Eric Williamson

The first African-American student admitted to the University of Virginia was a law student who made a historic contribution to ending segregation.

Gregory Hayes Swanson, a Danville native, was a 26-year-old practicing lawyer when he filed a federal lawsuit to gain admission to UVA to pursue a master’s in law. The law faculty had supported his entry, but the UVA Board of Rectors opposed it. After he won his lawsuit, he was admitted in 1950, setting a precedent for racial integration at the University.

Swanson was honored at a July 12 plaque dedication ceremony held at the downtown branch of the Jefferson- Madison Regional Library—in the former courtroom where Swanson v. Rector of Visitors was heard. Thurgood Marshall, Oliver Hill and other celebrated NAACP attorneys represented Swanson there. 

Speakers at the event included Dean Risa Goluboff; Evans Hopkins, Swanson’s nephew and chair of the Swanson Legacy Committee; Jordan McKay ’10, a member of the bar association’s diversity committee; Virginia State Delegate Jennifer McClellan ’97; and James Hingeley ’76, a bar association member and member of the legacy committee.

Swanson had previously been forced to go out of state to Howard University to earn his first law degree. But he refused to accept a “scholarship” to do his postgraduate work outside of Virginia. 

Hopkins said the posthumous honors were both social and poetic justice for a man who lived his convictions.

“As my uncle said, when some people tried to convince him not to sue to go to UVA, [after] they told him that they refused to let him in, he said, ‘No, justice starts right here,’” Hopkins said.

“Swanson exemplifies the very best of what it means to be a UVA lawyer,” Goluboff said.

Swanson went on to serve as an attorney for the Internal Revenue Service. He died July 26, 1992.