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One of the First Six Black Women Students at Virginia Tech:
Jackie Butler Blackwell
Picture of Jackie Butler from 1967 Bugle Picture of Jackie Butler from 1968 Bugle Picture of Jackie Butler from 1969 Bugle
Jackie Butler in the 1967 Bugle. Jackie Butler in the 1968 Bugle. Jackie Butler in the 1969 Bugle.

Date of Interview:
29 April 1995
Location of Interview:
Special Collections, University Libraries, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia
Tamara Kennelly
Cindy McLaughlin

Part One

(Tape 1, side a)

Kennelly: Where are you from originally?

Blackwell: Lancaster County, Virginia

Kennelly: Did you grow up there?

Blackwell: Yes.

Kennelly: Do you have any brothers or sisters?

Blackwell: I have one younger brother and one younger sister.

Kennelly: Did they go to college too?

Blackwell: My sister went for two years, and my brother didn't go.

Kennelly: Where did your sister go?

Blackwell: To Virginia State in Petersburg.

Kennelly: Did your parents go to college?

Blackwell: No.

Kennelly: So you were the first one in your family to go?

Blackwell: Yes.

Kennelly: Did your mother work when you were growing up?

Blackwell: Yes.

Kennelly: What did she do?

Blackwell: She was a seamstress. She worked in a sewing plant.

Kennelly: Where was that?

Blackwell: In Lancaster County, Virginia.

Kennelly: What was it called?

Blackwell: (Laughing) I can't remember.

Kennelly: What about your father?

Blackwell: He was a barber, and he did some farming too.

Kennelly: Farming?

Blackwell: Yes.

Kennelly: What does he farm?

Blackwell: Soybeans, corn. I think that's basically it.

Kennelly: Did you grow up on a farm?

Blackwell: It wasn't a big farm, but it was a farm. We had chickens and cows and horses and vegetables, things like that.

Kennelly: Did you have to help?

Blackwell: Well, I didn't help that much. Except in the fall when they had corn planted, I picked the corn, and if there were any corn left in the field, my father would gather up the children in the neighborhood, and they would go pick the corn up out the field, but that's about basically all I did.

Kennelly: What about your mother? Did she help?

Blackwell: Yes.

Kennelly: So your father was doing both things?

Blackwell: Well see, we lived next door to my grandmother, my great grandmother, and great grandfather, so it was a whole family thing. And he had his brothers and sisters there to help him, and we were about the third generation, so we didn't do too much.

Kennelly: So there was like four generations of family all living there?

Blackwell: Yes, not in the same house but close by.

Kennelly: Where did you go to high school?

Blackwell: Brookvale High School in Lancaster County.

Kennelly: Was that a very big high school?

Blackwell: Not too big. We had about fifty kids in my graduating high school class.

Kennelly: And was that an integrated class?

Blackwell: No, the first integrated class was when I came here.

Kennelly: That you've been to?

Blackwell: Yes.

Kennelly: So not in elementary either?

Blackwell: No.

Kennelly: So when you were growing up in Lancaster, were things pretty separated?

Blackwell: Yes, completely separated. Well, the county is not that big, but we had one white high school and one black high school, and the elementary the same way.

Kennelly: And were there any places where the kids would end up mixing?

Blackwell: No.

Kennelly: Like for recreation or anything?

Blackwell: No.

Kennelly: Was there a swimming pool or anything like that?

Blackwell: No, nothing. It was a rural area.

Kennelly: There weren't like parks or something where everyone could get together?

Blackwell: No.

Kennelly: So pretty much just the school was the...

Blackwell: ...thing, the center of activity.

Kennelly: So did you have contact with white people when you were growing up?

Blackwell: Yes, not socially. The first job I ever had was as a baby sitter, and I baby sat for this white family. But other than that, I knew a couple of kids that weren't too far from where I lived, but that was basically it. In fact, when I came to Virginia Tech as a freshman, there were two other students (I found out after I got here) from Lancaster County, and we didn't know each other. But we were all in the freshman class together.

Kennelly: Two other white students?

Blackwell: Yes.

Kennelly: So what happened when you were all together? Were they girls or boys?

