How BALSA Began
This is part 1 in a two-part series marking BLSA’s 50th anniversary. This story will appear in the fall issue of UVA Lawyer.
When Margaret Poles Spencer ’72 and Bobby Vassar ’72 entered law school at UVA in 1969, they were two of 13 Black students in their class of 340, and among 18 in the entire school.
“My first day of class at UVA was the first time I’d ever been in a classroom with a white student,” Vassar said. “It was new and something that was not familiar, and had its challenges.”
When Spencer and Vassar began their studies, UVA had not yet fully admitted women to study as undergraduates. While they were in law school, Elaine Jones became the school’s first Black female graduate in 1970. (The first Black male student, Gregory Swanson, was admitted in 1950.)
The school’s path toward more diversity was uncertain — and needed a push, the students decided.
“There was no diversity at the Law School in terms of faculty and staff at that time,” Spencer said.
Along with several other students, Vassar and Spencer believed they had a “critical mass” to form a Black American Law Students Association chapter. The chapter officially formed Oct. 16, 1970, two years after the launch of the first chapter at New York University.
Vassar grew up in rural Northampton County, North Carolina, and is a graduate of Norfolk University. Currently senior counselor to the president at Bay Aging, his career has also encompassed serving as a legal aid attorney just after graduation in Roanoke, Virginia, to recently retiring as Democratic chief counsel for the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee.
Spencer, a Howard University graduate, is a retired Virginia Circuit Court judge who continues to fill in at circuit courts throughout the state. After law school, she directed the Alexandria Legal Aid Society, served as an attorney with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, served as a senior appellate attorney in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and as an assistant attorney general in Virginia, and worked as a law professor at William & Mary Law School, and as an adjunct at UVA Law.
Fifty years after the formation of BALSA, now known as the Black Law Students Association, they reflected on their experiences, challenges and triumphs.
Why did you want to go to law school, and why at UVA?
Spencer: Well, to be perfectly honest, I did not want to go to law school. I was a sociology major in undergrad, at Howard University. But in 1967, a Howard grad, Justice [Thurgood] Marshall, was appointed to the Supreme Court at the same time I was helping a student, a sorority sister, study for the LSAT. I decided that, instead of being a social worker, I could have a more significant impact on changing the lives of persons in our community as an attorney. So I decided to go to law school.
I researched law schools the way I researched undergraduate schools. The University of Virginia was the highest-ranked law school in the state. It was close to home. That’s it. The rest is history.
Vassar: My first big ambition was to be an architect, after I read “The Fountainhead” in high school as an assignment. But I found out, when I took a drafting class, that I was no good at it.
So I played the role of a lawyer in a high school play. And it kind of stuck, with people saying, “Oh, you were good. You should be a lawyer.” So when time came to put down for the yearbook what your ambition was, I said “lawyer” based on that.
[Vassar participated in the CLEO Program the summer before he started law school at UVA. The Council on Legal Education Opportunity Inc. was founded in 1968 to expand opportunities for minority and low-income students to attend law school, and still operates today.]
I was selected to participate in the CLEO Program at UVA, along with 30-some other students. And so that gave UVA and me a chance to check each other out. I had actually accepted an offer at Rutgers. But then, toward the end of the program, UVA told me I’d been accepted.
When you came to UVA, you were walking into a mostly white school for the first time. What was that like?
Spencer: At the time, there were only four Black females at the Law School. Elaine Jones was a third-year student. And there were three of us in my first-year class. One was Elaine’s sister [Gwendolyn Jones Jackson], and the other was an older woman. So it was sort of isolating for me.
But students were friendly. I remember probably the most difficult thing was there were times when I would walk into Clark Hall, and all of the African Americans were male, and all of the women were white. I was basically the only [Black woman] in the building a lot of the time because I was the only African American student who lived on campus. The types of things I remember I think have more to do with the fact that I was a Black woman than a Black student.
