|Judge James W. Benton Jr.
Posted March 1, 2004
African-American Graduates Recall
Life at Law School After Integration
In his third year of law school James W. Benton Jr. '70 signed up
to take Virginia Procedure despite warnings from his fellow black classmates
that the professor was racist. Fellow classmate Elaine Jones, now head
of the NAACP Legal and Educational Defense Fund, was taking the class
as well. Both wanted to practice in Virginia. On the first day of class,
the professor announced, “I see that there are women here,” explaining
he had once failed a female student, but she had cried and convinced
him to change the grade. Female students who came to class would pass,
he said. “Elaine looked across the room at me and said, 'you're on
your own,'” Benton said.
Such bittersweet memories figure strongly into the experiences of
Benton and three other African-American alumni who recounted what life
was like at the Law School shortly after desegregation at an event
sponsored by the Black
Law Students Association Feb. 24. They agreed
the social scene was difficult, and they faced racist attitudes from
many quarters, but their education allowed them to chart successful
careers in Virginia and in other states.
“It was for me an experience that was very different than at Northwestern
or Temple [where he got his bachelor's and master's degrees],” said
Benton, now the only African-American judge on the Virginia Court of
Appeals. “There were times at Northwestern I could almost forget I
was a black student.” He only became a supporter of the Law School
after his daughter decided to attend—against his wishes—and her good
experience changed his mind. “As a result of her being a student here,
I had a different look at the University.” He now donates yearly.
The panelists were teenagers or younger when the Supreme Court struck
down school segregation with Brown v. Board
|Jerry Williams '73, right, and
Robert Williams '69.
“I thought it was the greatest thing ever,” said Jerry Williams ‘73,
a partner in the Danville, Va. law firm of Williams, Luck & Williams.
Because he was only 8 years old at the time, he assumed segregation
would end immediately.
Isaac Hunt Jr. '62, a former dean at Akron Law School in Ohio and
Antioch School of Law in Washington, was more skeptical when he heard
the news while attending Fiske University as an undergraduate. “The
climate from Richmond and deep-South states was, ‘hell will freeze
over before we obey Brown,'” he said.
Jerry Williams' brother, Robert Williams ‘69, a partner at Williams,
Luck & Williams in Martinsville, Va., recalled that many black
families he knew were torn apart by segregation because they had to
send their children north to be educated. During the era, Thurgood
Marshall would often visit his father, who was also a civil rights
lawyer, but when he thinks of Brown he recalls “what hope
it brought the masses of blacks in the South, only to have it dashed,
especially in Virginia.”
“The most serious impact was the closing of public schools,” Benton
added. He graduated late from his high school in Norfolk, in 1959,
because Virginia closed its schools rather than desegregate. He thought
he never wanted to return to the South again and moved to Philadelphia
to attend Temple College. When looking at law schools, he hadn't considered
applying to Virginia: “Nobody applied to the University of Virginia.
It was not considered a place that was welcoming to us,” he said. But
a professor recommended the school, and Virginia was a bargain at $250
per semester. Out of the 250 people in his class, only two were black
and 13 women. The entire Law School student body only included five
African-Americans. “Virginia was a strange experience for me coming
from Philadelphia and Chicago,” he said. “It was not a particularly
|Isaac Hunt Jr. '62.
“We all received a superb legal education from here,” Hunt said. “There
were other things about it that were interesting to say the least.”
He recalled going to parties at a friend's house that was rented from
a law professor. After the professor found out, “he made it clear to
my friend that my friend was breaking social ground and he didn't like
it at all.”
Robert and Jerry Williams had a cousin who graduated from the medical
school in 1958, so they were familiar with the area and knew the school
would be socially difficult. Virginia's policy in the 1960s was to
pay qualified black applicants to study at out-of-state colleges and
universities, Robert Williams noted. After applying, he wasn't contacted
by admissions officials until the summer before school started, when
they requested an interview. It was only later that he found out that
students with comparable LSAT scores and grades did not have to interview.
|Prof. Mildred Robinson, above,
moderated the panel.
“I came to the Law School because at that time the power brokers in
Virginia were all Virginia graduates,” he said, including most judges. “They
inculcated in you that this is the University.” Over time, “you
realize you got a very good education.”
While Williams made friends with many white students, he pointed out
that University undergraduates had a rougher time because of the atmosphere
on main Grounds. Virginia had a coat-and-tie tradition, and many black
undergraduates entered school with only enough dress clothes for Sundays.
