3. Ogden Ashlawn III, "University Transformed Into 'State U,'" Cavalier Daily (May 14, 1954), 3, 8.

4. "Virginia Has the Most Beautiful Campus in the Country," Life 2, no. 23 (June 7, 1937): 48.

5. "Cadaver Found Hanging From Tree Outside Rotunda; Believed To Have Belonged To The Medical School," Cavalier Daily, March 1, 1951, 1.

6. Dabney, 286–287.

7. "Supreme Court Declares Segregation In School Systems Unconstitutional," Cavalier Daily (May 18, 1954), 1.

8. "The Decision," Cavalier Daily (May 18, 1954), 2. The paper notes that all unsigned editorials are by the editor. A native of South Boston, Slayton later attended the law school and served as a judge and in the House of Delegates (1973–1985). He died in 2013.

9. Leidholdt, 268, n. 24.

10. Leidholdt, 249–250. Blackford was the son of the UVA medical professor Staige Davis Blackford (1898–1949) and the editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review from 1975 until his death in 2003.

11. Board of Visitors Minutes, May 26, 1954, 351.

12. "University Visitors Confirm Penalties For Sex Scandal," Daily Progress (May 29, 1954), 1, 19.

13. Henry Wiencek, The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White (New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1999), 213–214. "The similarity to the Martinsville case is obvious," Wiencek writes, "but in a final irony, one of the rapists, whose only penalty was expulsion and who never even saw the inside of a jail, was from the family of a judge who helped send the Martinsville 7 to the electric chair." Wiencek doesn't name either the student or the judge.

14. Dabney, 286; "Closer Student-Administration Relations Are Asked," Cavalier Daily (May 29, 1954), 4.

15. "Students Not Enthusiastic About Self Discipline," Cavalier Daily (May 29, 1954), 1.

16. William E. Stokes Jr., "'Mr. Jefferson's Country' Maintains Traditions," Cavalier Daily (May 20, 1954), 2, 4.

17. Dabney, 381–382.

18. Philip Alexander Bruce, History of the University of Virginia, 1819–1919: The Lengthened Shadow of One Man (New York: Macmillan, 1922), 5:429.


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