A Ballot of Significance: A Virginia Republican Party Ticket from 1921

Republican Party Flyer of 1921
Republican Party Flyer of 1921

It’s not all unusual to find a lot of history wrapped up in a single, small, seemingly inconspicuous document. Sometimes you have to go looking for the stories contained in such a document. On other occasions, the stories shout their presence, even if their fullness has yet to be discovered. The Republican Party Flyer of 1921 is one of those documents. For years, in classes, I’ve used this document, this collection—the one document is the entire collection—to demonstrate the simple notion that archival collections can be small, a single sheet of paper; or large, consisting of hundreds of boxes of material. I’d breeze through its historical significance on the way to explaining “finding aids” to students who had not yet encountered them, that being the real goal of that particular moment in class.

 

A few weeks ago, I was reminded to consider at greater length the history that passes through this ballot, this piece of newsprint—approximately ten inches tall and five inches wide—that names eight individuals, eight political offices, and eight cities and towns in Virginia. It is the first and only all-African American statewide party ticket in Virginia’s history. As such, it represents a significant moment in the history of African American involvement in and exclusion from Virginia politics. That story bears repeating, even if only in the cursory and incomplete fashion that follows, as appropriate to this blogpost.

Even before the end of the Civil War, African Americans in Norfolk organized to insist on their full rights of citizenship, including the right to vote. In May 1865, over 1000 Black men of Norfolk attempted to take part in a local election. Although the attempt was unsuccessful, some did vote, but none of the votes were officially recorded and none of the winners took their offices. On 5 June, members of Norfolk’s Black community met with members of the Colored Monitor Union Club and agreed to a statement that was printed later that year under the title, Equal Suffrage. Address from the Colored Citizens of Norfolk, VA., to the People of the United Sates. Also an Account of the Agitation Among the Colored People of Virginia for Equal Rights. With an Appendix Concerning the Rights of Colored Witnesses Before the State Courts. The second paragraph of the Address states:

“We do not come before the people of the United States asking an impossibility; we simply ask that a Christian and enlightened people shall, at once, concede to us the full enjoyment of those privileges of full citizenship, which, not only, are our undoubted right, but are indispensable to that elevation and prosperity of our people, which must be the desire of every patriot.”1

It was not until the first Reconstruction Acts were passed by Congress in the spring of 1867 that the Southern states were required to hold conventions for the purpose of producing new state constitutions and to permit African American men to both vote for members of the conventions and to hold seats. When it came time to vote in Virginia on 22 October 1867, many white voters refused to vote and, as a result, supporters of radical reform of the state constitution won a majority of seats, including 24 African American men.2

State Convention at Richmond from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 15 February 1868
State Convention at Richmond from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 15 February 1868

The convention, sometimes referred to as the Underwood Convention, named for its presiding officer, the Radical Republican Federal judge John C. Underwood, was held between 3 December 1867 and 17 April 1868. Among the provisions of the new constitution was the granting of the right to vote to all male citizens who had reached the age of 21 and the disenfranchisement of men who supported the Confederacy. (Underwood had also argued in support of extending the franchise to women, but his argument failed.) By the time the new Constitution stood for and won ratification by popular vote on 6 July 1869, the measure to remove the voting rights of former confederates had been successfully separated as a distinct voting issue and was defeated. Elections for statewide officials and members of the General Assembly were also held. A Black candidate for lieutenant governor, Joseph D. Harris, lost, as did much of the radical Republican ticket, but thirty African American men won seats to the General Assembly, the first to win election to the Virginia legislature.

Title page of Luther Porter Jackson's Negro Office Holders in Virginia 1865-1895
Title page of Luther Porter Jackson’s Negro Office Holders in Virginia 1865-1895

In the elections of 1871, ’73, and ’75, between eighteen and twenty African American candidates won election to the General Assembly. About one hundred Black Virginians served in either the Assembly or the Constitutional Convention between 1867 and 1895. Many more served in local office. Luther Porter Jackson’s 1945 study, Negro Office-holders in Virginia 1865–1895, offers a roster of these individuals, along with biographical notes and, in the case of those who served in the General Assembly, an analysis of their efforts to legislate towards achieving greater equality between the races.

In 1876, two amendments to the Constitution aimed at reducing the number of Black voters had been submitted by the Conservative Party and ratified statewide. These amendments introduced a poll tax and the disenfranchisement of individuals convicted of minor offenses, such as petty theft. In 1877, the number of African Americans in the General Assembly fell to eight and to four by 1889.

African American members of Virginia's General Assembly, 1887-88; as pictured in Jackson
African American members of Virginia’s General Assembly, 1887-88; as pictured in Jackson, Negro Office Holders

With the exception of the years at the end of the 1870s and early 1880s when the Readjusters (a biracial reform party formed in coalition with Republicans) held power, Virginia politics were completely under the control of the Conservatives, followed by a newly formulated Democratic Party, that is, by the parties of the white elite and of white supremacy. (The end of the Readjusters’ political power in the state is often regarded as having been signaled by the successful description by Democrats of an 1883 Danville street fight that ended in violence, as a race riot, with the Readjusters to blame.3) During the mid-1880s, with Democrats in charge, new laws were passed in Virginia, including the Anderson-McCormick Act of 1884, which made voting by Black men more difficult and successful runs for office by Black men rare. Other measures and practices had already appeared for the purpose of reducing the Black vote. By the time the Readjusters had been ousted, the White Republicans that remained increasingly became more doubtful of their own chances for political success as long as they were identified with African Americans or African American causes.

John Mercer Langston
John Mercer Langston, Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Virginia did send one Black congressman to Washington during this time, John Mercer Langston, who served one term from 1889 to 1891. The election was complicated, contested and, as a result, Langston only served the last seven months of his term. Part of the complication involved Langston splitting the Republican vote with a white Republican candidate who had been nominated at a separate convention that excluded Langston’s supporters. Only the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives in a contest of many twists and turns resulted in Langston taking his seat. He represented the Fourth District, the only one in Virginia in which the African American population was greater than that of whites. By 1891 when Langston’s term ended in the U.S. House—he was not reelected—not one African American still served in either house of the Virginia legislature.

The passage of the 1894 Walton Act, introduced ostensibly to curtail corruption in election practice, had the otherwise intended effect of introducing a literacy test for voters. As such it was a measure to further guarantee the disenfranchisement of African Americans and a stepping stone toward calls for a new state constitution that would codify the dominance of the Democratic Party and the exclusion of Virginia’s African Americans from electoral politics and the exercise of political power. Writing in the online Encyclopedia Virginia, Brent Tarter writes:

“By the 1890s, a large proportion of black men and thousands of white Republicans in eastern Virginia were effectively disfranchised. Democrats regularly won overwhelming control of the General Assembly and most of the state’s congressional seats. During that decade, when the agrarian reform movement known as the Populist Movement threatened to rupture Democratic Party unity in Virginia, some Democrats employed the means by which they had contrived to win elections against Republicans to steal elections from other Democrats. The corruption led to enough demands for reform that a majority of the Democrats in the General Assembly passed a law in 1900 to hold a referendum on whether to summon a constitutional convention. A central objective of the supporters of the convention movement was to deprive African Americans of the suffrage and thereby eliminate the Democrats’ need to cheat in order to win.”4 

One basis for that last, remarkable line may be the words of Alfred P. Gillespie, a Republican of Tazewell County, who said at the Constitutional Convention, which met in two sessions between 12 June 1901 and 26 June 1902:

