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


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.

Fighting for justice in our lifetimes

I took a course on the History of the Civil Rights Movement when I was at the University of Virginia. Taught by Julian Bond, a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the course’s readings alone were enough to make any thoughtful American think long and hard about social justice, as was the opportunity to research local reactions to the movement (see my paper on Virginia’s Massive Resistance movement). One of the thoughts I had at the time was about what I would have done if I were alive in the movement years.

Now, of course, I know: I would have been performing somewhere rather than protesting. Because that’s how the quest for justice played out today: my colleagues and pastors from Old South were at the State House rallying for equal marriage while I was rehearsing the Gurrelieder at Tanglewood.

—Someone with less of an axe to grind than mine, by the way, should look at the signs on both sides of the street from today’s protest and learn what can be learned from them about the protesters. The thing that struck me—and again, I’m biased—is the preponderance of identical “Let the People Vote” signs, professionally made (by, who don’t merit a link but who also apparently trucked in cases of water), on the anti-equal-marriage side, and how the few off-message signs that appear on that side of the street are incoherent and threatening, while just about every sign on the pro-equal-marriage side is handmade and many of them are funny or thoughtful. I especially like this rebuttal to the specious “let the people vote” argument.

Fortunately there are others out there who are more proactive than me, including the Tin Man, who has decided to take advantage of his current between-positions status to try to make a new career in gay-rights law.

For more context on the constitutional convention today—and the protesters—check out Bay Windows’ liveblog. To take a look at what the other side is saying, see’s “Arguments for Marriage” page, which is a fine collection of strawmen.

Bringing it all back home: segregation-era local TV news

Virginia Center for Digital History Research: Television News of the Civil Rights Era. This new archive at the University of Virginia provides film and primary documents from two local Virginia television stations between 1950 and 1970. The archive gives you a chance to explore one of the Old Dominion’s least proud moments in recent memory, the so-called “Massive Resistance” campaign that sought to fight desegregation and generally resist federal civil rights initiatives.

Particularly shameful to me: a 1958 clip showing then-Superintendent of Newport News’s public schools R.O. Nelson explaining that having three applications from black students to enter a segregated school meant that the city didn’t have to take more direct action to end segregation, and that it planned to continue with business as usual. (There is to this day an elementary school named after Superintendent Nelson in Newport News. In my day, we nicknamed it “B.O. Nelson,” not knowing the deeper reasons we should have had for feeling antipathy to it.) Also: the glossary entry for Newport News noting its role in resisting salary equity for black teachers.

As I learned in 1993 researching the archives of the Daily Press for a paper in Julian Bond’s civil rights class, there’s nothing like finding out what little bits of nastiness were happening in your own home town to really bring home the magnitude of injustice.

(In the interests of completeness, here’s that paper.)

RIP, James Forman

New York Times: James Forman Dies at 76; Was Pioneer in Civil Rights. I read Forman’s book, The Making of Black Revolutionaries, during my History of the Civil Rights Movement class at UVA—taught by Julian Bond, Forman’s former SNCC comrade in arms, the class was easily one of the top three that I took there. And the book was a big part of the reason. Together with CORE’s Jim Farmer’s Lay Bare the Heart, Forman’s book planted a seed of radical liberalism in my heart—the sort of radical liberalism that says that you stand up to injustice wherever you see it, no matter how unpopular the stance may be. That you stand up for the rights of the oppressed especially when no one will let them stand up for themselves. That you speak out about civil liberties, because when you let them be infringed you destroy the premise and promise on which this country was founded.