Blackwell: They were boys. I didn't know them personally, but I knew of them, that they were here. Only because when I went home, my father told me so-and-so was here because he knew his family. And then, I knew one because someone in the Corps of Cadets told me that someone there was from Lancaster too.

Kennelly: So you never actually ran into each other?

Blackwell: No, but I knew that they were here after I got here.

Kennelly: In your father's barber business, were there white and black people that would go to that?

Blackwell: No, just black.

Kennelly: Things were pretty much separated?

Blackwell: Yes.

Kennelly: Why did you choose Virginia Tech?

Blackwell: Well I had only heard of Virginia Tech in relation to the Extension Service. I was a big 4-H member, and I had heard of Virginia Polytechnic Institute. But I never even considered coming here as a college. Then in my junior year one student from my school came up here in regard to the Home Economics Department. She came back to my school and said how beautiful it was, and how nice everybody was and everything, and that it was really a great school. But I still didn't decide to come here. When I graduated, I was given a $4,000 scholarship.

Kennelly: Who gave you that?

Blackwell: Rockefeller, it was a John D. Rockefeller scholarship, but it was from Virginia Tech, through Virginia Tech.

Kennelly: And how did you get that?

Blackwell: I can't remember exactly how I got it. I just knew I got it. I had considered going to a small college in Rhode Island that had offered me a scholarship also. But it cost more to go there, and the scholarship wasn't as large. I figured it would be better for me to come here, but I didn't decide to come here until just before it was time to start school. It started in September then instead of in August as it does now. And I think it wasn't until August that I made up my mind to come here. That's how I happened to get here.

Kennelly: Were you sort of being actively recruited then?

Blackwell: I don't think so. I don't know. It came through the guidance department or our homeroom teacher. I was the valedictorian of my class, but don't remember the logistics of how I got the scholarship. I just know that I did get it. That was one of the considerations that I used to decide to come here.

Kennelly: So you had never visited here before you came.

Blackwell: No, the very first day I saw Virginia Tech was the day I had to move in. I had never been here before that day.

Kennelly: Had you talked to your roommate before you came?

Blackwell: No, no, I hadn't talked to her. We saw each other for the first time that day.

Kennelly: Who brought you over here?

Blackwell: My mother and father.

Kennelly: Can you kind of take yourself back to that time and just talk about how it felt to you when you came?

Blackwell: Well when I was coming up here, I was just excited about getting to college, and then I got here. I arrived first before my roommate did. I think I was met downstairs and given a key. Then I came upstairs, and I moved into the room. I was fine as long as my parents were here. When they left, I felt very lonely. But I didn't feel sad or anything. Then my roommate came, and she was excited about moving in. She came with her mother, and I think with her mother, father, and her little sister. And then we just moved in.

Kennelly: Who was your roommate?

Marguerite Harper
Marguerite Harper;
Jackie Butler's roommate

Blackwell: Marguerite Harper. I don't remember anything except that we were squabbling over who was gonna get the bottom bunk or the top bunk. I wanted the bottom bunk, and she wanted the bottom bunk because she didn't want to fall out the top one. But I ended up getting it. That's all I remember about that very first day. I don't remember anything really significant about that day.

Kennelly: I just want to backtrack before we go on. I wondered what you had done with the extension? You said that...

Blackwell: Oh, I said that that's how I knew about V. P. I. It was with the 4-H. In the rural areas of Virginia, there are 4-H clubs where you do different things like sewing, cooking, many things. The 4-H is like a club, and Virginia Tech sponsors them. Actually, through the Extension Service I did a lot of work with that. I just knew that all the materials that I received came from up here. That was all I knew about Virginia Tech. Basically, the only description I had of it was from that student who I told you had come up here for a conference or something like that.

Kennelly: And that wasn't a student who ended up coming here?

Blackwell: Yes, she came the year after I did. She was an underclassman at my school.

Kennelly: What was her name?

Blackwell: Portia Carter.

Kennelly: How long were you involved with the 4-H?

Blackwell: From about fourth grade through high school.

Kennelly: You really kept at it. You were doing like projects, homemaking things, sewing?

