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The First Black Students At Virginia Tech, 1953-1963

By Peter Wallenstein

Until the 1950s, Virginia's public institutions of higher education were either all-black or, like Virginia Tech, no-black. Policy makers placed far more stock in the "separate" than in the "equal" of the formula "separate but equal" as it applied to education at any level.

Decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1950 changed the rules that had long permitted white colleges to exclude all black students. Throughout the 1950s, Virginia authorities recognized that black Virginians, if academically qualified, must be admitted if they applied to programs of study not available at Virginia State College, the black land-grant school near Petersburg.

In the 1950s, white schools continued to reject black applicants when they could, but for the first time they accepted a few black students. Everett Pierce Raney applied Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 1951 to study business but was rejected because Virginia State offered a program in business. In 1953, however, Irving L. Peddrew III enrolled to study electrical engineering, a subject unavailable at Virginia State. During his first year, Peddrew was the only African American among 3,322 students. VPI thus became the first historically-white, four-year, public institution in any of the eleven states of the former Confederacy to admit a black undergraduate.

Permitted to take classes and required to be in the corps of cadets, Peddrew was not admitted to all the school's facilities. He was defined as a "day military student." As a rule, day cadets were students who had obtained permission to marry and live off campus, not, as Peddrew was, a single student who was told he had to live and eat off campus.

Peddrew had been advised of the potentially difficult situation awaiting him in Blacksburg, and he assured Tech officials that he could cope. He did, for a time, though he paid a high price. He bore by himself the full burden of desegregating a school, often felt wretchedly isolated, and left after three years without graduating.

Meantime, in 1954, Tech admitted Lindsay Cherry, Floyd Wilson, and Charlie Yates to the engineering school and the corps of cadets. All three were graduates of Booker T. Washington High School in Norfolk. Floyd Wilson left after a year in electrical engineering to join the Air Force, and Lindsay Cherry withdrew after three years in mechanical engineering and spent a career with the Postal Service.

Charlie L. Yates was one of six honors graduates in mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech in 1958. He not only graduated with honors in four years but also served as an officer in two engineering groups on campus, Tau Beta Pi and Pi Tau Sigma. In addition, like Irving Peddrew, he was active in the YMCA, which, under Paul Derring's direction, welcomed black students and provided them something of a sanctuary.

Yates is Tech's first African American graduate. In fact, nowhere in the former Confederacy did a black undergraduate earn a degree at an historically white land-grant school before Yates did.

Yates graduated without ever being permitted to room on campus, and he recalls the one time an exception was made to allow him to eat on campus. He was in the corps of cadets, and once when he pulled guard duty at mealtime, "There I was in the dining hall," he says, "off to myself, eating a meal."

Charlie Yates exemplified the trials, and he highlights the successes, of the pioneer black students at Tech. He is back at his alma mater after earning a master's degree from Cal Tech and a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins. Since 1987, he has taught aerospace engineering at Tech, after first returning to Blacksburg in 1979 to teach mechanical engineering and then serving a term on the board of visitors.

Tech admitted a fifth black freshman, Matthew M. Winston Sr., in 1955; a transfer student from Virginia State, Essex E. Finney Jr., in 1956; and no new black students in 1957 or 1958. Tech's total black enrollment in the 1950s peaked at four in 1954-55, 1955-56 (Winston took Wilson's place), and 1956-57 (Finney took Peddrew's place). Finney and Winston both completed their studies in 1959. Like Yates, Finney went on to earn a master's and a doctorate.

It is to Virginia Tech's credit that, unlike many schools, it did not wait until a federal court order forced a first step in integration. The process of racial desegregation at Tech, though slow and grudging, was far quicker and smoother than in Virginia's elementary and secondary schools, and it was far more peaceful than were the first steps to desegregation at many Deep South colleges and universities.

Yet the top administrators at Virginia's white public institutions feared for their appropriations from the state legislature. They were fearful enough between 1950 and 1954, before the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education threw out the "separate but equal" formula. After Brown, they saw the Virginia legislature adopt "Massive Resistance," a policy reflecting the state's determination to close elementary and secondary schools rather than permit any integration. Leaders of higher education were not about to take the lead in desegregating their own institutions.

