First Post for a First

On November 28, 2010, in Historian, news, by admin

In 1935, Alice Carlotta Jackson was the first African American to apply to the University of Virginia, a pioneer that was part of the broader effort to create equal access to higher education in the South.

Jackson was born on June 2, 1913 in Richmond to Dr. James Jackson and Clara Kersey. Her father was  pharmacist and Alice was educated at two Baptist schools in Richmond, Hartshorn Memorial Academy then Virginia Union University. She received her bachelor’s degree in English at Virginia Union and went on to do graduate work at Smith College, a private, women’s college in Massachusetts. Although she aspired to earn a master’s degree in French, the high cost of tuition forced Jackson to leave after just one year.

At this point, the NAACP encouraged Jackson to apply to UVA as part of their strategy to bring attention to the inequities of Southern colleges. In short order, the University sent a letter rejecting Jackson’s application along with the following explanation:

“The education of white and colored persons in the same schools is contrary to the long established and fixed policy of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Therefore, for this and other good and sufficient reasons not necessary to be herein enumerated, the Rector and Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia direct the Dean of the department of Graduate studies to refuse the pending application of a colored student.”

Jackson then sent a letter in reply:

“I herewith respectfully call you to specify the “other good and sufficient reasons” why you rejected my application. The “other good and sufficient reasons” may be such that I can remove them by additional information. At all events, I wish to know in full, the reason why my application was rejected.”

The Board of Visitors declined to comment on the other reasons, feeling that since they had “given one reason which they considered good, did not feel that it was necessary to ennumerate[sic] the other ‘good and sufficient reasons'”.  The Board’s decision created a stir both nationally and locally. Coverage by the New York Times increased attention as well as pressure on the Board. At UVA, Francis Godwin James, Chairman of the school’s chapter of the National Students League,  berated the University in a letter to the Board. The NSL was a small but vocal group that had ties nationally (other NSL University branches also sent letters). The letter condemned the rejection of Jackson “solely because of her race” and “because it implies the desirability of continuing educational inequality”. Considering the conservative history of UVA, such a student response is surprising.

The NSL’s letter also suggested that if Jackson’s rejection stood, the Board “assumes the moral responsibility of finding some alternative provision” for her education. After the University stood by the rejection, Dr. Tinsley, president of the Richmond branch of the NAACP, threatened court action on behalf of Jackson. Under pressure from without, and to a degree within, the Commonwealth granted Alice Jackson a scholarship to attend graduate studies at Columbia University in New York City. There, she earned her master’s degree in English as well as comparative literature. She taught at several black colleges for over 50 years. She passed away in 2001 and shortly after was recognized by the Virginia Senate for her courageous acts, standing up to racism in education.

Jackson’s victory extends far beyond her own education, however. It forced Virginia to reevaluate the opportunities for  higher education it provided to all African Americans. In December of 1935, the state’s Board of Education established a graduate school for African Americans at Virginia State University in Petersburg. Then, in February of the following year, the General Assembly passed the Dovell Act, paying qualified African American applicants to attend schools outside of Virginia. Jackson’s challenge to the University of Virginia was a major step towards equal education for blacks. In the 1960s, integration was more fully realized in graduate programs after years of resistance. Dean Runk wrote a letter to Mrs. McNitt, Assistant Dean of Women,  in which he wrote:

“[African American women] must be treated in accordance with the regular policies and procedures affecting all students and that denials of such applications can not be made on the basis of race.”

Although it must be stressed that Alice Jackson’s case was a victory for equality at the time, it is important to carefully consider the results. The state of Virginia, although at great expense, provided equal facilities for Jackson and other African American grad students by either paying for their studies in another state or allowing them to attend the Virginia State. It was, in effect, a victory of Separate But Equal, not integration. More opportunities were created for black students, certainly, yet it was still in the segregated manner that had permeated since Plessy v. Ferguson. Equality of opportunity was gained in large part  by Jackson’s struggle, but legal equality was still a long way off. There were also contemporary objections to the NAACP’s fight for higher education within the black community. Many claimed that too many resources were being devoted to fighting for “elites” like Jackson and that the focus should instead be on education at lower levels. Jackson’s fight, it seems, reveals a part of the longstanding economic divide within the African American community. It is also interesting to consider why the Board of Visitors felt it necessary to mention that there were “other good and sufficient reasons” in rejecting Jackson; did they feel that a purely race-centered argument would not carry enough weight? Was, then, the climate of racial toleration at the University different than it is normally portrayed? The letter from the NSL certainly gives that indication. The lesson of the Jackson story is that we must never be content to rest on our history; the varying context, the lens with which we view history is a prism, separating out an infinite number of colorful complexities to examine. The legacy of Alice C. Jackson is inarguably one of a pioneer for African American rights in education, yet the complexities of her case are still subject to a debate relevant to the ever-current discussion of American race relations.