Compiled with research from the UVA Law Library.
For the first 100 years after the 1819 founding of the University of Virginia, an institution built by the labor of enslaved people, the university’s professors and students were almost exclusively white and male. The University’s law school was similarly dominated by white men.
There were exceptions. Napoleon Breedlove Ainsworth, a citizen of the Choctaw nation, attended UVA Law in 1881 and 1882. Ainsworth left the Law School without receiving a degree (a common practice at the time), passed the bar, and began his law practice. He ultimately became a noted member of the U.S. Court in Indian Territory and remained active in the affairs of the Choctaw government until his death.
W.W. Yen, a Chinese national, was the first international student to earn a bachelor’s degree at UVA and studied at the Law School from 1899-1900 in a class that included Japanese student Hiraoaka Ryosuke. Yen went on to become China’s first ambassador to the Soviet Union and a delegate to the League of Nations.
Jose Poventud and Fernando Domenech, two men from Puerto Rico, became UVA Law’s first Latin American students when they enrolled in the 1901-02 academic session. Damian Montserrat Jr., the first graduate from Puerto Rico, attended UVA Law from 1905-07 and graduated with a bachelor’s of law degree in 1908.
Systemic progress toward a more inclusive and equitable learning environment at the University and its Law School, however, only began to truly unfold during its second century.
The Advent of Coeducation
White women with high social status made inroads into the University’s discriminatory admissions policies contemporaneously with the national push for women’s suffrage. In 1920, just after the passage of the 19th Amendment, the UVA Board of Visitors succumbed to social pressure and changed its admissions requirements for its professional and masters’ programs. That year, the first women admitted to the Law School were Elizabeth Tompkins ’23 and Rose May Davis, as well as UVA Law Librarian Catherine Lipop, a special student who was not seeking a degree. (See Women Who Led the Way.)
Tompkins and Davis both made perfect scores on the Virginia bar exam after their second year in law school. Davis chose not to finish her third year and pursued private practice with her brother instead. She later became the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry from Duke University and joined the legal department of DuPont.
Tompkins remained through her third year, finishing among those at the top of her class and becoming the first female graduate of the Law School. She clerked for the law firm Duke, Duke & Gentry in Charlottesville, which frequently hired UVA Law graduates, before practicing law for 54 years in Richmond. She specialized primarily in real estate law and estate planning.
White women continued to be a presence at the Law School in subsequent decades, although often in relatively small numbers. Marion Boyd Crockett ’32 became the first woman elected to the Virginia Law Review editorial review board, and during World War II, women editors were of vital importance to the continued operation of the journal. In 1948, a mother and daughter even attended the Law School at the same time.
Integrating the Law School
The Law School’s next breakthrough toward a more inclusive student body didn’t come until the autumn of 1950, with the matriculation of LL.M. candidate Gregory Hayes Swanson, the first Black student at the University. Already a Howard-trained lawyer, Swanson sought admission to the Law School’s masters’ program to further his goal of becoming a law professor. The law faculty voted to admit Swanson in January 1950. The UVA Board of Visitors rejected Swanson’s application in July 1950, stating that his admission would violate Virginia’s Constitution and laws, which required racially segregated education.
Swanson — backed by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund co-counsel of Thurgood Marshall, Oliver Hill, Spottswood Robinson and Martin A. Martin — filed a federal lawsuit in order to gain admission to the Law School for the fall 1950 term. Swanson quickly won his suit, which was decided in light of the 1948 U.S. Supreme Court case Sipuel v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma. In the ruling, the court said Oklahoma must provide instruction for Blacks equal to that of whites, effectively requiring the state to admit plaintiff Ada Sipuel into the state’s all-white law schools. Two other Supreme Court cases, Sweatt v. Painter and McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Board of Regents, were pending at the high court at the time of Swanson’s case.
Swanson was the first Black student to break the color line at a university in a former Confederate state. His lawsuit also paved the way for Walter N. Ridley’s admission to UVA that same year; Ridley earned his doctorate in education, becoming the University’s first Black graduate, in 1953.
Like many LL.M. students at UVA during the period, Swanson never turned in the paper required to receive his degree. At that time, the Law School’s LL.M. program required one year in residence and then completion of a thesis, the latter of which usually occurred after the student had left Grounds for law practice. That was the path Swanson followed: completing and passing the eight classes he chose to take during the year and working on the paper after his time at UVA. It’s not clear why he didn’t complete the paper, but he was likely busy with the demands of practice as well as speaking engagements and other matters related to his civil rights activism.
Swanson eventually joined the Internal Revenue Service as an attorney, hired by a former professor, Mortimer Caplin ’40, who directed the IRS under President John F. Kennedy. (Caplin is believed to have been the first Jewish professor at the Law School.) Robert F. Kennedy ’51, a contemporary of Swanson’s as a student at the Law School, introduced Swanson to Caplin.
The Law School’s first Black graduate was John Merchant ’58. He went on to become the first Black person to join the executive committee of the U.S. Golf Association. He represented Tiger Woods early in his career, and opened doors for people of color in the exclusive sport. While in practice, he also helped encourage the next generation of UVA graduates with the creation of the Walter N. Ridley Scholarship Fund, in 1987. Named after the first black graduate of the UVA student body, the fund continues to this day.
Calls for Equality Increase During the 1970s
The next wave of diversity in the Law School’s student body took place in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, bolstered by focused efforts to recruit Black students.
