Summary: The University of Virginia and Law School celebrated the legacy of their first black law student nearly 70 years ago.
The University of Virginia and the School of Law celebrated the history of its first black student back in the 50s. Gregory Swanson was honored in a ceremony recognizing his role as the law school’s first black student, according to a UVA Today article.
Swanson attended UVA after successfully suing UVA for the right to obtain a graduate education. His courage, during a time of strict segregation, demonstrated a perseverance to his future career. His family members attended the celebration where presenters revealed his official Law School portrait. Swanson’s portrait will be kept on permanent display in the school’s Arthur J. Morris Law Library. The Law School also announced an award in his name and provided historical remarks to the audience at the Law School’s Caplin Pavilion.
Law Dean Risa Goluboff talked about what Swanson’s time was like at UVA Law. “There were limits on the community he could create,” Goluboff said. “And the kindnesses that he received could never be taken for granted because of the larger context of isolation, segregation, struggle, exclusion, hostility and paternalism in which he lived. This was a white university in a segregated town.”
She read from a letter that Swanson had sent a friend while he was attending the law school. He told his friend about how white people would stare at him as he walked the mile to school from his home. Swanson wrote, “I should like to read their minds. Sometimes I think that I do.”
Swanson was already an attorney when he applied to UVA in order to obtain a master’s in law. He had earned his legal degree from Howard University. The Law School had accepted his application for the 1950-51 term, but the University blocked his admission because of the state law ordering “that white and colored shall not be taught in the same schools.”
Thurgood Marshall, Oliver Hill, Martin A. Martin and Spottswood Robinson, all civil rights leaders, helped Swanson, with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, file the lawsuit. Robinson argued the case on September 5, 1950, in the Charlottesville federal courts. The trial and deliberation lasted for 30-minutes with the three-judge panel ruling in Swanson’s favor. He was able to register for classes ten days after the ruling, just in time for the school year to start.
UVA President Teresa Sullivan credits Swanson’s bravery for paving the way for other black students. “Gregory Swanson was an agent of integration at UVA at a time when society and state law did not welcome him,” Sullivan said. “His victory inspired other African-Americans to join him here at UVA and spurred the integration of other all-white institutions around the commonwealth. His courage and perseverance paved the way for the diverse communities that the Law School and University have become.”
The University is also creating a President’s Commission on the University in the Age of Segregation, which will explore the school’s role in racial segregation in the 19th and 20th centuries. The school is placing an emphasis on its commitment to being a fair and diverse institution. Rector Frank M. Conner III said, “We need to remember that history is being recorded every day. Our actions and our inactions, and their part and place in the arc of history will forever be remembered.”
Swanson finished the one-year UVA graduate program. By 1961, he was an attorney with the Internal Revenue Service under IRS Commissioner Mortimer M. Caplin, one of Swanson’s former UVA instructors. He worked for the IRS until he retired in 1984.
Do you think the University had to block Swanson’s admission strictly on the basis of the law? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.
To learn more about other African-Americans that made a difference in legal history, read these articles:
- Diversity Has Come a Long Way at the University of Oklahoma Law School
- Loretta Lynch Becomes First African American Female Attorney General
- Michigan Law Review Names Their First African-American Editor