“I have been taught to believe that where a man was guilty of a fraud, or of cheating another man, the man who committed the fraud should be punished, that a man who steals a vote should be punished. . . . The remedy suggested here is to punish the man who has been injured. It is now proposed to right a wrong by punishing those who have been defrauded of their votes to the extent of destroying their right of suffrage; in other words, the negro vote of this Commonwealth must be destroyed to prevent the Democratic election officers from stealing their votes, for it seems that, as long as there is a negro vote to be stolen, there will be a Democratic election officer ready to steal it.”5

When asked if discrimination was at the core of the proposed suffrage article of the new constitution, Carter Glass of Lynchburg, a member of the committee charged with producing that article, said, “Why, that is precisely what we propose; that, exactly, is what the Convention was elected for—to discriminate to the very extremity of permissible action under the limitations of the Federal Constitution, with a view to elimination of every negro voter who can be gotten rid of, legally, without materially impairing the numerical strength of the white electorate.”6

The Constitution that would have the effect of disenfranchising approximately 90% of the previously eligible Black voters, not to mention about 50 % of whites,7 was not put to the voters of Virginia for approval. Instead, having been adopted by the Convention, it was, following judicial challenges, ruled to be “the only rightful, valid, and existing constitution in the State” by the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia on 18 June 1903 and to have been legally in effect since 10 July 1902. The Constitution of 1902 was the legal elevation of the Jim Crow South in Virginia. It marked the achievement of the effort to turn back voting rights for African Americans that had begun as soon as those rights were obtained. It was the legal counterpart to the acts of intimidation and violence that accompanied that effort (and are beyond the scope of this overly-long blogpost) and laid the legal groundwork for the continued culture of intimidation and segregation that would follow. A few numbers:

— In the Presidential election of 1900, 264,240 Virginians voted; in 1904, the number was 135,865
— The Republican percentage of Virginia’s vote in the 1900 Presidential election was 43.8%; in 1904, it was 35.2%
— In 1900, 147,000 Black Virginians registered to vote; in 1904, about 21,000 tried to register and fewer than half qualified8

As Southern Democrats reasserted control over the political process to remove African Americans, White Republicans responded to their need to reassert claims to their own political relevance by seeking increased support from White southerners and throwing off the Democrats’ claim that the Republican Party was the “Party of the Negro.” One form of this effort among Republicans was the formation of what became known as the Lily-White movement. Although it can be said to have officially started in Texas in 1886, the movement and the name spread throughout the South. In Virginia, the decline in the percentage of Black delegates sent to the Republican national conventions is one measure: from a high in 1872 of 44.1% the percentage dropped to 23.2% in 1888, 9.8% in 1904, and 0% in 1920.9 In July 1921, white delegates to the Republican state convention in Norfolk, which would determine the slate of statewide candidates, refused to seat almost all Black delegates who had been elected to participate and prohibited all Black spectators from attending. This, then, is some of the context out of which the Republican Party ballot of 1921 (remember that?) arose.

The convention in Norfolk nominated Henry W. Anderson, a lily-white Republican, as candidate for governor. Part of his platform was to attempt to remove questions of race from the contest with Democrats by claiming to be every bit a white supremacist as they. (Of course, the Democrats didn’t see it that way.) In opposition to the lily-white Republicans and claiming to be the true representatives of the Republican Party, an alternate convention was called and held in Richmond on 5 September 1921 with approximately 600 Black delegates attending.

Front page, Richmond Planet, 10 September 1921
Front page, Richmond Planet, 10 September 1921

The result was the formation of Virginia’s only statewide, all-African American ticket, which became known as the lily-black ticket, the slate represented on the ballot we have in Special Collections. The convention had been championed by the Richmond Planet, the city’s weekly African American newspaper. The paper’s longtime editor, John Mitchell, Jr. was chosen to head the ticket as candidate for Governor. Mitchell had served on the Richmond Common Council from 1888 to 1896 and, as editor of the Planet, had earned a reputation for his fight against the 1901 Constitutional Convention, his efforts against lynching, and as an advocate for civil rights and racial justice. Mitchell did not use the name lily-black to describe the ticket.

John Mitchell, Jr. as pictured in Jackson
John Mitchell, Jr. as pictured in Jackson, Negro Office Holders
Maggie L. Walker
Maggie L. Walker

Perhaps the person best known today on the ticket is Maggie L. Walker, candidate for Superintendent of Public Instruction. Also a resident of Richmond, Walker became a candidate for statewide office about a year after women gained the right to vote nationally with the ratification of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution. (Note that Virginia’s General Assembly did not ratify the amendment until 1952.) She is often noted as being the first Black woman in the country to establish and become president of a bank, the Saint Luke Penny Savings Bank, chartered in 1903. A year earlier, she founded the St. Luke Herald newspaper, through which she supported women’s suffrage, equal educational opportunities for African American children, and fought against segregation and lynching. In 1905 she helped to establish the Saint Luke Emporium, a department store owned and run by African Americans for the African American community. Her house in Richmond was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1975. 

Joseph Thomas Newsome of Newport News
Joseph Thomas Newsome of Newport News

Theodore Nash, from Portsmouth, was candidate for Lieutenant Governor. Joseph Thomas Newsome, graduate of Howard University Law School, leading attorney, and community leader from Newport News was the candidate for Attorney-General. Thomas E. Jackson, candidate for Treasurer from Staunton, was manager of the Staunton Reporter and an officer of the People’s Dime Savings Bank. Francis V. Bacchus, a pharmacist in Lynchburg, was the choice for Secretary of the Commonwealth. J. L. Reed of Roanoke and A.P. Brickhouse of Exmore were the candidates for Corporation Commissioner and Commissioner of Agriculture, respectively.

There were no expectations that the ticket would be successful and there was not much of a campaign. Brent Tarter describes the campaign as “quixotic” and reports that Mitchell not only did not campaign, but that he took a vacation prior to the election.10 It was a mostly symbolic protest that failed to capture not only the Republican vote, but the Black vote, as well. Plummer Bernard Young, editor of the Norfolk Journal and Guide, a rival of Mitchell’s Planet, for example, was offered the nomination for Lieutenant Governor, declined, and did not support the ticket. Outside of the Black press, it received very little attention. John Mitchell received 5,036 votes in an election in which the victor, Democrat E. Lee Trinkle received 139,416. Henry Anderson, the lily-white Republican had 65,833 votes. In her contest, Maggie Walker received 6,991 votes out of 208,576 cast in the state.

Republican Party Flyer of 1921
Republican Party Flyer of 1921

But this ballot represents a kind of courage that is significant and should be noted. This single sheet of paper can’t be dismissed as a mere historical object of protest, but seen as representing an act of bravery that emerged from a history that includes much bravery in the face of repression, injustice, and violence. More than that, it speaks to a kind of bravery in the political sphere, in the realm of electoral politics that seems so relevant today, as, admittedly—let’s face it—it always is. 

If you grew up knowing all of this history, forgive me for repeating it, even at this length. I’m fairly well-informed on matters concerning Reconstruction and Jim Crow, but not having grown up in Virginia or ever read deeply into the political history of the state, I’ve missed some of the details. Maybe you have, too. And the details matter. The Constitution of 1902 remained in effect until 1971, for example. 

I was asked to include the Republican Party Flyer of 1921 in a conversation with students a few weeks ago to draw attention to the season in which we now find ourselves, and to use it, if obliquely, as a reminder to VOTE. (With a shoutout to Danna Agmon! Thanks!)

So, remember . . . and remember to VOTE!

 

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CODA:This post has led me to recall another run for office, perhaps also a little too forgotten today, but every bit as significant and courageous. Ultimately, Shirley Chisholm, member of the U.S. House of Representatives from the New York 12th and a founding member of both the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Women’s Political Caucus, won 151 delegates at the Democratic National Convention, but lost to Senator George McGovern.

