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Breaking Tradition

Separate but not Equal

As an institution rooted firmly in tradition, the University of Virginia had been slow to welcome changes that appeared contradictory to its longstanding customs. Thus, through the first three-quarters of the twentieth century, women and minorities encountered much resistance when they sought entry to the University.

The application of Alice C. Jackson, an African-American female, to the University in 1935 flew in the face of the school's tradition as an institution for "Southern Gentlemen." The Board of Visitors rejected her application.

Following Jackson's application and the media attention it generated, the Commonwealth began to offer additional-but separate-higher education opportunities to African Americans across the state. In 1935 a graduate school for African Americans was established at Virginia State University in Petersburg. The following year the General Assembly passed a bill providing scholarship funds for African-American students to attend educational institutions outside of the state.

The University admitted its first African-American student in 1950 with the enrollment of Gregory Swanson in the School of Law. His application opened the doors to African Americans at the University and signaled a gradual change to the prevailing ideas of who could be a U.Va. student. More African Americans enrolled at the school throughout the 1950s, and greater numbers of women became students at the University each year. The School of Nursing accepted its first African-American student, Mavis Claytor, in 1968.

Today, African Americans comprise nine percent of undergraduates, Asian Americans eleven percent, and Hispanics three percent.


Alice C. Jackson applied for admission to the graduate school at the University of Virginia. A Richmond native, Jackson had earned a bachelor’s degree from Virginia Union University in her hometown and wished to obtain a master’s degree in French. She was the first African American to apply to U.Va.

The University rejected Jackson’s application, offering the following justification:

“The education of white and colored persons in the same schools is contrary to the long established and fixed policy of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Therefore, for this and other good and sufficient reasons not necessary to be herein enumerated, the Rector and Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia direct the Dean of the Department of Graduate Studies to refuse respectfully the pending application of a colored student.”

Autograph manuscript letter, Alice Jackson to the Rector and Board of Visitors, U.Va.; 28 Sept 1935.
University of Virginia Special Collections

Typed letter from rector to Alice Jackson, 3 Oct 1935.
University of Virginia Special Collections


Dissatisfied with their justification, Jackson sent the Board of Visitors a spirited letter questioning their “other good and sufficient reasons.” In his reply, the University’s Rector declined to elaborate on the Board’s decision.


Francis Godwin James (chairman, The National Students League, U.Va.) to BOV; 4 Oct 1935 (letter of protest at BOV action w/ Alice Jackson)
University of Virginia Special Collections


Francis Godwin James, Chairman of the U.Va. chapter of the National Students League, condemned the Board’s actions in his 1935 letter. He considered offensive the Board’s implication of the “desirability for continuing educational inequality.” The National Students League was a small but vocal organization and much publicity accompanied James’s letter. University President John L. Newcomb received similar letters from NSL chapters nationwide.

Alice Jackson’s application and subsequent rejection captured the media’s attention nationwide and focused a spotlight on the University’s discriminatory admissions policies.


House Bill no. 470; To provide equal educational facilities for certain persons denied admission to Virginia State colleges…. ca. 1935.
University of Virginia Special Collections

Typed list of students receiving payment to attend non-Virginia universities; May 1937.
University of Virginia Special Collections


The pressure and media attention surrounding Jackson’s application led to direct state action to provide African-American citizens with access to separate but equal higher education facilities. The Commonwealth established a graduate school for African Americans at Virginia State University in Petersburg in 1935. One year later, the Virginia General Assembly passed House Bill no. 470, the Dovell Act. This legislation awarded qualified African-American applicants with scholarships to support their attendance at comparable schools outside of Virginia. As a result of the Dovell Act, hundreds of African-American students pursued their higher education goals at the Commonwealth’s expense—albeit, outside of their home state.


Letter; BFD Runk to Mrs. Charles W. McNitt (Asst Dean of Women) 28 July 1961.
University of Virginia Special Collections


By the early 1960s, the University administration, headed by President Edgar Shannon, recognized the importance of a more open admissions policy. Administrators attempted to move the institution towards integration despite the inevitable resistance from some members of the University community. Dean Runk’s letter to Mrs. McNitt, Assistant Dean of Women, illustrates the administration’s stance on the admission of African-American students. Runk emphasizes that no special considerations should be taken into account when evaluating the application of qualified black women:

“They must be treated in accordance with the regular policies and procedures affecting all students and that denials of such applications can not be made on the basis of race.”


Plaque commemorating Virginia Senate Joint Resolution no. 40 in honor of Alice Jackson Stuart. 10 July 2001.

From the Alice Jackson Stuart Papers, gift of Julian T. Houston.


With the scholarship money she received from the state, Alice Jackson attended Columbia University, graduating in 1937 with a M.A. in English. She spent her career teaching at the college level and remained committed to securing equal educational opportunities for African Americans.

Alice Jackson Stuart passed away on June 13, 2001, at the age of 88. Shortly after, the Virginia Senate approved Joint Resolution no. 40 in honor of Jackson and her courageous acts in the struggle for equal rights for African Americans.




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