For example, there were very few female restrooms in the buildings on campus because women were not admitted to UVA as [undergrad] students until 1970, which was the beginning of my second year of law school. I was occasionally directed to the maintenance staff facilities.
It was interesting, it was isolating, but it wasn’t difficult. I liked law school.
Vassar: I think it was like what I’d imagine it would be like being suddenly plopped down in a foreign country and not having any real background or information about how things work or operate. As I say, the CLEO Program gave us a little bit. But the problem is, it was isolated because the only students there were those in the program. I’d had [classes with] white teachers at Norfolk State — a few — but never with any white students. My whole school career had been totally segregated up until that point. And so, it was different.
What else do you remember about the environment?
Vassar: There were people who engaged. And there was interchange. And there were those who weren’t engaged. We still had segregated country clubs like Farmington, where students had activities that of course — not that I necessarily wanted to [be a part of them], but even if I had wanted to, those are things that you can’t be a part of.
At Norfolk State, for example, there was an open environment where there were efforts to recruit me into things like fraternities or clubs or organizations, societies, or things like that — there were choices. There was a feeling of being similar to or like others and a matter of feeling a part of the context in a way that was definitely not there at UVA. Not because somebody was standing at the door saying, you need not apply. But there was not a welcome mat that I could feel. And if I had a notion, it would be that I’m likely not welcome.
There was certainly not that sense of belonging and welcoming in society at large. So UVA was consistent with that.
Spencer: It was very difficult for me because I had a full-time job. I was a secretary in the undergrad Department of Environmental Sciences on campus. I would leave the Law School, and go over to the [department], and I would type.
I understood there would be challenges that I realized a lot of students didn’t have. There were trying times in terms of finances. The Law School was not supporting us financially, either individually with scholarships or loans, or supporting BALSA.
But we were determined to do what we needed to do.
Did you face instances of discrimination beyond that?
Vassar: One of the things we endeavored to do, as law students and as kind of big brothers for undergrads, was to look at what was going on there. And there were several instances where we became engaged in cases there.
I remember the incident where four Black male students were walking down one of the sidewalks on the campus. They were laughing, joking and interacting with one another, and they were walking side by side. And apparently, without them even noticing it, no deliberate action here, there was a white student coming in the opposite direction who had to step off the sidewalk, according to a campus police officer who apprehended the Black students and admonished them for walking in a way that caused another student to have to step off the sidewalk, which we thought was crazy. And of course, in our view, that would have never happened if it were the other way around, four white students walking down the sidewalk and a Black student had to step off.
So we challenged that. And we had several meetings with the University officials, with the president.
Spencer: Yeah. And I think the best answer to that is, it was 1969, and we were in Charlottesville, Virginia, at the University of Virginia. Yes, we were discriminated against.
At Mary Munford, the dorm I stayed in, occasionally I would come back to the dorm — and I had a room by myself, because the white student who was my roommate obviously left — and I would come back occasionally, and written in red lipstick on the door would be “Go home.” The cleaning crew — very nicely — would clean it off. And I would just say, “This is 1969, and this is the University of Virginia, and this is Charlottesville. I will move on.”
My first year at the Law School, I know a number of [first-year] students who were from out of state would approach me and say, “How do you like our law school?” I mean, I was a first-year student. I’m a native Virginian. My parents have been working and paying taxes in Virginia all their lives. So there were little things that reminded us of the fact that, as I said, it was 1969, and we were in Virginia. We dealt with it and we moved on.
Vassar: I did have some personal racism experiences out in the community. I got married during law school. And my wife and I were looking for an apartment. And this woman saw our ad, and offered to provide a home that she had out in the country. And we went out, and we loved it.
But her husband was a real estate agent. And when he came and saw who we were, he all of a sudden said that the place wasn’t available, that they’d rented it out. And the wife called, crying, and saying, “This is wrong. It’s not true.”
[In another instance, white female law students hoped to sublet their house to the Vassars to get out of their lease.]