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Notes
1. See Equal Suffrage. Address . . . , viewed 15 October 2020.
2. For more information, see Tarter, Brent. Encyclopedia Virginia, African Americans and Politics in Virginia (1865–1902), https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/african_americans_and_politics_in_virginia_1865-1902 , viewed 15 October 2020
3. Tarter, Brent. Encyclopedia Virginia, African Americans and Politics in Virginia (1865–1902), https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/african_americans_and_politics_in_virginia_1865-1902 , viewed 16 October 2020
4.Tarter, Brent. Encyclopedia Virginia. Disfranchisement, http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Disfranchisement. viewed 24 October 2020
5. Report of the Proceedings and Debates of the Constitutional Convention, 2 vols. (Richmond, 1906), 2:3014. Quoted in Tarter, Brent. Virginians and their Histories, University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2020, p. 326
6. Repot of the Proceedings and Debates of the Constitutional Convention, State of Virginia, Held in the City of Richmond June 12, 1901 to June 26, 1902 )2 vols; Richmond, 1906), vol. II, p. 3076–3077. Quoted in Edwards, Conley L., “A political history of the poll tax in Virginia, 1900-1950” (1973). Master’s Theses. Paper 452, University of Richmond, p.9
7. Tarter, Brent. Virginians and their Histories, University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2020, p. 328
8. Tarter, Brent. Encyclopedia Virginia. Disfranchisement, http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Disfranchisement. viewed 24 October 2020
9. Heersink, Boris and Jeffery A. Jenkins. “Black-and-Tans vs. Lily-Whites: Measuring the Racial Composition of Republican Party Organizations in the South after Reconstruction, 1868–1952,” Table 2, p. 35. Version of paper presented at the 2015 Annual Meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, Chicago, IL. Retrieved from https://static1.squarespace.com/static/537e687fe4b0cabbb8f9d767/t/57fac46a6a496306c83ce67c/1476052078780/Heersink+and+Jenkins+-+Black+and+Tans+versus+Lily+Whites.pdf. Viewed 25 October 2020. See also: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/537e687fe4b0cabbb8f9d767/t/55410556e4b055af09d58f78/1430324566391/Heersink-Jenkins+MPSA+paper.pdf
10. Tarter, Brent. Virginians and their Histories, University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2020, p. 329

Where Sporty Beat His Drum

Remembering Charles Owen, a Beloved Early Campus Figure

Last year, while helping to assemble images for a photographic history of the Roanoke and New River valleys, I ran across a wonderful photo of Charles Owen, known to the students of Virginia Agricultural & Mechanical College (today Virginia Tech) as “Uncle Sporty.” Sometimes a photo really captures your interest and makes you want to learn more about the person shown.

Charles Owen, 1910

Charles Owen’s longstanding presence at the university began in 1890, when he was hired as a janitor for Barracks Number One (today Lane Hall). (Note that while some sources, including his own daughter’s death record, provide his surname as “Owens,” campus sources invariably identify it as “Owen,” so that is what I’ll use here.) Soon afterward, Owen assumed an additional duty that he’d perform for many years to come: according to Col. Harry Temple’s The Bugle’s Echo, an exhaustive history of the university’s early decades, Owen “took charge of a large snare drum which he attached to a leather belt about his waist. Ten minutes before Reveille each morning he would parade the area in front of the barracks, beating his drum. Sporty could actually beat out tunes on that drum; where he learned the art no one knew.” For nearly 20 years, Owen’s was one of the most familiar faces on campus and likely one of the first to be recognized by new cadets. Reminiscing on his years as a VAMC cadet,  Henry Harris Hill (BS, 1907) recalled his first morning at college:

Very early in the morning I was awakened by a far off rumbling sound. For the life of me I couldn’t imagine what the noise was. It gradually came closer, so I got up and went to the window to look. Out on the parade ground was an old colored man beating a drum that looked like it was about five feet deep. The colored man was Uncle Sporty who was waking the boys preliminary to Reveille.

Unfortunately, despite some rather in-depth searching, I could learn little about Owen. The 1900 census recorded a Charles Owens living in Blacksburg with wife Ellen. The Owens’s sizable household included three daughters, Bell, Lucy, and Nellie; the daughters’ husbands, Lev, Hiram, and Reuben (all with the surname Collins); four Collins grandchildren; Charles and Ellen’s adopted son John Hickman; and niece Ella Collins. The census describes Charles Owen as a janitor but fails to record his and Ellen’s ages.

(To throw some confusion on the matter, the census lists a second Charles Owens living in Blacksburg and also working as a janitor in 1900. Later census records indicate that this Charles Owens also worked on campus, but following this man’s documentary trail we learn that he is not the man who came to be known as Uncle Sporty.)

Owen’s photo first appears in The Bugle (the college annual) in 1899. He is shown in a composite photo of other maintenance staff and is identified only as “Sporty Sam.” Given the time period and the fact that another African-American campus employee is referred to as “Smoky Sam,” we can infer that the name “Sam” was almost certainly being used here as a diminutive of “sambo,” a derogatory term that, even if used in jest, showed a flagrant disrespect.

Charles Owen, 1899 Bugle

Owen’s photo would again appear in the 1908 Bugle. By that time, he’d picked up the nickname “Uncle Sporty,” and while the term “uncle” when applied to African-American men of that era was also unquestionably derogatory, its use by the cadets in referring to Owen would seem to indicate an improvement of sorts in his status and the affection that they held for him. (We might also bear in mind that the cadets invariably referred to William Gitt, a white man who succeeded Owen as a worker in Lane Hall (and about whom I posted three years ago), as “Uncle Bill.”)

Illustrating the standing that Owen held in the cadets’ minds, his photo appears near the front of the annual, preceded only by the volume’s dedication page.

Charles Owen, 1908 Bugle

Below Owen’s photo is a poem, attributed to “J.D.P., ’08” (John Dalrymple Powell of Portsmouth, Virginia), written in the “Negro dialect” commonly used by white writers of the day. While the delivery is demeaning, the sentiments seem heartfelt:

Bein’ as I’se de fust to see yo’ when yo’ come,

And as I says Good-bye to every one,

And since I takes most painful care

Of all my boys throughout the year,

It seems to me most sartin’ sure

Dat I should be right here befor’

De folks of all dese friends of mine

And gib’ a greetin’ which dey’ll find,

Dat dough dey lib’ to be past forty,

Will make dem tink of “Uncle Sporty.”

According to The Bugle’s Echo, Owen continued to perform his campus duties until mid-1909, when,  due probably to age and failing health, he retired and left Blacksburg. “He took with him,” writes Temple, “the great well-wishes and gratitude of the cadets.” The Virginia Tech (the forerunner of today’s Collegiate Times) of March 2, 1910 reported that Owen had suffered a stroke, leaving his entire left side paralyzed. Just three weeks later, the newspaper announced Owen’s death. In eulogizing him, the editor offered what he considered high praise, but even here the newspaper could not resist inserting a backhanded “compliment”:

Charles Owen, the old negro janitor who for years has been known by the familiar name of “Uncle Sporty,” and who was loved and respected by hundreds of students and alumni of V. P. I., died at his home last week after a lingering illness. Owen had for many years been janitor of Number One barracks and his sterling honesty and respectability as well as his never-to-be-forgotten duty of awakening the sleepers each morning with the rumbling of his ancient drum, had made him a familiar and unique figure here. He was of the old order, now seen no more among the negroes, and his death is sincerely mourned by everyone who knew him. He is survived by several children, two of whom occupy positions with the college.

