African-American Graduates Recall Life at Law School After Integration

March 1, 2004
Judge Benton
Judge James W. Benton Jr.

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 of Education.

Jerry and Robert Williams
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 welcoming place."

Isaac Hunt Jr. '62
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. Robinson
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 black recruitment.

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 teacher."

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 coat-and-tie tradition.

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 a difference."

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."

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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