The University also recruited mainly from Virginia 's all-white private
schools, while the Law School pulled students from outside the state
that had broader views on race.
“My classmates were much more accepting because they were from all
over the country,” Hunt agreed, with many from Princeton and Yale. “Over
the years I have really felt sorry for the undergraduates who came
here during my era.”
Williams fondly remembered aerospace engineering professor Wes Harris,
the only black faculty member at the University at the time. “Wes always
provided a place for us to go,” he said. Williams ended up traveling
to Washington, D.C. each weekend to visit friends in school at Howard
University, his alma mater. “When you have a greater mass [of minorities],
there's a socialization that goes on that's much different,” he said.
Jerry Williams remembered white residents in his hometown of Danville,
Va., crossing the street when blacks walked on their side. His parents
sent him to a mostly white prep school in New York City, where the
head of his dormitory called his parents after two weeks to talk about
why he was so antisocial. “He had no concept of what life was like
in Danville, Virginia,” he said, where blacks could not talk to whites.
Only three other African-Americans were in his class at Virginia when
he entered in 1968. He was drafted into the Vietnam War while in school
and came back to graduate in 1973, when there were nine African-Americans
in his class. “I was on the cusp, so to speak, when the school started
admitting blacks regardless of what the previous criteria [for admitting
African-Americans] were.” Coming back from the war after a pause in
his education gave Williams a drive to finish his degree. “On the whole,
Virginia didn't bother me because I knew what I wanted to do.”
The panelists found that faculty reacted in a variety of ways to their
presence at the school.
Benton recalled passing a professor on a narrow stairwell in the Law
School 's former Clark Hall location on main Grounds, and said good
morning. “He looked right beyond me and never said anything.”
Another smoked Marlboros in class, as Benton did, and would always
borrow cigarettes while lecturing. At the last class the professor
came in with a carton of cigarettes, saying, “I just want to make sure
we're even going into the exam.”
Benton and Elaine Jones taught in a summer legal education program
for minority students, and he called former Law School Dean Monrad
G. Paulsen instrumental in bringing the program to the school and increasing
Hunt praised former dean Hardy Cross Dillard for sending more letters
to the Richmond Times-Dispatch protesting its racist, segregationist
editorials than any other person at the University. He also praised
former professor Mortimer Caplin for being “an absolutely extraordinary
Robert Williams recalled talking with the undergraduate admissions
officials about admitting more blacks and was able to get money from
them to help recruit black students—he also asked them to ditch the
Williams said he had good relationships with his Jewish and Catholic
roommates his second year, and they would often socialize with other
graduate students and law school professors.
“I don't want to paint the picture that Virginia was so bad,” he said. “There
were some faculty members who were well aware of the problem and did
what they could to make changes.”
As few as there were, at the time the Law School had the largest number
of black law students in the South at a predominantly white school. “When
there's a critical mass, it's a lot easier,” Williams added.
Jerry Williams also agreed that black students became social activists
in pushing for change at the University. “While you were being a student
you were also doing a lot of social engineering.”
Asked what he took away from his experiences at law school, Benton
said “I had not intended to return to the South [after graduating from
high school].” But “the University reminded me of why I left.”
Benton began a prominent career in civil rights after graduating;
during the 1970s he worked on job and housing discrimination and desegregation
cases in Virginia. “When I left here I left here with the assumption
that I need to do something to make some changes.
“When you get out there and make big bucks, don't lose your social
conscience,” Benton suggested. “Use those skills as a lawyer to make
Hunt thought that when he started a job, his office would be more
integrated, but found he was the only black lawyer on the SEC staff.
He recommended that students pursue a field they like.
“The advantage of the law is you can change and do other things,” Robert
Williams added. “That's what this education can give you.”
Williams also recommended that students take advantage of law school
and network. “Make a lot of friends—don't just have friends that are
just like you.”
When asked about what faculty members can do to help African-Americans
adjust to law school, Hunt and Benton agreed that being open and talking
to students, especially informally, can help.
“There's also got to be a sharing of cultures,” Williams said. Faculty
members should try to “make sure that varied experience is shared.”
Jerry Williams said that while he remembers being wowed by former
professor Antonin Scalia's brilliance, he really remembers the professors
who cared. “If you had a problem, you could go to them.”
• Reported by M. Wood