The Bugle’s Echo notes that Owen’s standing at the university was such that students proposed providing the pallbearers and a firing party for his burial service, only to find that the funeral had been held before these arrangements could be made. Still, the cadets collected a “substantial sum of money,” according to Temple, “and a huge spray of flowers was ordered to be placed upon his grave.” Shortly thereafter, The Virginia Tech published a poem by M. W. Davidson (BS, 1901) entitled “Uncle Sporty’s Drum,” the third stanza of which reads:

No matter where roams Hokie’s man, his memory never failing;

He ponders on the long ago, though often rough the sailing.

The strife is long, the fight grows hot, and is ever lost by some,

But not by them who learned the way, where Sporty beat that drum.

A memorial also appeared in The Bugle for that year, featuring Owen’s photo and another poem.

Though the newspaper mentioned that two of Owen’s children continued to work at the university in 1910, nothing about them could be found. The 1910 census shows Ellen “Owns,” Charles’ 35-year-old widow, still living in Blacksburg, together with son-in-law “Rubin” Collins and two grandchildren. The census-taker noted that Rubin was working as a janitor in the “VPI Halls.” That same census shows another son-in-law, Hiram Collins, working as a janitor in the “YMCA Hall” (today the College of Arts and Human Sciences Building).

It isn’t easy, given the length of time that’s elapsed since his death and the little information at hand, for us to draw conclusions about Owen’s daily life, to put it in the context of the times, to know how he felt about his work at VPI and the students with whom he regularly interacted. (We haven’t even managed to conclusively identify his surname.) The little that we’ve learned of Charles Owen and his term of service here illustrates the larger, complicated topic of race relations of the era. It may be naïve and overreaching for us to say that Owen’s legacy was one of a slowly evolving, growing acceptance of and respect for African Americans in the campus community, but there can be no doubt that his work contributed to the university’s growth in its early decades, that his longstanding presence helped to instill in the students an affection for their school,  and that he continued to be fondly remembered by university alumni for many decades following his death.

The Life of Andrew Oliver, Virginia Tech’s Little Known First African American Worker

Guest Post by Juan Pacheco

Virginia Tech’s history is a complicated one that is much more presumed than known due to an early 20th century blaze. In its early years, the institution served as an allegory of the rough, rag-tag, Appalachian spirit we see still embodied through a beaten-up lunch pail at football games and the largely blue-collar valley that envelops us. Tech, unlike its sister institutions William and Mary and the University of Virginia, has never owned any enslaved people by circumstance of its post-antebellum founding in 1872. Even its predecessor institution, the Olin & Preston Institute, has no record of owning any. That is not to say, however, that the grand 2,600-acre Blacksburg campus has never met or benefited from the harsh legacy of slavery. 

Prior to last year, you most likely would not see him listed on the Virginia Tech Black History Timeline. He predates Charles “Uncle Sporty” Owens, Floyd Meade, and even Odd Fellows Hall, all well-known black figures in early Virginia Tech history. If you had the privilege of crawling around the campus of Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College about 148 years ago with Addison Caldwell and other “rats,” you’d most likely refer to him as “Uncle Andrew.” He is Andrew Oliver, and he is the first known African-American worker at what is now Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

Continue reading “The Life of Andrew Oliver, Virginia Tech’s Little Known First African American Worker”

A Mystery Banjo and the Racism in Our Past

Recently, I’ve been working on identifying artifacts and university memorabilia in our collections, and I came across a beautiful, four-stringed tenor banjo and its case. I did not anticipate that an item so innocuous as a musical instrument would lead down a path into learning about the university’s racist past, including minstrelsy and blackface.

To start, I could find no information about the banjo’s former owner, so I investigated the banjo and case themselves for clues. Handwritten on the banjo head is “The Collegians, VPI, Blacksburg, VA.”, and the peghead identifies it as a Bruno banjo. Handwritten on the banjo’s case are the initials, “L.A.H.”

Searching through names related to our collections, I found the Lewis A. Hall Papers, Ms1983-009, very promising given his initials and his connection to Virginia Tech. Looking thru the collection, my excitement rose almost immediately when I found a reference to the Collegians – the band the banjo is advertising – in the printed items. Then I opened the folders of photographs and found a beautiful picture of the Collegians themselves, with one man holding this very banjo! A portrait in the collection is of Hall, and it’s clear he’s the same man holding the banjo.

Interested in finding out who else is in the photo, I pulled the Collegians folder in the Historical Photographs Collection. I found a copy of the same photo, dated 1923-1924, identifying the musicians from left: Robert B. Skinner (drummer); J.B. “Yash” Cole (trombone); Arthur Scrivenor Jr. (piano); Lewis A. Hall (banjo, manager, and director); H. Gaines Goodwin (saxophone); Bill Harmon (saxophone); and S.C. Wilson (trumpet, not pictured). This picture is also used in the 1924 Bugle yearbook.

There were two other pictures in the folder of Hall and the Collegians, dated 1922-1923, from left: L.A. “Lukie” Hall (tenor banjo); J.B. Cole (trumbone); R.S. “Bob” Skinner (traps); W. “Bass” Perkins (clarinet, violin, leader); Tom S. Rice (piano); W.D. “Willie” Harmon (saxophone); F.R. “Piggy” Hogg (saxophone, traps, manager); and S.C. “Stanley” Wilson (trumpet, not pictured).

After discovering the owner’s name, I wanted to know a bit more about both Hall and the Collegians. To the latter first – A dance orchestra at VPI formed in 1918 as the Southern Syncopating Saxophone Six. They were later renamed Virginia Tech Jazz Orchestra and known as the College Six. In 1922, they became the Collegians, and in 1931, they finally became the Southern Colonels. Today, the jazz band continues to perform, as part of the Corps of Cadets Regimental Band, the Highty-Tighties.

Second, Lewis Augustus Hall was born Lewis Augustus Hall in 1903 in Norfolk, Virginia. He attended VPI from 1920 to 1924. In addition to playing for the Collegians (also called the Tech Orchestra), he was a member of the Norfolk Club, Cotillion Club, Tennis Squad, the American Society of Mechanical Engineering, and the Virginia Tech Minstrels (more on this below). He also served as athletic editor for The Virginia Tech, the predecessor of the Collegiate Times, assistant manager of basketball, and manager of the freshman basketball team. Finally, he rose thru the ranks of the Corps of Cadets, graduating as Lieutenant of Company F. In 1924, he graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering. Upon graduation, Hall joined the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company, retiring as assistant vice-president in 1968. He married and with his wife Virginia had two sons. Hall maintained a connection to Virginia Tech, serving on the board of directors for the Virginia Tech Alumni Association for 15 years and earning the Alumni Distinguished Service Award in 1977. He died in 1982.

As mentioned above, Hall performed in the student club, the Virginia Tech Minstrels. I’ve heard of minstrel shows before and knew that students at Virginia Tech had held them. But this was my first time coming across them inadvertently, so it was a shock to learn that the owner of this banjo was a member of a minstrelsy.

If you aren’t aware, minstrel shows in the United States were a performance typically including skits, jokes, and music – predominantly performed by white people in blackface as a spoof, full of stereotypes and racist depictions, of Black people and their cultures. The 1924 Bugle (pp. 346-347) discusses the group and even depicts members in blackface. The Collegians are also listed as the group’s orchestra and a photo of the group includes Hall holding the banjo.

Hall’s and the Collegian’s involvement in minstrelsy shows that even an item as seemingly innocuous as a musical instrument can shed light on a part of our history that we – especially those of us in positions of privilege – do not always acknowledge. Yet, minstrel shows at Virginia Tech continued well into the 1960s, and this form of racism (and others) continues in America into the present day.