During the school's first six years of "desegregation," Tech admitted six black students, all undergraduates in engineering, and three of them graduated. Few people on campus, Matthew Winston observes, ever knew that the pioneer black students "carried on under special administrative restrictions."

The pioneer black students at Virginia Tech understood that they did not have the option their white classmates had-to switch out of engineering yet remain at the school. They took the language of their acceptance letters literally when they were told, as Essex Finney was, "We have decided that we can accept you at VPI ... to take our course in agricultural engineering."

Matthew Winston has no recollection of hostile treatment from his classmates. To the contrary, he recalls that some were shocked when, if they invited him to go out for food or coffee, he explained that Virginia law did not permit him to accompany them. The sit-ins of February 1960-in Greensboro, North Carolina, and in other cities across the South-occurred after Winston had completed his studies, moved back to Tidewater, and gone to work as an engineer. So did the admission of the first black undergraduates at such land-grant schools as Mississippi State, Clemson, Auburn, Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee.

In 1959, Tech admitted its seventh and eighth black students, sophomore James L. Whitehurst and freshman Robert G. Wells. Wells graduated in metallurgical engineering, Whitehurst in electrical engineering. Thus only one of Tech's first four black undergraduates completed the degree, but all of the next four did.

Intent on obtaining the best possible education, James Whitehurst picked Virginia Tech over Virginia State because, he explained years later, Tech had "better laboratories, better professors, and better equipment." He chose Tech even though-since Virginia State offered physics, which he had hoped to study-he understood that he had to major in electrical engineering instead.

Like the other black pioneers, Whitehurst had been admitted only to classes, not to the full run of student activities and facilities. When he went to the snack bar in Squires, he was asked to leave. He had been a football star in high school, but the Tech coach kept him off the college team.

The policy of excluding black students from campus housing contradicted certain practices of the corps of cadets, so that-from Peddrew's first year through Finney's time and (it seems likely) beyond -individual black cadets used specific white cadets' rooms in the barracks, as one white alumnus recalls, "to prepare for drill and other corps functions."

The early African American students at VPI all roomed at the William Hoge residence at 306 Clay Street. Charlie Yates lived there his entire four years, and so did his black classmates. Lindsey Cherry has called Mr. and Mrs. Hoge "true heroes." They put the black students up at their home, he says, and they "put up with all of us four" young men. Essex Finney's letter of acceptance in 1956 told him it had been "arranged for you to live with Mrs. William Hoge," and he and Matthew Winston continued to stay there through 1958-59, their senior year.

James Whitehurst and Robert Wells, in their turn, then came to Tech in 1959 and took up residence at 306 Lee Street, though for their second year they stayed at 3027 Harding Avenue. After that, Wells left school for a time to co-op, and Whitehurst acted to bring to an end some of the remaining restrictions on black students.

For his third year at VPI, Cadet Whitehurst demanded a room in the barracks and was given one in the fifth section of Lane Hall. He rebuffed President Newman's request that he not attend the ring dance, and he recalls that, when he stepped onto the dance floor with his date, his classmates cheered him. After that year, black students could live in residence halls, just as white men did, and eat on campus. When Robert Wells resumed classes in 1962-63, he lived on the second floor of Campbell.

Wells and Whitehurst, like the six black students who came before them, majored in engineering. Unlike them, later black students could choose other majors. Examples are Marguerite Harper and Jackie Butler-black women who graduated in 1970 in history and sociology after having roomed and routinely eaten on campus. During their time in Blacksburg, Harper and Butler challenged other vestiges of the past, like flying the Confederate flag and playing "Dixie" at football games.

Racial desegregation on college campuses across the South-not just at Virginia Tech-is best understood as a process, not a single event. Enrolling in classes did not necessarily carry with it the privileges of eating on campus, rooming on campus, joining sports teams, or even changing majors. Those hurdles fell in the 1960s.

The school James Whitehurst and Robert Wells graduated from in the 1960s had changed since Irving Peddrew and Charlie Yates applied for admission in the 1950s. The pioneers had made a difference. Their successors continued to.

First published in Diversity News 4, no. 1 (Fall 1997): 3-5. Peter Wallenstein teaches in the History Department at Virginia Tech and is the author of Virginia Tech, Land-Grant University, 1872-1997: History of a School, a State, a Nation (1997).

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