By: Soleil Bourdon
This coming graduation will mark 50 years since the first two African American women graduated from Randolph Macon Woman’s College. The 1960s were a tumultuous time in America, especially in the south. Civil Rights protests were happening throughout the region, including in Virginia, where a group of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College ( R-MWC) students were sent to jail in result of a local sit-in. There were articles in the Sundial that discussed the issues and events going on at the time, including one from May, 1954. Even though one writer supported the racial integration amendment their article stated, “Southern schools will not stand for an immediate integration of the public school system” and continued by saying that if African Americans felt opposed, they would not “want to invade the white schools when they know opinion is against them” and the writer spoke truth. It was almost a decade before the private colleges began to regularly allow integration for all black students, as the Supreme Court ruling in 1954 only affected public schools. President Quillian (1952-1978) wrote an article Integration of a Southern College (compiled by William Quillian Jr for the Voices from R-MWC) shared that when he first came to RMWC in 1952, he hoped in five years there would be African Americans on campus. Unfortunately, it took much longer, but steps were soon taken to create an inclusive and diverse environment that Randolph is proud to show today.
Although schools like University of Virginia and Virginia Tech both allowed an African American student onto their campuses in the early 1950s, (The first black student allowed into UVA sued his way in after being denied access) both students dropped out due to issues of equality. Meanwhile other schools such as Sweet Briar, Lynchburg College (now University of Lynchburg), and James Madison University, did not desegregate until 1965 and 1966, respectively.
It was within this time that RMWC began to look at integration. In 1963, it was likely that integration was expected by staff and students, as a survey of the student body was taken not long before the college announced that it would admit full-time African American students. A majority of students supported integration, and the vote of the trustees in support of the integration was unanimous in allowing the admission of all qualified women students, regardless of race. The school declared that it would soon be integrating the school, but not until the class 1965, as the acceptance process for 1964 had already been completed. However, in 1964, Jane Hubbard, a college employee, was the first African American enrolled at RMWC as a part-time student for two years.
In fall of 1965, Ann Richards and Lois Dooley were the first black women to be admitted to Randolph Macon Woman’s college as boarding students, and the first African American graduates in the class of 1969. In 1966 they were joined by more black students on campus, including the first international student from Africa, Salmata Johnson ‘70.
Thaye Ann Richards Kearns ‘69, a native of Suffolk, VA, shared about her time at RMWC. She stated that “issues of equal opportunity and affirmative action were being tackled by institutions of all types as they experimented with creating greater diversity in hiring and enrollment. I was one of two black females entering as full time, residential (on-campus) students that year, a first for the college…. Some in our society had made it crystal clear they didn’t believe blacks deserved equal opportunities and that this was a social experiment that would inevitably fail. Indeed, it was obvious to me that some of those I encountered during my stay were counted in that number, a few even members of the faculty, but thankfully that was not the norm. In an effort to prevent the reinforcement of such negative perceptions, my father negotiated with the college to avoid assigning me to subservient jobs for financial aid but rather to find me suitable administrative positions.” There were also professors who felt this way, one of whom published works that questioned the intelligence and social behaviors of blacks compared to whites.
In spite of the adversity these early students faced, they came out feeling positive about their overall experience. “In retrospect my four years at ‘Randy Mack’ were an enjoyable and fulfilling experience. I met some wonderful people and formed lasting relationships. I was involved in meaningful activities on campus and in the Lynchburg community with the YWCA. I was able to gain confidence through the respect I earned and the honors I achieved, e.g., Who’s Who. It was a profoundly pivotal period in my life.”-Ann Richards Kearns
While it may have taken many years to take a step in the right direction, RMWC was one of the first private colleges in the area to integrate. Evanda Gale Jefferson ‘70, who also was a trustee board for the school years after graduation, shared that the school has always progressed and wanted their students to succeed by “having an exchange program, good teachers, and always moving forward.” She went on to say RMWC is a place for “any student who really wants the best education in the country. The friendships made, and the teachers there, are something that will stay with you forever.”
I recently sat down with President Bateman to discuss the upcoming anniversary and the impact it’s had on the school. During the interview he said that “We celebrate ourselves on having broken the color line… but not think much on the experience of what happened…. They are good stories to tell, but we could have done so much better.” Emphasizing that the road to equal opportunity and integration was a slow process he added that, “Inclusivity is a broad concept; on one hand it involves policies and procedures, and on the other hand it involves culture.” Even though the law allowed for integration, it was much longer before the culture accepted it as a norm, and once it became a part of the culture it is a time which many try to forget. When asked if the school will be doing anything to commemorate the anniversary, the president shared that in the spring there will be an article in the Vita Magazine.
What made them choose RMWC? Alums said:
“I thought it would provide the kind of challenge and opportunities I needed to ensure a satisfying and rewarding quality of life in the future.” -Ann Richards Kearns ‘69
“I wanted to be part of an integrated situation, and Randolph Macon was one of the top ten women colleges in the country. The teachers were good at their job, and all my wants were met.” -Evanda Gale Jefferson ‘70