After Hollins College recently addressed controversy of blackface depictions in their yearbooks, Virginia Tech released the University Statement on Offensive Photographs to address the racist imagery in our past. Also, the University Libraries prepared a statement for our digital yearbook repositories to affirm our commitment to the Principles of Community and providing historical documentation to researchers.

My research about a mystery banjo took me down a path I could not imagine. I was at first excited to discover the owner’s identity, then horrified to learn about his and the instrument’s connection to racist entertainment. But in the end, the journey led me to learn more about this form of racism and how its legacy continues to impact American society. As the University statement says, “The history of our nation and the Commonwealth of Virginia has a common storyline starting with slavery and segregation, and moving toward our ultimate goal of treating everyone with respect and cherishing the strength that comes from diversity of identities and lived experiences. We, as a society, are somewhere in the middle of this process.”

For more information about blackface and minstrelsy, please read “Blackface: The Birth of an American Stereotype” from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture blog, A People’s Journey, A Nation’s Story, as well as Vox’s interview with author John Strausbaugh, “The complicated, always racist history of blackface” by Sean Illing.

(This post was edited May 22, 2019, with additional information about blackface and minstrelsy, the statements on offensive imagery in the Bugle yearbooks, and a revised title.)

Celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Remembering His Legacy

This past Monday, January 16, was Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the U.S., and here at Virginia Tech we have been celebrating and remembering Rev. Dr. King and his legacy in numerous events all this week. If you haven’t been to any of the events, there are several more scheduled through next Sunday, January 28, according to the Hidden Figures: Community Practice of MLK (2018 Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration) page.

The university has celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day for awhile now. One of our graduate students Jamelle Simmons has been researching and updating the Black History Timeline for the University Archives. In his research, Simmons found several items about the university’s commemorations of Rev. Dr. King and his legacy, which have been hosted and sponsored over the years by the Virginia Tech Union, Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, Black Caucus, Black Organizations Council, Black Cultural Center, the Office of Inclusion and Diversity, and others. Items include student event calendars, newspaper articles, and flyers. This year, the Cultural and Community Centers established the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Oration Competition as an annual event.

Rev. Dr. King has been remembered at Virginia Tech even before the establishment of the holiday, ever since his assassination on April 4, 1968. On the following day, students held a vigil at Burruss Hall surrounding the U.S. and Virginia flags. Initially the flags were raised to full mast, so mourners lowered both to half mast and protected the flags while talking to passersby about King’s ideals and nonviolent beliefs. Although they were forced to restore the flags to full mast, in the afternoon President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered flags lowered in King’s honor, which the university complied with. A transcript of The Virginia Tech (precursor to The Collegiate Times) article is available on the Black History Timeline.

Linda Edmonds, one of the first six Black women admitted to Virginia Tech in 1966, wrote notes of her thoughts upon Rev. Dr. King’s death (the first two paragraphs, written on April 4, 1968) and the initial raising of the flag to full mast (the last paragraph, written on April 5, 1968). The notes and transcript follow below:

A Tribute … Thoughts when Dr. King Died

The way I feel today … is lost.

I feel a faint beat of hope, but is there a way? What will be the cost? A man dies, another is born. The circle goes on. Why take away something that we cannot replace? Take my body, hurt it, hurt it, the pain ceases after awhile; though death is sometimes the final release. But don’t tear down my heart, don’t make me hate the sight of my fellow man. Don’t take my dignity and trust in mankind. If you do we are both lost.

I need somebody to talk to, somebody that will not say you have to be strong now, I’m not. You can’t help me can you? – You believe you know how I feel?

This morning when the flag was raised to its highest level–gloom surrounded my being. The march–step–step–step of the uniformed men–the systematic order of it all. You 3, you had your orders to follow, but how did your hearts feel? Did you realize that I could not look up with pride when the flag was blowing so powerfully in the early crisp air. Maybe you did, but you told yourself well it has to be. The U.S. flag was torn at the ends, the tears started climbing and winding their ways through that symbol of the country that I am a native of. Will there soon be nothing left but strips of cloth floating individually about the flag pole? Some bits will no doubt lose strength all together and drift off into the air and never return. No, this will not happen, we will buy a new flag and everything will be O.K.; I can smile and be happy looking at the stars and stripes forever. But I can’t smile and be happy with my fellowman because people just want to exchange hate and past mistakes for something better. The society tears apart – floating about in individual strips, it eventually loses strength and bits of it drift off into the air and never return.

In addition to these items related to the university, Special Collections has other publications by and about Rev. Dr. King. In the Bishop William H. Marmion Papers, Ms 1986-013, there is a pamphlet copy of King’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail, published by the American Friends Service Committee in May 1963. For those of you who may not know, Birmingham leaders working with King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) began protesting segregation in the city with organized demonstrations in April 1963. The city obtained an injunction against the protests, which the leaders disobeyed, resulting in King’s arrest. Several local white clergymen publicly criticized the protests, prompting King to respond with the now famous letter. In it he defends his participation as an “outsider,” explains the value and steps of a nonviolent campaign, and questions the clergymen’s insistence on waiting for a resolution to continued injustice.

According to the King Encyclopedia by Stanford University’s King Institute, Rev. Dr. King gave the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) organization, permission to publish the letter in May 1963 as a pamphlet. The group had been working with King since 1956 after the Montgomery bus boycott, but they had been involved with anti-racism activities since the 1920s, only a few years after their founding during World War I. With permission from King, the AFSC distributed 50,000 copies of the Letter from Birmingham Jail in 1963, and that same year nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize, which he was awarded the following year.

Here are a few select pages from our 1963 copy of King’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail, published by the AFSC. For the complete letter, view the pamphlet in King Center’s Digital Archives.

Another item in our collections is the book, We Shall Live in Peace: The Teachings of Martin Luther King Jr., edited by Deloris Harrison and illustrated by Ernest Crichlow. The book outlines King’s life and discusses several significant steps in his fight for civil rights, including excerpts from his writings. Born in Bedford, Virginia, Harrison graduated from St. Joseph’s College, Brooklyn, and received a master’s from New York University in 1963. She began teaching in New York City in 1961, and was chosen as a Fulbright teacher in 1966. Crichlow (1914-2005) was a Brooklyn artist coming out of the Harlem Renaissance and known for his works concerning social injustice for African Americans. According to his New York Times obituary, he studied commercial art in Manhattan and worked in the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project. In 1957, Crichlow cofounded and served as first chairperson of the Fulton Arts Fair, which showcased the works of both new and established artists in the community. The Petrucci Family Foundation’s Collection of African-American Art entry on Crichlow states that in 1980, President Jimmy Carter honored Crichlow and nine other black artists from the National Conference of Artists at the White House.

A few excerpt pages from We Shall Live in Peace by Harrison and Crichlow appear below, and I encourage anyone interested to come into Special Collections to see this beautiful book.

Of course, there are numerous other items in our collections related to Rev. Dr. King and the greater Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s (and before and after), so I hope that you will come into Special Collections to take a look for yourself. And don’t forget to attend some of the events planned for the annual celebrations for Martin Luther King Jr. Day here at Virginia Tech and in the local community.

The Man, the Myth, the Mascot: Floyd H. Meade, Virginia Tech’s First Mascot Performer

Floyd "Hardtimes" Meade, 1921
Floyd “Hardtimes” Meade with his trained turkey at a 1921 football game

Floyd “Hardtimes” Meade. Many of you Hokie fans may know that name. We’ve mentioned him on this blog before in “Thanksgiving traditions at Virginia Tech” and “When Orange Became The New Black (and Maroon the New Gray)”. He’s best remembered as the university’s first mascot performer, who dressed up as a clown in orange and maroon, and as the man who introduced the turkey to football games, influencing the HokieBird mascot.