And we followed up, and found out that the person who owned the house was a teacher at Lane High School with my wife.
And so she gleefully went and said, “We want to rent your house.” The woman said, “Uh, uh, uh, no, that’s already rented.” Same thing, you know? And the students offered to pay for lawyers for us to bring a discrimination case. We just didn’t want to go through the rigamarole and the mess of it. We were just deflated and so disappointed that we let it go, and finally found an apartment complex where we rented a place.
How did the idea to form a BALSA chapter come about?
Vassar: When you’re in this context of feeling alone and separated, you want to have some sense of recognition, some structural contacts, some prestige that an organization would give. And yes, you can start your own and come up with and create it.
We were aware of BALSA — Black American Law Students Association — chapters at other universities. And so we began to look into the possibilities, talking among ourselves of establishing a chapter at UVA.
Spencer: We were trying to increase the numbers, obviously, of Black students. But we wanted the Law School to hire a Black professor. So I think we wanted a unified approach, an advocacy position, as a group.
How did the student body and faculty react to the formation of BALSA?
Spencer: I think there were varied responses. I do not remember open hostility. Those that were supportive were quietly and respectfully supportive. But I think it was very new to the Law School.
And there were some who felt: We’ll get there. You’re trying to rush us. There are just no qualified students. There are no qualified professors there, which is something you hear now. We just can’t find them. We’re doing the best we can. We’ll get there eventually. Which is the same response I think women had in getting admitted to undergrad as freshmen.
Vassar: I could be wrong, but I don’t know that we were unique. But even though we were an organization registered through the school, we got no level of support, any funding or anything of that nature, from the school. It may have not been something that the University did. But if they did do it, they didn’t do it for us.
How did you help with recruiting other Black students?
Vassar: Well, by interaction. I knew people, for example at Norfolk State, like Raymond Jackson [’73, now a U.S. judge]. He and I were good friends. And I knew that he would be someone that would do well at UVA.
A number of the students in our class were Black students who had been attending majority white schools. And there was some concern on our part that the University would see that as a more fruitful ground to recruit from because these would be people that they would expect to be more acclimated to how to operate in a majority white context. I think they saw us as more rabble-rousers who had the traditional Black college background. That was our notion anyway. I don’t know to what extent that was true.
Spencer: We made presentations at undergrad schools. We tried to get the Law School to openly state that they were interested in recruiting more African American students. I mean, we were the largest class — 1969-1970, the 13 — we were the largest class the Law School had ever admitted. So we felt, you obviously need to do more.
And that was an indication to us that they weren’t really serious about recruiting Black students or Black faculty members. We had to make trips to college career fairs at [historically Black colleges and universities]. I know I went back to Howard, and Howard specifically asked UVA [to come]. I was the person who went to Howard on my own.
But you also made a significant impact on faculty recruiting. Tell us more about that.
Vassar: We were concerned that there were virtually no Black faculty members or administrators in the University. And so we sought to change that.
We endeavored to do a systematic approach to challenging the University on its failure to have Black faculty.
Because the discussion points were such that when you approached it, the indication was, “Yeah, well, we’d love to. But we can’t find any that qualified, who want to come here.” And what we sensed they were talking about is nobody that Harvard or Yale or Columbia or Stanford had that were Black wanted to come to UVA. Because those are what they’re looking at as qualified.
So we did a months-long campaign to establish that the University had failed to effectively recruit Black faculty. One of the elements of the campaign was a survey that we conducted of University faculty. And our survey reflected that about 80% agreed that the University should have minority faculty in its ranks, which we expected to be the case.
Spencer: We came up with a list of about 50 professors we wanted the Law School to actively recruit. And we wanted them to retain them after they recruited them. Most of the people on our list weren’t even contacted by the Law School.
Vassar: We learned that because we contacted all 50 before putting their names forward to ask them the simple question of, would they consider a position on the faculty or at least teaching a class at UVA. And as Margaret said, I don’t remember if any were contacted, but if so only a few, by the Law School.
