"The Inevitable Present": Integration at William & Mary

Duration: 
February 4, 2013 to October 31, 2013

 

Photograph of Oscar Blayton and Robert Weeks in "The Time of Your Life," 1964

Dept. of Theatre, Speech, and Dance Records, UA 59, Series 6, Box 2, Folder 65

 

“But, we are not facing history and tradition now. We are facing the inevitable present; not necessarily a crisis but a fact. Future historians will certainly have an interest in what we do with it. To the future we are on trial.”

So wrote Charles P. McCurdy in his editorial published in the October 1950 issue of the Alumni Gazette about how William & Mary might handle the anticipated admission applications from African Americans students. Integration at William & Mary was not achieved simply with the acceptance of the first students of color; instead it has been a decades-long process.

On June 5, 1950, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down decisions in McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents and Sweatt v. Painter, which ruled that a public institution of higher learning could not provide different treatment to students solely because of race, as doing so deprived the students of their Fourteenth Amendment right of Equal Protection. McLaurin had applied to the graduate program in education at the University of Oklahoma, while Sweatt had applied to the University of Texas School of Law. In Virginia, Gregory Swanson filed suit to gain admission to the University of Virginia's law school, which had turned him down in 1949, and with the help of the NAACP, he won in federal court and was admitted. 

William & Mary’s response to these events was typical of that of other universities: it admitted a small number of African American students to graduate programs, while continuing to deny them admission as undergraduates. On September 30, 1950, the College of William & Mary Board of Visitors released their statement “The Admission of Qualified Negroes to Professional and Graduate Programs,” which would eventually open William & Mary to desegregation. In this statement, the Board of Visitors determined “that the applications for admission to graduate and professional programs not offered elsewhere in the Commonwealth be referred to the Attorney General for an opinion, and that the College act in accordance with such opinion.” The headings in McCurdy’s Alumni Gazette editorial are telling: ‘unseemly as it may be’; ‘university fought and lost’; ‘freedom is expensive’; ‘equality difficult to define’; and ‘we cannot secede again.’ 

Images of the exhibit are available from Special Collections on Flickr.

Curator: Amy Schindler, University Archivist; Exhibit design and installation: Jennie Davy, Burger Archives Specialist; fabrication and installation assistance from James Tolj, History Graduate Student Apprentice, Ashley Irizarry, History Graduate Student Apprentice, Carliegh Branch, Undergraduate Student Assistant, and Lia Servidio, Undergraduate Student Assistant.