But of course, Floyd Meade was more than that. People who knew the man recalled his activities at Virginia Tech to Col. Harry Temple, who wrote the epic history of Virginia Tech, The Bugle’s Echo (see also Harry Downing Temple Papers, Ms1988-039). But little about Meade’s family life has been discussed until now, thanks to the proliferation of genealogy websites, a search through digitized census, military, and vital records online reveals some important details about him and his family.

Floyd Hobson Meade (also Mead) was born October 2, 1882, in Blacksburg to Denie (also Dina) Meade. His father may have been either William Meade (on his marriage certificate) or Joe Dill (on his death certificate). Floyd also had a brother Emmett (b. 1880), sister Octavia (b. May 1885), and probably another brother named Alex (1887-1896). Emmett also worked at Virginia Tech, in the Mess Hall as a waiter and later the Machine Shop as a machinist.

According to Temple, Meade briefly lived with the family of Cadet N. W. Thomas, who brought him to campus in 1889. The students loved him, and after that, Meade started advertising the school’s athletic games. By 1896, he traveled with the football team on their trips as a mascot in the orange and maroon clown costume. (Temple, pp. 254-255) At this time, he also began working at the college in the Mess Hall (Temple, p. 448).

In 1913, Floyd started bringing live turkeys to football games, inspired by the team’s informal nickname the Gobblers. He trained the birds to pull carts, walk on a leash, and flap their wings and gobble on command. Temple even recounts after a victorious Thanksgiving Day game against V.M.I., that the rotund turkey was cooked and served in the Mess Hall! Meade also played music for himself and for the cadets – Temple states he was a regular one-man-band playing a guitar, bass drum, and harmonica all at once (p. 3115-3116).

Floyd Meade, 1921
Floyd Meade, 1921. Notice carefully the two-toned color of his outfit – probably maroon on the left and orange on the right!

On August 25, 1913, Floyd married Lucy M. Turner, daughter of Giles Turner and a cook in private service. Floyd and Lucy were both involved in the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows in America. In 1905, he joined Tadmore Light Lodge #6184, the Blacksburg chapter of the fraternal organization. We have the Blacksburg Odd Fellows Records, Ms1988-009, which includes a membership book with an entry for Meade. Minutes and attendance records list him as Past Noble Father (the highest degree or rank in the organization), and a number of other documents refer to Meade’s service as secretary of the organization. Lucy Meade was a member of the Household of Ruth, the female auxiliary of the Odd Fellows. (Floyd’s membership entry and other Odd Fellows items are on display through the end of February in our exhibit on the first floor of Newman!)

Floyd’s life wasn’t always good though, and on April 24, 1929, Meade’s mother Denie died at around the age of 72. In December, Floyd lost his job at Virginia Tech, according to Temple. So students took up a collection to help with his family’s living expenses, and alumni wrote letters to try and change administrators’ minds – to no avail. (Temple, p. 3846-3847) Then, tragedy struck once more, when Lucy died on June 28, 1931, around age 45 of heart disease.

Floyd continued to work as a cook or waiter in restaurants around town and even served as head waiter at the Lake Hotel in Mountain Lake. By 1940, he was working as a janitor in private service. The next year, Meade died on February 8, after a car accident.

Floyd Meade (seated) and unidentified man (possibly nephew Emmett Meade, Jr.)
Floyd Meade (seated) and unidentified man (possibly nephew Emmett Meade, Jr.)

In 2003, Meade’s life provided the inspiration for Lucy Sweeney’s musical Hard Times Blues, which was performed in Roanoke and at the Lyric Theatre in Blacksburg. After researching him myself, I hope hope HOPE there’s a revival one day soon!

Update, Aug. 31, 2020: In 2019, Lucy Sweeney donated a copy of her play Hard Times Blues and files related to her research and the 2003 production. These are available in the Hard Times Blues Collection, Ms2019-038.

Sources:

Uncovering Hidden Histories: African Americans in Appalachia

One of our many roles in Special Collections is to shed light upon hidden histories, uncovering communities that are traditionally marginalized or forgotten by time. The long history of African-Americans in Appalachia, for example, has traditionally been overlooked. Through the communities of New Town, Wake Forest, and Nellies Cave (among others), Montgomery County has a particularly rich legacy to explore. We work with historians, genealogists, community members, and other institutions to document and preserve these stories for future generations.

Newman Library currently hosts New Town: Across the Color Line, an exhibit documenting a predominantly African-American community that bordered the Virginia Tech campus until the late 20th century. Developed by the Virginia Tech Public History program, the exhibit includes items from the Blacksburg Odd Fellows Records (Ms1988-009) held by Special Collections. The exhibit will be open from October 5 through November 20.

Brochure for New Town Exhibit on display in Newman Library, October 5 - November 20

The Odd Fellows Records help document an important African-American civic institution in early 20th century Blacksburg. Researchers interested in the experiences of African-Americans in Montgomery County and greater Appalachia can find many other resources in Special Collections.Manuscript collections, photographs, oral history interviews, and rare books provide insight into the experiences of African-American communities from antebellum times through the present day. The Christiansburg Industrial Institute Historical Documents (Ms1991-033) represent a collaboration between the Christiansburg Industrial Institute Alumni Association and Special Collections to document the prestigious institutionthat educated generations of Virginia students from the 1860sthrough school integration.

Black and white photograph of Baily-Morris Hall, a building on the campus of Christiansburg Industrial Institute. Several African American teachers stand on a staircase in front of the building.
Baily-Morris Hall on Christiansburg Institute campus with teachers, date unknown.

Another collection, entitled Hidden History: The Black Experience in the Roanoke Valley Cassette Tapes and Transcripts (Ms1992-049), includes approximately forty-six interviews with African-American residents of Roanoke, Virginia about the cultural, social, and political history of their community. The research papers of historian and community activist Richard Dickenson (Richard B. Dickenson Papers, Ms2011-043) include a wealth of information about local African-American history, including the free communities of antebellum Montgomery County and the many civic institutions of Christiansburg. The John Nicolay Papers, (Ms1987-027) include research files and oral histories that provide insight into churches, local institutions, and the historic African-American community of Wake Forest.

These collections represent a small fraction of the primary sources and publications that document African-American history in Special Collections. More importantly, these resources point to an abundant history still waiting to be uncovered.

Climbing the Water Tower: How Women Went from Intruders to Leaders at Virginia Tech

In the early 1920s, the first female students at Virginia Tech were not quite welcome. They had special rules to follow, there were no dormitories for women, and male students would throw water on them as they passed by the dorms. But one day, Ruth Terrett, a civil engineering student, decided to show the men she could do just as well as them. She donned a cadet uniform and climbed the university’s water tower, a tradition the male cadets undertook to prove their strength and ability. That day, Ruth proved that women, when given the chance, could do what men could.

Women throughout Virginia Tech’s history have encountered many obstacles, and have consistently overcome them. Sam Winn and I recently searched through Special Collections’ holdings to document these women and their achievements in the university’s history. Our work culminated in an exhibit at the Alumni Associations Women’s Weekend and a slideshow, entitled “Climbing the Water Tower: How Women Went from Intruders to Leaders at Virginia Tech.” Let me share with you a few of those milestones now, or you can view the PDF of our slideshow here.

Women join the student population

Many people know the story of the first female students: twelve women, including five full-time students, enrolled in 1921. Two years later, transfer student Mary Brumfield received a bachelor’s in applied biology, earning her master’s from VPI in 1925, the first woman to achieve either degree. But, did you know women began attending VPI several years earlier? They were allowed to sit in courses during the fall and spring for no credit and were admitted to summer classes, starting in 1916. 1921 was still a milestone year as it was the first all courses were open to women seeking a college degree, because there was “no good reason for not doing so,” as the university bulletin states.