Blackwell: Back when I was in elementary school, the extension agents used to come into the schools, and the teachers would allot them a certain amount of time to talk to the students. And then if there were other projects that the extension agents wanted you to do, we would do them after school or on the weekend. They had summer camp and things like that. It was just an outlet or something to do because we didn't have that many things to do.

Kennelly: Is that one of the main social things that when you were growing up that you would do?

Blackwell: Yes.

Kennelly: At that time when you first came how many other black women were here at the time when you first came to Tech?

Blackwell: Well the only ones that I knew were in my dorm, and there were four of us in the dorm. That was it. Then we found out there were two others at Hillcrest. And that was all that I knew.

Kennelly: Who were the other two in your dorm?

Blackwell: Chiquita Hudson and Linda Adams.

Linda Adams and friends
From left, Jackie Butler, Linda Adams, and Chiquita Hudson.

Kennelly: So you just kind of ran into each other and realized that you were all there together?

Blackwell: Yes, and then after that we started doing things together because we sort of grouped together. The four of us were very close. Linda Edmonds and Fredi Hairston lived up in Hillcrest, so we didn't see them that often. In my curriculum, I didn't see them because they were all in different curriculums. So I didn't see them in class or anything like that. But the four of us in Eggleston saw each other constantly because Chiquita and Linda lived on the first floor, and Marguerite, which we called Chick, and I lived on the second floor.

Kennelly: So Marguerite was Chick?

Blackwell: Yes.

Kennelly: What field were you in when you came up here?

Blackwell: When I started, I was in biology. My roommate was in history, Chiquita was in aerospace engineering, and Linda downstairs was in statistics. I think Linda Edmonds was in home economics, and Fredi was in math, I think.

Kennelly: One of the women, I think, Linda Adams, was she a transfer student?

Blackwell: Yes, she came from Clifton Forge Community College. I think near Covington.

Kennelly: So she was actually a junior then. Maybe?

Blackwell: Yes, she was a junior. The rest of us were freshmen.

Kennelly: How were the other girls in the dorm to you?

Blackwell: We basically knew who was on our floor. We had two sections of the second floor, and we were on the end next to the library here. We basically knew everybody on that end of the hall. The girls in the dorm were fine. We were all friends and everything. So I never had any problems at all in the dorm.

Kennelly: Were there problems other places?

Blackwell: The only thing was when we would go to the cafeteria, and we had our trays, and we had to pick a table to eat. Sometimes when we sat at the table, the students at the table would get up and move to another table. That was about it. That's the only negative thing that I can remember that's really vivid in my mind. And that was only like when we first got here, the first year.

Kennelly: How did that make you feel when that happened?

Blackwell: Sad, I guess.

Kennelly: When you were eating, was that mixed, men and women?

Blackwell: Yes. At that time, Owens Hall had four lunch rooms, and that was our dining hall. It was the dining hall for all the dormitories except the students that lived on Upper Quad. So we all ate in there--boys, girls, and everybody.

Kennelly: Were there a lot more boys than girls then anyway?

Blackwell: Yes. When we first got here, there were 500 girls on campus total. I think there were 10,000 students at the time.

Kennelly: That was the place where anything happened. How did it work in going to classes?

Blackwell: I don't remember any incidents or anything in class.

Kennelly: In your classes, were you the only woman in the class? Were there many women in the classes with you?

Blackwell: There were many women in the class with me, but most of the time I was the only black one in the class.

Kennelly: You were the only one in sociology. Did you end up talking to other students in the class?

Blackwell: Basically, whenever I was sitting with students nearby, I would find out who they were, and sometimes we'd study together or things like that. I couldn't find any difference in the class than it would have been at any other school or in high school or in anything. The students, once they got to know you, were fine. At first, they might stare at you sometimes, but once you interacted with the students, then race or color wasn't important. It didn't seem like it mattered at all.

Kennelly: Did you feel like people were coming with stereotypes or some kind of assumptions?

Blackwell: Yes, I did. A lot of times they had preconceived ideas. And as they got to know us, then they lost those ideas because they would ask us about certain things. We would tear down a lot of the stereotypes that they had had.

Kennelly: What kind of stereotypes would they have that weren't valid?