We decided to call a press conference. And we prepared letters to federal civil rights offices such as the Civil Rights Division in the Department of Education, the Civil Rights Division in the Department of Justice, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and also state civil rights enforcement entities. There were eight total that we wrote.
I know we got several media representatives, including a TV station that came. And we presented our findings and our development. We had a report of what activities we’d gone through that we issued as a part of our press package.
And then we had people making statements. Margaret was our historian. So she did the presentation of what efforts we had undertaken. And as a result of that press conference, the then-dean, Monrad Paulsen, attended, in the sense of standing in the background.
And we held the press conference at Clark Hall, and I signed the letters [to the civil rights offices], and we provided copies [to the media].
What happened after the press conference?
Vassar: There was a professor who was teaching one course at the University at the time, Larry Gibson, from Baltimore. We learned from him that he’d suddenly been called by Dean Paulsen to meet with him the next day.
Spencer: The offer was made for him to start in the fall. Gibson accepted it because, as he told us, it was an offer he could not refuse. And he was literally commuting from Maryland. He had already taught one class at the University of Virginia. Yet they did not contact him until after our press conference. I think our efforts had, as I say, shined a light of wisdom on discrimination.
Vassar: And so clearly our efforts had succeeded in getting the University’s attention. And they quickly were able to address the issue, at least to that extent. But that was exactly the kind of thing that we saw BALSA as a vehicle for, as an organizational vehicle to accomplish our mutual goals as a student group.
There were a good number of students generally, our fellow white students, who were in the hall at the time of the press conference. It certainly made it clear that we were a force to be reckoned with, relative to our ability to put together a campaign, document and support it, and pull it off in an effective manner.
Spencer: It made me feel that at least we had accomplished a small step in the right direction. We felt that, but for our advocacy, but for the work we had engaged in to convince the Law School that this was wrong, Gibson would not have been hired. We opened their eyes to the value of diversity.
What lessons from your time in BALSA did you apply to your career?
Spencer: I think we understood that we just had to be persistent and we had to persevere. We were determined to make an impact on the numbers of Black students at the Law School. And we were determined to make certain that the University understood the importance of having Black faculty.
Vassar: In terms, again, of at least supporting the concept of preparation and documentation and the kinds of things that a law training and background would emphasize. I think we put it to good work.
And in the context of networking, which was another sense of belonging and being a part of something that was happening across the country during the time when that was a big deal with civil rights movements and anti-war protests and the whole student protest scene. Having that kind of organizational foundation was a more effective way of going about it than trying to rely on individual charisma or pressures or other ways.
Plus another big factor in our contextual framework for BALSA was that we needed to be a support and perhaps a leadership group for the other Black students on the campus in the undergraduate program. Because at the time, there were about 90 other Black students on the campus from the undergraduate and graduate programs, in addition to the Law School.
Spencer: I’m a big “Hamilton” fan. And there’s a line in “Hamilton” in the beginning that Hamilton had to work a little harder and be a little smarter. I think we learned that at the University of Virginia. We had to work a little harder, and be a little smarter, and be persistent.
We’re in a moment of national reflection on race. How do you feel about how far we’ve come, and how far we have left to go?
Spencer: Race is now and has always been — racial equality, particularly — a part of our Union that has not yet been perfected. I think it’s an issue that we cannot afford to ignore. And we can’t afford to ignore it because we have never really come together and realized we have to resolve disparities in health care, criminal justice, education, housing and employment before we can all live together as Americans in a more perfect Union.
So I think while we have made progress in the last 50 years, we still have a struggle.
Vassar: Yes, tremendous progress in terms of structural changes like Jim Crow laws, policies such as desegregation, nondiscrimination, and individual achievements. But when you look at the societal context we live in, as Margaret noted, we still have a significant bit of perfecting to do.
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