First female graduates: Mary Ella Carr Brumfield (23; 25); Ruth Louise Terrett (25); Lucy Lee Lancaster (25); Lousie Jacobs (25); Carrie Taylor Sibold (25)
First female graduates: Mary Ella Carr Brumfield (’23; ’25); Ruth Louise Terrett (’25); Lucy Lee Lancaster (’25); Lousie Jacobs (’25); Carrie Taylor Sibold (’25)

The first coeds, it must be admitted, were more than likely all white, given that segregation was legal due to Jim Crow laws and the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) upholding separate but equal racial segregation in the public sphere. It’s not clear when women of color were first admitted to the university, but international students from Mexico, China, Puerto Rico, and other places were already attending VPI by the 1920s. We believe the first woman from India to attend VPI was Kamini Mohan Patwary, who earned a master’s in statistics in 1955. However, it wasn’t until 1966 that the first six African American women matriculated, thirteen years after the first African American man and 55 years after the first women. In 1968, Linda Adams became the first African American woman to graduate from Virginia Tech. (Read more about her on our previously blog post.)

There wasn’t much for women to do athletically in the early years, so Ruth Terrett, mentioned above, started an informal women’s basketball team before graduating in 1925. Women joined the cheerleading team in 1941, but were not officially recognized as members until the 1955-1956 school year. The first intramural women’s sport was basketball in 1967. Three years later, swimming became the first intercollegiate sport for women, and women were allowed to compete on the gymnastics team.

Because the Corps of Cadets did not admit women, Patricia Ann Miller was denied permission to enroll in Corps classes. Despite this, in 1959, she became the first woman commissioned during graduation when she successfully applied for a commission from the Army Women’s Medical Specialist Corps. Finally, in 1973, the Corps formed the L Squadron, exclusively for female cadets. Deborah J. Noss became the first female squadron commander and Cheryl A. Butler the first Black female cadet (and first Black female squadron leader the next year). In 1975, women were admitted to join the cadet band, and four years later, the L Squadron was disbanded to order to integrate women into the formerly all-male companies. In 1987, Denise Shuster became the first female regimental commander and in 2005, Christina Royal the first African American female regimental commander.

Female students who were not athletes or cadets had other ways of breaking the glass ceiling. In 1953, Betty Delores Stough became the first woman to receive a doctorate, in parasitology. Jean Harshbarger was the first woman elected class president for the Class of 1974. In 1968, Jaqueline D. Dandridge was the first woman of color in the homecoming court, and Marva L. Felder became the first Black homecoming queen in 1983.

Women join the workforce

What about the women working at VPI? Ella Agnew is often remembered as the first female home demonstration agent in the nation in 1910. When VPI became the headquarters for the Virginia Cooperative Extension in 1914, Agnew and the other agents became staff of the university. Agnew was also the first woman to receive VPI’s Certificate of Merit in 1926, and Agnew Hall was the first campus building named after a woman, in 1949. However, few realize she was not the first woman to work at Tech. In 1902, Frances Brockenbrough became Superintendent of the Infirmary, and the next year Mary G. Lacy became the first female Librarian and Margaret Spencer the President’s Secretary.

Other female agents worked for Extension during its early years at the university. In fact, although the African American division was headquartered at Hampton Institute, the agents were considered non-resident staff of VPI, first listed in the 1917 university catalog. One of these women was Lizzie Jenkins, who became the first Black female home demonstration agent in Virginia in 1913.

Women faculty members are first listed in the university catalog for 1921-1922. Mary Moore Davis ranked as a professor and worked as a state home demonstration agent in the Extension Division. She also established the home economics degree program at VPI. The first Dean of Women was Mildred Tate, who served from 1937 to 1947, and the first female academic dean was Laura Jean Harper, who in 1960 became the first Dean of the School of Home Economics. (Read more about her on our previously blog post.) Heidi Ford in 1970, Ella L. Bates in 1974, and Johnnie Miles in 1974 became the first female African American faculty members at Virginia Tech.

Women began achieving executive positions in the 1980s and 1990s. Sandra Sullivan was named Vice President for Student Affairs in 1982, and Peggy S. Meszaros served as the first (and currently only) female Provost from 1995 to 2000. Women started serving on the Board of Visitors in 1944, when VPI and Radford College merged. However in 2014, Deborah L. Petrine became the first female Rector in the university’s then 142-year history.

Women by the numbers

Virginia Tech has gone through enormous changes since its founding in 1872, especially in the growth of opportunities for women. Women on the staff have grown from one female administrative officer in 1902 to five women faculty members (only 4.7% of the faculty) in 1921 to 1,525 or 39.5% of the faculty in 2014. The student population has grown from 12 women or 1.3% of the students in 1921 to 13,241 women or 42.4% of the student population in 2014.

According to the Digest of Education Statistics, in Fall 2013, women accounted for 54.6% of enrolled students, 48.8% of faculty, and 54.5% of total employees (including faculty) in degree-granting public institutions in the U.S. However, the Digest also shows that women received only 30.8% of the degrees conferred by STEM schools in 2012-2013. So, as far as women have come, there’s still more to do.

An Office of One’s Own: Women Professionals in the Special Collections

To celebrate womens history month, we are highlighting a small selection of the pioneering women professionals in our collections. These particular women entered their respective careers in the 1950s and 60s, a time when women had limited access to higher education and professional opportunities. Women in historically marginalized groups (including LGBTQ communities, rural communities, and communities of color) faced additional challenges beyond gender barriers. The four women profiled below overcame several obstacles to work as accomplished professionals in fields traditionally dominated by men.

ChemistryLab
VPI students Caroline Turner and Harriet Shelton at work in a chemistry lab, January 1950

Marjorie Rhodes Townsend: Aerospace Engineer, Patent Holder

Marjorie Townsend was named " Townsend Knight of the Italian Republic Order" in 1972 for her contributions to US-Italian space efforts
Marjorie Townsend was named ” Townsend Knight of the Italian Republic Order” in 1972 for her contributions to US-Italian space efforts

In 1951, Marjorie Rhodes Townsend became the first woman to earn an engineering degree at George Washington University. One of few women in a traditionally male-dominated field, Townsend experienced significant discrimination from both coworkers and managers. In spite of these challenges, she enjoyed a lengthy and distinguished career at the forefront of aerospace technology. Townsend spent eight years with the Naval Research Laboratory developing sonar signal-processing devices for anti-submarine warfare. Townsend went on to work for the National Aeronautics and Space Administrations Goddard Space Flight Center from 1959-1980. As a project manager for NASAs Small Astronomy Satellite (SAS) program, Townsend helped coordinate some of the earliest advances in satellite technology and spacecraft systems design.

Learn more about the Marjorie Rhodes Townsend papers here:
http://ead.lib.virginia.edu/vivaxtf/view?docId=vt/viblbv00183.xml;query=;

L. Jane Hastings: Architect, Business Owner

Drafting tools used by L. Jane Hastings
Drafting tools used by L. Jane Hastings

As an eighth-grade student, L. Jane Hastings was told that women could not be architects. When she secured a coveted spot in the University of Washingtons architecture program, Hastings recalls being asked to give up her place to make room for returning veterans. Hastings received her Bachelor of Architecture degree with honors in 1952, having worked full-time throughout most of her program. In 1953, she became the eighth licensed woman architect in the State of Washington. Hastings founded her own practice in 1959 and went on to form the Hastings Group, a prestigious firm that completed over 500 residential, commercial, and university projects across the greater Seattle area. In addition to practicing and teaching architectural design, Hastings was active in several professional organizations. In 1992, Hastings was appointed the first woman chancellor in the American Institute of Architects College of Fellows.