Blackwell: They didn't basically have to do with education. For instance, as you will notice, as soon as it gets warm, the students go outside to sunbathe, and the girls on our hall, my roommate especially, would be kidding with them all the time, and she would take her watch off, and she would say, "Look at my suntan." Then the white girls in the dorm would say, "Well I didn't know that black people could receive a suntan." Stuff like that. And that's basically it. Of course one of our biggest problems was with our hair. Because when white people's hair get wet, it just goes straight. Well when black people's hair gets wet, it just bushes up. That would amaze them a lot, how thick our hair could get when it was wet. I don't remember any particular other things.

Kennelly: I think there was about 25 black guys?

Blackwell: Actually, when we came in as freshmen, there were 6 girls and 20 boys. The year before my husband came. He was from Southill, Virginia and his roommate from Roanoke. They were here the year before we were.

Kennelly: So, did you get to know the boys that were here pretty soon?

Blackwell: Yes. The reason is when we went to the cafeteria we sort of stood out in the cafeteria, so it was easy to pick everybody out. Therefore, not very long after we got here, we knew who everybody was. There were some boys on the upper quad; we didn't see them as much. But on the lower quad, we all ate in the same cafeteria.

Kennelly: Did you tend to get together?

Blackwell: Yes.

Kennelly: Did you make any friendships with white students at the time, any that have been important to you?

Blackwell: Yes, I have one special friend, a student who was from Christiansburg. She left--I don't know whether it was one or two years before I did, but we've maintained contact. She came to my wedding, and now they are missionaries in Uganda of all places. And we still keep in contact. Chick and I were only roommates for a year, a year and a half. Then I had two white roommates after that. My second roommate was a transfer student also. We were very good friends. She didn't graduate from here. She left before she graduated, but she lives near Washington, D. C. now, and we still communicate sometimes. I had another very good friend here, who lives near Lexington/Buena Vista, but we've lost contact since we left school.

Kennelly: Do you miss her?

Blackwell: Yes.

Kennelly: What happened to Chick--Marguerite? Did she leave school?

Blackwell: No, she graduated the same year I did. She was from Virginia Beach, Virginia, and I live in Portsmouth now which is very close to Virginia Beach. She was in my wedding also. Since then, I have only seen her twice. It just happened that we ran into each other at the mall. I don't know where she is now. I think she lives in North Carolina.

Kennelly: No, but I mean, you said you weren't roommates the second year?

Blackwell: We had conflicting personalities. Another thing was that she started smoking, and I don't like smoking. She met another friend that they were closer together in personalities, so they moved in together, and I moved in with someone else.

Kennelly: Did she move in with a white student then?

Blackwell: Yes.

Kennelly: Did you meet someone that you got along with and moved in with that person too or were you just assigned to somebody?

Blackwell: No. The whole first year, she and I were roommates. Then the second year we were roommates for the first semester. The second semester I had the room by myself, and I really liked that. Then the third year Nancy and I, that was the girl from Northern Virginia who was a transfer student, met each other in class my sophomore year. We decided we would room together the next year. So we started off as roommates my third year, but she decided to leave school. I think she got married or something. She moved out West, and she left. So when Nancy left, Susie who lived on my hall couldn't get along with her roommate, so she asked me if she could move in with me. She moved in with me, and we were roommates until I left school.

Kennelly: I heard, maybe it was from Linda Edmonds, that one of the girls who first came here had been assigned a white roommate and there was some problem with that?

Blackwell: I don't know about that. That may have happened in her dorm because she lived in Hillcrest.

Kennelly: Chiquita Hudson, now where was she from?

Blackwell: Hampton.

Kennelly: And she was sick at the time?

Blackwell: Yes.

Kennelly: Did she know she was?

Blackwell: Yes.

Kennelly: Terminally ill?

Blackwell: I think so because she had special arrangements at the infirmary I think they were made before she got here. They had been alerted that she had some type of illness, and whenever she got sick, they would send her to the infirmary. When I said "whenever she got sick," I should say weak because she had to be very cautious about catching colds and stuff like that. I don't remember exactly what she had, but I know that when she wasn't sick, she was just like the rest of us, full of energy. She had a lot of energy, but many times she had to go to the infirmary for weeks at a time.

