Professor Emerita Mildred Robinson Wins Equity Award Named for Late Husband

Armstead Robinson Award Honors Black Faculty Members Whose Efforts Support Others
Mildred Robinson

Mildred Robinson was the first tenured Black woman to serve on the UVA Law faculty. Photo by Jesús Pino

June 9, 2021

Professor Emerita Mildred Robinson of the University of Virginia School of Law has won an award for helping to improve equity in the UVA community — one that’s close to her heart.

On Tuesday, she was the recipient of the Armstead Robinson Faculty Award, named for her late husband. The Black Faculty and Staff Employee Resource Group at UVA bestows the award to a faculty member who has contributed to diversity, equity and inclusion, and who has had a positive impact on the Black experience at the University.

“It’s hard for me to say anything right now, I’m so choked up,” she said during the ceremony.

This year, the employee group presented awards via Zoom due to the pandemic, which canceled last year’s awards process. Robinson retired last spring.

Having no idea she was nominated or would even be eligible for the award, “I was just totally stunned,” said Robinson, the first tenured Black woman to serve on the UVA Law faculty, in comments before the ceremony. She was hired in 1985 from Florida State University.

Robinson recently wrapped up a 35-year teaching career at UVA, and 47 years in academia overall, that went beyond just being a tax scholar. During her service, she was a robust citizen of the UVA community, and a dedicated mentor and friend to countless students, faculty and staff.

Among her many contributions, she served as a role model to UVA Law students who would go on to have successful careers in either tax or academia, including Dayna Bowen Matthew ’87, dean of George Washington Law School; helped recruit Black faculty at the Law School and across Grounds; served as a welcomer and resource to successive classes of Black law students, including at Black Law Students Association receptions, which she sometimes hosted at her home; and created and led the “Profiles from Practice” series that introduced students to diverse practitioners in the legal field.

She said the award was meaningful to her because it means “I was an important contributor to the University experience in a way he thought was meaningful. I was a big fan of his.”

Armstead Robinson was a history professor who oversaw the initial development of the Carter G. Woodson Institute for Afro-American and African Studies. Under his leadership, the institute helped identify, recruit and retain key Black faculty members at the University.

The couple were married for eight years, until his untimely death in 1995.

As a widow with three children, one of them only 6, she maintained her full teaching load, her many volunteer commitments and added a new project: the completion of her husband’s book manuscript. In association with the University of Virginia Press, which identified history professors to help complete the work, she made sure that “Bitter Fruits of Bondage: The Demise of Slavery and the Collapse of the Confederacy: 1861-1865” was published.

“I found about seven different versions, and it was pretty close to being overwhelming, but I was determined the book would be published,” Robinson said. Once she identified the partnership that would complete the book, “I was cheering loudly on the sidelines.”

The book proved insightful to historians. The research demonstrated that the North’s victory in the Civil War was based on more than military might; the South was divided in its commitment to the war, with poorer classes disputing its necessity, a fracture which may have made a difference in key battles.

In addition to volunteering on Grounds and having an open-door policy for students and professors who sought her counsel, the law professor also found time to serve outside of UVA in numerous roles, including locally on the board of Martha Jefferson Hospital and nationally on the Law School Admission Council.

“At one point I had a notebook that had five sections in it, and it was dedicated to lists of tasks,” Robinson said.

When she was too wired from the day’s activities to sleep, she would knit baby blankets for expecting mothers she knew.

Dean Risa Goluboff, Vice Dean Leslie Kendrick ’06 and Professor Kim Forde-Mazrui, director of UVA’s Center for the Study of Race and Law, wrote letters of support for Robinson’s nomination. They were on behalf of the entire law faculty, the dean said.

“Throughout her work, Mildred has explored the meaning of social fairness as well as the ways governments use financial policies to increase — or decrease — equity,” Goluboff wrote. “Just as Mildred placed the law’s effects on people at the center of her scholarship, she placed her own impact on students at the center of her teaching. Mildred taught, as one alumna put it, with ‘a heartwarming, kind, caring and generous spirit, and she goes out of her way to encourage students, all of which help to humanize the traditional law school experience.’”

Forde-Mazrui noted that Robinson educated about race as moderator of events and through her book, “Law Touched Our Hearts: A Generation Remembers Brown v. Board of Education,” which she co-authored with Professor Richard Bonnie ’69. The book of personal essays from academics who experienced segregation as schoolchildren included a remembrance from Robinson, whose father was the principal of the all-Black high school she attended in Newberry, South Carolina.

Kendrick spoke about knowing Robinson as a source of wisdom and support for her entire academic career, and hearing the same from others. Generous to all, Robinson was cognizant of what her words might mean to Black students in particular. 

“I stepped into my current role as Vice Dean in the summer of 2017, shortly before the white supremacist and neo-Nazi attacks of August 11-12,” Kendrick wrote. “In the months that followed, as our community reeled, Mildred was a very important person for our students and faculty and a trusted advisor for all of us seeking to respond and to support our community. I have seen firsthand and heard secondhand from generations of Black students who have received support from Mildred, and I know for a fact that our community would not be as great or as inclusive as it is without her.”

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