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Archival Display, February 2024: Integration at Averett

by Jeremy Groskopf on 2024-01-30T10:19:00-05:00 in African Amerian Studies, American History, Archives | 0 Comments

The story of racial integration at Averett is long, complicated, and thinly documented.  Although it is accurate to say that the college, up until the late 1960s, was focused on White women, the student body was rarely either fully female or fully White.  Both male and minority students pop-up regularly in early student rosters and college yearbooks.  In the 1954-1955 school year, for example, records indicate that more than 10% of the student body was either not female or not White.

Intriguingly, however, unlike male students - who were only accepted if they lived locally and could commute to campus - ethnic and racial minorities were predominantly from very distant locations.  To return to 1954-1955, that year Averett welcomed six international students (three from Cuba, two from Colombia, and one from Korea).  Despite this small cadre of international students - diversifying the student body alongside at least 29 men - there were, as per usual for the college, zero African Americans.  This despite the fact that the student newspaper, The Chanticleer, printed an article on "The Problem of Race Prejudice" that very year.

This is all to say that, prior to the late 1960s, being African American was virtually the only way to absolutely guarantee that one would not attend classes at Averett in some capacity.  Local Black citizens may have worked in the kitchens or on grounds crews at Averett, but they were not welcome as part of the student body.

First image of one of the earliest African American studentsBy Second image of one of the earliest African American studentsthe end of 1967, the financial circumstances which allowed for this longstanding practice of segregation began to give way.  With student financial needs rising at the same time that Averett was struggling to fund its own development plans, federal financial aid for students began to look like the path of least resistance.  However, as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, federal financial aid was not available to segregated schools.  At a special meeting in December of 1967, the Board of Trustees ("after considerable discussion") voted unanimously to sign the U.S. government's "Assurance of Compliance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964."  This decision - intended to allow Averett students to receive federal student aid - eliminated the possibility of Averett making admissions decisions based on race.

The impact was small but immediate.  By the very next fall (1968), despite there being no known marketing of the college towards Black applicants, three local African American students applied, were accepted, and enrolled as day students.  For the next several years, an additional handful would be added to the roll each fall. Over time the numbers have grown - Averett's student body is now approximately 1/3rd Black - but in these early years, to be an African American student on Averett's campus made one a visible outlier.  Although the rest of the student body of the time appears to have been relatively open to integration in theory, it cannot have been easy to be the only Black student in most classes.  Any on-campus interaction would have been a minefield of microaggressions, covert and overt racism, and culture clashes.  (For example, listen to alum Sheree Via's memories of her years at Averett in the early 1970s.  Her Averett memories begin roughly sixteen minutes into the interview.)  The potential for conflict was high enough that, as former Dean of Students Mary Jo Davis recalled, Rev. Doyle Thomas was frequently sought out to advise college staff on "how best to handle the cultural differences" between the White and Black students.

The three students in 1968 were the first to cross old boundaries, but it is important to remember that integration is not a 'yes' or 'no' condition.  There are various levels at which a college can be integrated.  A second important boundary was breached the following year.  In August of 1969, alongside the six day students enrolled by that point, Averett admitted its first Black residential student - a young woman from Alabama - into its dormitories.  She would live for the year in Danville Hall room 153, though not without some predictable difficulty.  A few notes exist in the University's records about almost immediate conflict with a roommate, who was transferred to another room in the first week of classes, though it is unclear what caused the original tension.

As the African American student population slowly but steadily increased, the process of integration became more and more tightly woven into campus life.  A brief list of baby steps in the long march towards a more fully integrated campus culture might include:

  • The first African American student organizations: at least two Black-organized or co-organized student groups were created in the early 1970s - SOUL ("Seekers of Universal Love," 1970) and BLAC ("Black Leaders of Averett College,"1973).
  • The first graduates: by April 1970, Averett's graduation ceremony welcomed its first African American participants, with two earning Associates degrees; the following year, a pair of Bachelors degrees were earned by Black students.
  • The first varsity athletes: in the fall of 1971, the women's basketball team integrated when an African American freshman joined the team.
  • Image of 1971-2 Dean of Students CouncilThe first Black representation on administrative councils: by the 1971-72 school year, a Black student was part of the Dean of Students' Council under Mary Jo Davis.
  • The rise of racial awareness in the student newspaper: on March 15, 1972, an article bemoaned the lack of non-white Professors on campus - the first of numerous Black-aware articles after the 1968 integration of the student body.
  • The first Black History Month observances: after two years of efforts, "Black Studies Week" was held on campus from February 12 to 16, 1973.  Events this week included: a frank and eye-opening talk by Bruce Leftwich (of the Community Improvement Council) called "American Nightmare"; a talk by Pearl Mankins (head of the History department of Virginia Union University in Richmond) on "Developing Black Concepts Through Ethiopianism"; and a performance of African and jazz dances by the Harambee Dancers (of Virginia State College).
  • The first African American winner of a traditional student honor: in the spring of 1974, a Black student was named the year's "Apple Blossom Princess"
  • The first course devoted to Black studies: by the January mini-mester of 1976, Dr. Jack I. Hayes taught "The History of Blacks."

Records of this transitional period in Averett's history remain scant in the Averett archives.  This short blog post is the result of significant work drawing on numerous small references in the archives to early African American student life on campus.  Any African American alumni who would like to help improve Averett's institutional memory of the era of integration should feel free to contact the University archivist.  He would love to hear from you, and would be grateful both for donations of photographs or artifacts, or any time you would be willing to dedicate to personal written or oral history.


(Note: most student names are omitted from this blog entry out of an abundance of caution.  Until explicit permission is given to discuss their experiences in public, the only student who will be identified by name is Sheree Via, whose interview cannot be included without doing so.)

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