Kennelly: Hard to keep up with everything. Did she make it through that whole year?

Blackwell: Yes, she made it through the first year.

Kennelly: Then when did she die?

Blackwell: I think it was like in July, right after freshman year.

Kennelly: So did you go to that funeral?

Blackwell: Yes. I was in summer school that summer. I decided to stay up here because I wanted to get ahead, so I stayed after that my freshman year, and I went to summer school, and I worked in the microbiology department that summer. Maugerite was the one that called me and told me that she had died, so Linda Adams and I went with Fredi's father from Roanoke because Fredi lived in Roanoke. And I think he came up here and got us, and he drove us all down to Hampton to the funeral.

Kennelly: Did Tech acknowledge the death at all, as far as you know?

Blackwell: Not that I know.

Kennelly: I looked in the yearbook. I didn't see any kind of mourning or anything. Do you know where her family is?

Blackwell: I don't know.

Kennelly: When you came here, were things the way you thought they would be or were they different?

Blackwell: What things?

Kennelly: Just anything that you think of.

Blackwell: I just...the only thing that I thought about when I came here was that it was a beautiful place. Because this was the first time that--Lancaster is right on the coast on the Atlantic Ocean, I mean down that way, and I had never been in the mountains before. So it was a whole new experience for me as far as the appearance of the school. I was just so gungho on getting a college education; that was all I was concerned about, so other things didn't really affect me that much.

Kennelly: Did you work the first year? Did you have a job?

Blackwell: I had a work-study job, I'm not sure whether I started the first year or the second year. But it was at night. I was the night monitor at Hillcrest. I would sit at the desk, because back then the girls had to sign in and out. After a certain time of day, you had to sign in and out. So I had that job until I left here. I would go up there, I think it was only two nights a week, and I would sit there until about 11:00, and then the house mother up there would drive me back down to Eggleston.

Kennelly: What about as far as dealing with administrators or faculty, was that just ordinary? I mean, did you feel you had to deal with any assumptions or stereotypes on the part of other people here besides the students?

Blackwell: I don't feel that way. The only class I might have felt something like that was in one of my science classes. I thought, it just crossed my mind that maybe he had some preconceived ideas about me, but in my other classes I don't think so. Because I was helped by a lot of the faculty members here. Specifically, there was a Dr. Joachim Bruhn in the foreign language department. He was really helpful to me, and then Dr. James Highlander was in the sociology department. He was one of the main reasons why I switched over to sociology because I took a couple of his classes, and I was really impressed by him. So I decided to switch over.

When I first got here, there was a Dr. Guy Carta who was my faculty advisor in biology, and he was real nice. When my grades were falling, and he thought they were falling too low, he would call me in and counsel me and tell me things that I could to improve. Also he always told me if I had any problems, I could come and talk to him. In the dorm, we had a house mother and a graduate student that was in charge of the girls there in the dorm. I didn't detect anything from them at all. They were always there to help you no matter who you were. And if you were wrongly doing something, they would reprimand you for doing that. Because then we had weekly room checks. You had to keep your room clean. They would come by and check or if anything that they didn't find befitting a Tech lady at that time they would tell you. I don't remember any type of discrimination or anything from the faculty.

Kennelly: Do you remember who the house mother was?

Blackwell: I can't remember the house mother's name, but I know that the graduate student's last name was...I think her name was Carol Amato.

Kennelly: I think Linda Edmonds said that she actually knew President Hahn?

Blackwell: Oh yes. Well I didn't know him, but the very first week that we were here he invited us all up to his house. It wasn't just us. It was all the freshmen students on campus. He invited us all to his house for tea and cookies that first week. I don't know if I ever saw him after that. But we always knew that he was president, and I just had a nice memory of him. And I was sorry that he got ill and passed away or something like that or moved on?

Kennelly: I think he's still around.

Blackwell: But he invited us all to his house. It was down by the duck pond--he used to live down there. He might not have lived there, but he worked there. It was called the President's House.

Main Page - Part One - Part Two - Part Three

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