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.

On not forgetting

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As a fourth year undergrad student, I entered Julian Bond’s course on the history of the Civil Rights movement in the fall of 1993 not knowing what was going to happen to me. I didn’t really realize how much the class was changing me until I worked on my class project, which ended up being a paper on Virginia’s Massive Resistance laws.

Learning that my home state had, not fifteen years before my birth, decided that closing public schools was preferable to having to integrate them was mindboggling. Learning that a superintendent who still has an elementary school named after him in my home town could cite the small number of black applicants to a school as a reason not to desegregate it was shameful. Understanding the perfectly legal mechanisms that were used by segregationists and racists to avoid, subvert, and delay the implementation of the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board decision made me aware that there were more dimensions of evil than just cartoonish Klansmen.

In that context, it’s easy to understand why university students would want to remove the name of slaveowners from  buildings. And why there have been calls to tear down monuments to Confederate soldiers. I find myself looking on such calls with mixed emotions, however.

As the historian of the Virginia Glee Club, I’ve had to grapple with the University’s mixed legacy on slavery and race. I learned about the Movement there, and the Glee Club was integrating truck stops on tours during the 1960s, but many of the Lawn buildings were probably built with slave labor, and as late as Faulkner’s first year as writer in residence, his proposal (in “A Word to Virginians“) of going along with integration met with an outcry there.

One cannot change history by removing names, and one cannot remove the stain of slavery’s original sin from the United States by removing monuments. Until one understands that one’s parents or grandparents felt no shame in putting out an issue of the student magazine with a triumphant Lee standing over Grant in front of the stars and bars (see above), one can’t understand the forces that shaped the culture that exists today.