‘Poetic justice:’ First black UVA student celebrated

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Gregory Swanson’s lawsuit against UVA’s rector and Board of Visitors in 1950 helped pave the way for Brown v. Board of Education, which eventually declared laws requiring blacks and whites to attend separate schools unconstitutional. Courtesy of Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library/University of Virginia Gregory Swanson’s lawsuit against UVA’s rector and Board of Visitors in 1950 helped pave the way for Brown v. Board of Education, which eventually declared laws requiring blacks and whites to attend separate schools unconstitutional. Courtesy of Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library/University of Virginia

In the midst of a national controversy surrounding racial inequality and civil rights, members of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Bar Association unveiled a 150-pound bronze marker July 12 to commemorate the first African-American student ever admitted to the University of Virginia.

When Danville native Gregory Hayes Swanson, a 26-year-old practicing lawyer, applied for admission to UVA’s School of Law in 1949, faculty voted unanimously to admit him, though the university was white-only. On the advice of the state attorney general, the school’s Board of Visitors then denied Swanson’s acceptance.

Swanson and his legal team—comprised of well-known NAACP members Thurgood Marshall, Spottswood Robinson and Oliver Hill—filed suit against the university’s rector and BOV. His case was heard and a judge ruled in Swanson’s favor on September 5, 1950, in the very room where bar association members hung the plaque in his honor. While it is now called the McIntire Room in the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library, then it was home to the United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia.

McIntire Plack
The plaque commemorating Gregory Swanson was unveiled by the Charlottesville-Albemarle Bar Association July 12. Staff photo

The nearly $3,000 plaque was made possible by the dues of 417 bar association members. Charlottesville public defender Jim Hingeley, who spearheaded the commemoration project, said at the unveiling that he remembered practicing law in that very room in the late 1970s when he first started practicing law. The marker, he said, now hangs on the wall behind the podium in which the judge’s bench once sat.

“I don’t think commemoration is only celebration,” said Risa Goluboff at the event, who had been dean of the university’s law school for just 12 days. “There’s something more sober.”

Though she said she feels proud to be a part of the school that broke the color barrier at UVA, she added that it is also important to acknowledge regret and “a past that isn’t always comfortable” when commemorating history.

Charlottesville has been doing a lot of that lately.

In March, Mayor Mike Signer called for a Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Places after a massive controversy was sparked by Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy, who called for the removal of the General Robert E. Lee statue from Lee Park. The commission’s objective is to recommend to City Council how to approach those topics, including Confederate memorials.

“One of the really exciting things about that plaque in the library is that it’s uncovering history that a lot of people don’t know,” says City Councilor Kristin Szakos, who also supports removing the Lee statue. “I hate to compare [the plaque] to other monuments because there’s plenty of history to go around, but I will say that the big statue monuments that we have in town are not about local history. They’re more about ideas, whereas this is really about something that happened right here.”

Lewis Martin was the bar president the majority of the year that the commemoration project was underway, and he says recognizing important historical figures can bring a community together.

“We don’t want to tear down historic monuments because that’s divisive to the community,” he says. “What we want to do is recognize historical actions and the people who were involved in those actions.”

And doing so, in the very room that Gregory Hayes Swanson v. The Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia was decided, is what Swanson’s nephew, Evans Hopkins, called “poetic justice.”

This year’s General Assembly passed Delegate Jennifer McClellan’s resolution that commemorates the life and legacy of Swanson, who helped pave the way for Brown v. Board of Education, which eventually declared laws requiring blacks and whites to attend separate schools unconstitutional.

“This is over 50 years late, but better late than never,” McClellan said at the unveiling while presenting Hopkins with a framed resolution certificate.

Echoing the words his uncle said after he won his case and was admitted to UVA’s law school, Hopkins said, “Justice starts right here.”

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