Elaine Jones ’70, who would go on to become president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, was the first Black female graduate of the Law School. Linda Howard ’73 became the first female and the first Black president of the student body in 1972.
Black students organized the school’s chapter of the Black American Law Students Association (which later dropped the “American” from its name) in 1970, and quickly began to advocate for Black representation on the faculty. Soon the school hired its first Black professor, Larry Gibson. Samuel Thompson was the first Black tenured professor.
The number of women at the Law School also increased during the 1970s, and Virginia Law Women formed in 1971. The group published a recurring pamphlet on the state of women’s rights, and frequently allied with BALSA on matters of inclusion.
At the undergraduate level, students began to be admitted to UVA in 1970 without regard to gender, thanks to a lawsuit spearheaded by John Lowe ’67. Some of those women would add to the diversity of the next generation of lawyers as they graduated and went on to law school at UVA and other institutions.
Lillian R. BeVier became the first female tenured professor in 1973.
An Expanding Umbrella for Diversity
New student affinity groups reflecting the growing diversity of the student body formed in the 1980s. These included the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association, the Jewish Law Students Association, and the Gay and Lesbian Law Student Association, or GALLSA (now known as Lambda Law Alliance).
In 1984, GALLSA was successful in lobbying Dean Richard Merrill to insert a nondiscrimination clause into a statement on the law school application for admission. GALLSA also was active in getting sexual orientation included in a UVA antidiscrimination policy in 1990.
Mildred Robinson became the first Black tenured female professor in 1985. George Yin, a relative of W.W. Yen, became the first Asian-American member of the tenured faculty in 1994.
In the 1990s, the Latin American Law Students Association joined the list of affinity groups, and the discussion group SUPRA (Students United to Promote Racial Awareness) formed to promote dialogue about race and diversity.
The 2000s saw the addition of Women of Color and the Feminist Legal Forum, while the 2010s saw the formation of the South Asian Law Students Association and Muslim Law Students Association.
Most recently, the Middle Eastern and North African Law Student Association joined a list of about 20 student affinity groups. (See also the History of Cultural Affinity Groups at UVA.)
The Law School formed the Center for the Study of Race and Law in 2003 to examine and exchange ideas related to race and law through lectures, symposia and scholarship. Since then, the center has hosted numerous events and conferences that bring discussions of diversity to the fore and spearheaded the commemoration of Law School pioneers like Gregory Swanson and Elaine Jones. It also serves as a hub for the scholarly study of race at the Law School.
In addition, the efforts of a number of clinics and special pro bono projects have worked to address issues that disproportionately impact the lives of people of color, women and the indigent, including the long-running Migrant Farmworker Project, as well as the Immigration Law Clinic, the Civil Rights Clinic, the Innocence Project Clinic and the Economic and Consumer Justice Clinic. Faculty members have also worked to find solutions to inequities, including Kimberly J. Robinson’s edited book on a right to federal education, Andrew Block’s work on the Governor’s Commission to Examine Racial Inequality in the Law and Megan Stevenson’s efforts to draw attention to the work of Black economists focusing on criminal law issues. More | Faculty Research
The Charlottesville Protests and Beyond
In 2016, Risa Goluboff became the first female dean of the Law School.
On Aug. 11, white supremacists marched at the University and attacked UVA community members on Grounds. On Aug. 12, the protests and demonstrations turned even more violent in Charlottesville, and a ‘Unite the Right’ protester killed a local woman, Heather Heyer, and wounded many others when he drove his car into a crowd. The dean condemned the violence, and has continued to speak out against injustice, including the brutal death of George Floyd and others in 2020.
In the aftermath of the Charlottesville demonstrations, Goluboff led UVA’s Deans Working Group, which considered the University’s response to the attacks and made actionable recommendations for what could be improved moving forward. Among the working group’s recommendation was $30 million in funding from the Board of Visitors for faculty hiring, scholarships and efforts to enhance bridging across differences within the University community.
In the weeks following the Aug. 11-12 attacks, Law School community members reflected on what happened and continued to engage in discussions at events, including during a panel on “Equality, White Supremacy and Confederate Symbols.” In September 2018 the school co-sponsored the two-day conference “One Year After Charlottesville” to examine the nation’s history of racism, racial violence and white supremacy, and where it stands today, through the lens of empirical critical race theory.
In February of 2018, the Law School commemorated the life of first Black student Gregory Swanson and created an annual award in his honor. A portrait of Swanson now hangs in Clay Hall.
In 2019, with the Law School’s financial and administrative support, the University launched The Equity Center, with inaugural director UVA Law professor Dayna Bowen Matthew ’87. Its mission is to “tangibly redress racial and economic inequity in university communities by advancing a transformative approach to the fundamental research mission, which will, in turn, reform institutional values, pedagogy, and operations.” In January 2020 the Law School hosted a two-day symposium sponsored by the Schools of Law and Medicine, “Healing Hate.”
In recent years the Law School has launched a number of initiatives focused on diversity and equity to support an environment in which every member belongs, succeeds and thrives. Most recently, the school launched a search for a new assistant dean for diversity, equity and belonging, and a new scholarship named after Elaine Jones, the school’s first female Black graduate and the first female president and director-counsel of the NAACP LDF. A portrait of Elaine Jones has been commissioned and will hang in Clay Hall when completed.