Learn more about the L. Jane Hastings Architectural Papers here:

http://ead.lib.virginia.edu/vivaxtf/view?docId=vt/viblbv00138.xml

Dr. Laura Jane Harper: Academic Dean, Advocate

Dr. Laura Harper, first woman to serve as academic dean at Virginia Tech (VPI)
Dr. Laura Harper, dean of the Virginia Tech College of Home Economics from 1960-1980

Dr. Laura Jane Harper was the first woman to serve as an academic dean at VPI. She lead the College of Home Economics from 1960-1980, chartering a new program that emerged from the consolidation of the Home Economics programs at VPI and Radford University. Dr. Harper was lauded for mentoring other women and supporting them in leadership positions throughout the university. In her 1999 Masters thesis A Fighter To The End: The Remarkable Life and Career Of Laura Jane Harper, Saranette Miles recounted Dr. Harpers decision to turn down a marriage proposal for the sake of her career (p. 55) and how she frequently challenged VPI President T. Marshall Hahn to uphold his commitments to create meaningful opportunities for women at the university (p. 70-75) .

Read more about Harpers career and her contributions to the Peacock-Harpery Culinary Collection:
https://whatscookinvt.wordpress.com/2015/03/06/whm-laura-harper/

Linda Adams Hoyle: Statistician, Trailblazer

Chiquita Hudson,   Marguerite Laurette Scott, and Linda Adams Hoyle, right, were among the first black women to attend Virginia Tech.
Chiquita Hudson, Marguerite Laurette Scott, and Linda Adams Hoyle, right, were among the first black women to attend Virginia Tech.

Linda Adams Hoyle (class of 68) was the first black woman to graduate from Virginia Tech. As a statistics major, Hoyle was frequently the only woman in her classes and one of few black students. Her experiences on campus – friendships, dorms assignments, political activism, and safety concerns – were shaped by the intersection of race and gender. After graduation, Hoyle went on to work as a statistician for the Census Bureau in Washington, D.C.In her oral history interview for the Black Women At Virginia Tech History Project, Hoyle discussed the challenges of raising a family while pursuing a career:

.. So when you have this full time career–my job at that time was extremely demanding. It was difficult because I had to attend to my children as well as do the job.My husband, the way he worked, it was difficult. He could not just stop in the middle of a job say to pick up a sick child. His work did not permit him that flexibility. Those were things I had to do.

Read Linda Adams Hoyles Oral History Interview:
http://spec.lib.vt.edu/archives/blackwomen/adams.htm

Learn more about the experiences of Virginia Tech’s first black students:
http://www.vtmag.vt.edu/sum14/trailblazers-black-alumni-60s-70s.html

An Uneasy Birth

Marking the 100th Anniversary of D. W. Griffiths Controversial Landmark Film, The Birth of a Nation

While recently pulling materials for an exhibit on silent films, I happened upon a small promotional flyer, probably from Blacksburgs Lyric Theatre, for D. W. Griffiths Birth of a Nation, which saw its initial theatrical release on March 3, 1915.

Though Griffith’s work is considered a watershed in cinematic history, few today can claim to have watched it in its entirety. The films relegation to a remote corner of public consciousness can be attributed to its silent film format (considered quaint or boring by most modern viewers) and to its treatment of a subject matter that is today widely seen as repugnant.

The Birth of a Nation purports to tell the story of Americas Civil War and the origin of the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction. In doing so, the film portrays the Klan as a noble organization devoted to protecting Southern society from marauding bands of brutish, lecherous Freedmen and their manipulative, hypocritical carpetbagger allies.

The Birth of a Nation flyer cover, depicting a cross-wielding Klan member in full regalia sitting astride a rearing horse, hints strongly at the films content and point of view.
The Birth of a Nation flyer cover, depicting a cross-wielding Klan member in full regalia sitting astride a rearing horse, hints strongly at the films content and point of view.

 

The plot for The Birth of a Nation was based on Thomas F. Dixon Jr.s novel The Clansman, the second volume in a trilogy about the Reconstruction South. A North Carolina Baptist minister, attorney, and state legislator, Dixon became a popular author around the turn of the 20th century, publishing more than 20 novels. The Clansman

The Clansman is among five of Dixons novels held by Special Collections. The librarys main collection holds several more titles.
The Clansman is among five of Dixons novels held by Special Collections. The librarys main collection holds several more titles.

is today remembered as his most famous (or infamous) work, and from it was drawn the films Southern apologist version of the Klans origins.

In bringing Dixons tale to the screen, Griffith spared no expense and pioneered a number of moviemaking techniques and technologies: The Birth of a Nation is said to have been the first film to employ night photography, panning motion shots, the iris effect, the intercutting of parallel action sequences, and many more advances that would become mainstays of cinematic narrative. Griffith also employed hundreds of extras in staging epic Civil War battle scenes and interspersed his story with accurate tableaux of scenes from American history. The film was unlike anything that movie-going audiences had seen to that time.

 

Inside, the flyer lists some of the innovations and enormous costs associated with the films production.
Inside, the flyer lists some of the innovations and enormous costs associated with the films production.

Griffiths accuracy and attention to detail exploited the publics willingness to take its history lessons from fictionalized accounts. An uninformed audience, seeing accurately portrayed historical scenes presented side-by-side with Dixons skewed view of events, might be partially forgiven for accepting all as fact. Even supposedly knowledgeable viewers, however, were enthralled by Griffiths prowess as a storyteller. The film is said to have been the first to be screened in the White House. After seeing it, President Wilson, himself a historian, reportedly said, It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true. The films widespread popularity and its audience’s impressionability are credited with being partially responsible for the KKKs resurgence and rise to political prominence during the 1910s and 1920s.

CAPTION: A page from the flyer illustrates how The Birth of a Nation mixed historic events with a subjective, fanciful view of the Klans origins.
A page from the flyer illustrates how The Birth of a Nation mixed accurate historical depictions of the Civil War with with a subjective, fanciful interpretation of events.

Even in 1915, however, the film spurred controversy. The NAACP staged protests in several major cities and made repeated efforts to have the film banned from theaters. Letter-writing campaigns sought to educate the public on the facts of Reconstruction and to warn of the films inflammatory nature, while boycotts attempted to provide economic deterrents against the film’s release. Such efforts were in fact successful in having the film banned from the theatres of a handful of large cities but could not prevent its nationwide release.

Testimony to its immense popularity at the time, The Birth of a Nation continued to enjoy periodic revivals for years, and it is said to have remained Americas highest-grossing film until being toppled by another Civil War / Reconstruction epic, Gone with the Wind, more than twenty years later.

Despite his films overwhelming commercial success, Griffith was not immune to criticism. Partially in response to negative comments on his films racially intolerant themes, Griffith released his magnum opus, Intolerance, the following year. The three-and-a-half hour epic tells four parallel stories from different time periods of human history, each illustrating the catastrophic consequences of intolerance. Griffith would continue to make films throughout the silent era with varying degrees of success, but he never again matched the achievements of The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance.

Should The Birth of a Nation be considered an early cinematic masterpiece that is marred by its skewed interpretation of history and its outdated, hateful view of racial relations, or should any film (or other work of art) be considered a masterpiece when it advocates a point of view that is later almost universally abhorred as destructive and wrongheaded? In answering this question in his 2003 review of the film in 2003, critic Roger Ebert wrote: The Birth of a Nation is not a bad film because it argues for evil… [I]t is a great film that argues for evil. To understand how it does so is to learn a great deal about film, and even something about evil.