Back story: Paul Saunier and the integration of UVA

Following up on Don Loach’s comment on my post about Edwin S. Williams, the Virginia Glee Club‘s first black member, I dug into some of the back story. It turns out the Glee Club wasn’t the only organization helped through the pains of integration by UVA president Edgar F. Shannon’s assistant Paul Saunier.

An article in UVA Today about Saunier from 2014 gives the highlights of his career. Arriving at the University to advise Shannon about public relations, his first advice was that race was, in the early 1960s as the Civil Rights movement unfolded, the biggest single public relations issue that the University faced—and it couldn’t be fixed by PR alone.

One of the first targets was life on the Corner, almost entirely segregated in 1962—until Saunier visited merchants one by one and pointed out that, given the international enrollment at UVA, they might unwittingly be refusing service to a prince, resulting in a PR nightmare. The Corner, with the shameful exception of the White Spot, was duly integrated two years before required by the 1964 Civil Rights Act. One imagines that the conversation with the Route 29 truck stops went similarly, only backed up by the force of the newly passed act.

There’s plenty more in the article about the real, pragmatic work done by Saunier to ensure that black students not only matriculated but graduated. It’s well worth a read, and a realization that the transition from the UVA of minstrels and blackface didn’t become the diverse place it is today without considerable work. We owe a debt of thanks to Saunier for helping the University enter the modern era.

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