In honor of Black History Month, the archives staff would like to feature some of our own history with regard to African-Americans at UMW.
Formal desegregation of Mary Washington College didn’t occur until spring of 1964. Prior to integration, there had only been two African-American day students at the school: Jacquelyn Pulliam, who enrolled in summer classes in 1962, and Gaye Todd (now known as Gaye Adegbalola), who attended summer French courses in 1963 while enrolled at Boston University. After the school’s official decision to open enrollment to African-American students, Kay Estelle Savage became the first residential student of color. She would stay for two years and then transfer to Howard University.
Venus R. Jones became Mary Washington’s first African-American graduate, earning a degree in Chemistry in 1968 after just 3 years. Jones would go on to earn her MD from the University of Virginia’s medical school, after which she relocated to Arizona to provide health care to the indigenous population. She became a neurology specialist, rising to chief of neurology at three military hospitals.
During her time at Mary Washington, Jones was one of five other black residential students. She joined Chris Hall, Claudith “Dottie” Holmes, and twins Anita and Orita Whitehead. A 1968 Bullet article profiled these five students and their experiences on campus, touching on such topics as segregated housing and prejudice from their white classmates. The “Big Five” as they called themselves in this article—an homage to the Big Four Civil Rights leaders—overall reported very few hostilities from white students on campus, but also noted that many “don’t even know there are [black students] on campus” and likely have never had a conversation with a person of color before. Jones called the latter “an absurd situation in an institution of higher learning.”
Although a small minority at first, black students established events and groups to promote their heritage and increase their visibility on campus. The Afro-American Association was founded in 1970 by Dottie Holmes, one of the “Big Five.” One of the activities the group sponsored was Black Culture Week, which began in 1973. The week began with a ritual and featured various performers and speakers designed to draw attention to the achievements of the black community. While it was open to the public and became a popular event among black students and the larger Fredericksburg community, student organizers were frustrated with the lack of interest shown by many of their white classmates.
While Mary Washington had begun attempts at diversifying its student body, the institution still had much room for improvement. In the decades following integration, concerns were raised that the school wasn’t making enough of an effort to recruit people of color. In 1973, almost ten years after desegregation, there were only thirteen black students enrolled. Twenty years after the decision, in 1984, the number of black students had only reached 77. UMW as an institution has certainly made some progress since then, however the conversation around increasing representation and diversity is one that has gone on for decades and continues into the present.
Perhaps one of the most notable moments of black history at Mary Washington occurred with the hiring of Civil Rights leader James Farmer to the History and American Studies department. Farmer’s contributions to the Civil Rights Movement were legendary, and from 1985 until his retirement in 1998, students were able to attend his highly sought-after classes to hear his firsthand accounts of his 1961 Freedom Ride and working for racial equality alongside other leaders like Martin Luther King.
During Farmer’s tenure here, the college began the James Farmer Scholars program. The initiative identified a number of local black seventh-graders and provided tutoring and encouragement through high school toward the goal of pursuing college. Ideally, these student would choose an academic future at Mary Washington, but the program hoped to motivate them toward any college or university path. Admissions also began sponsoring a program called Black Visions in 1989. This program brought several hundred black high school students to the Mary Washington campus for tours and information sessions, allowing them an opportunity to speak with black faculty, current students, and alumni and to gain an understanding of the campus culture.
Campus continued to feel James Farmer’s influence long after his passing. In 2011, UMW held a series of events to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides. Part of the celebration included a 1960s bus at the center of an exhibit featuring images and words from the Riders, and four of the original Freedom Riders attended the commemoration. One of them, Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, spoke at Commencement in 2011.
In 2016, UMW granted its fourth ever Monroe Medal–the institution’s highest honor–to Gladys White Jordan, a black woman once denied admission to the college because of her race. She grew up the daughter of MWC Chancellor Grellet Simpson’s housekeeper, excelled in school at the all-black Walker-Grant High School, and aspired to attend Mary Washington upon her graduation in 1956. Despite the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954, the Board of Visitors denied her entry to the school. Instead, she attended Virginia State College, where she earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. She would go on to be a lifelong educator, earning recognition as teacher of the year in Richmond (twice) and as an “unsung hero” by the NAACP.
Come visit us in the archives or search for more university publications in Eagle Explorer to learn more about black history at UMW. And for Black History Month events happening on campus today, check out the schedule for the 2018 Black History Month Celebration!
Alvey, Edward, Jr. History of Mary Washington College: 1908-1972. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1974.
Crawley, William B., Jr. University of Mary Washington, A Centennial History: 1908-2008. Fredericksburg: University of Mary Washington, 2008.
Estes, Lindley. “UMW Honors Woman It Once Rejected Because of Her Race.” (Fredericksburg, VA.) Free Lance-Star, March 18, 2016. Accessed February 15, 2018, http://www.fredericksburg.com/news/education/umw-honors-woman-it-once-rejected-because-of-her-race/article_57a9f272-bcdd-53ce-a7b4-1e57883ad104.html
Honnegger, Susan. “The Negro On Campus.” The Bullet, February 19, 1968.
Parsons, Carolyn Sydnor. “Doors and Minds Begin to Open: Decade of Desegregation.” University of Mary Washington Today 29, no. 1 (Winter 2005): 16-19.
Trenis, Neva S. “Freedom Rides Semester.” University of Mary Washington Magazine 35, no. 1 (Spring 2011): 10-23.