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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 Two

Biology pre-med club
Biology Pre-Med Club
Image from the 1969 Bugle. Seated: B. Myers; M. Williams, vice president; O. Minter, president; O. Gutenson, secretary; A. Williams, treasurer. Standing: K. Marienfeldt; J. Heard; J. Butler, public information officer; E. Taylor; T. Spencer; R. Paterson; C. Hall; M. McGilvery.

(Tape 1, side a cont'd)

Kennelly: What was your social life like?

As far as social life, on the weekends, some of the graduate students-- they had one black graduate student couple here. I think her husband went to school here, and she was just here because her husband went here--would have us over to their house sometimes on the weekend and have a party or something like that.

Kennelly: Did they have all the black students over?

Blackwell: Yes.

Kennelly: Who was that?

Blackwell: His name was Richard Valentine, I think. I can't remember what his wife's name was right now. Then it just so happened that...

Kennelly: He was the only graduate student at the time?

Blackwell: No, he wasn't the only one. There was another student in the chemistry department, but I can't remember what his name was. Then in our dorm, there were some maids, and they were black maids, and we just sort of talked to them and found out who they were. And they would invite us over to her house or to their church on the weekend.

Other than that, I was involved with the formation of Angel Flight, the very first Angel Flight that was here on campus. At the time, I thought I might go into the Air Force, so I was involved in planning the conception of that with one group of the Air Force ROTC cadets that were on upper quad. The sponsor, sorry I can't remember his name, but he lived somewhere out in the community. He would invite us to his house for like volleyball, a cookout, and stuff like that. So I was involved in that.

Kennelly: Now was that a black person or a white person?

Blackwell: It was a white person. In fact, I was the only black person in Angel Flight. They have a picture of that somewhere on campus because I saw it once. It was of the very first members of that group. We weren't very big, maybe 10 or 15 students.

Angel flight Angel Flight members
First row: Elizabeth M. Lee, Sarah W. Buxton. Second row: Jacquelyn Butler, Janice Lloyd, Gail Carter. Third row: Jean Wagner, Peggy Dart, Judy Warren, Barbara Bacon, Gail Gordon, Trudy Knicely.

Kennelly: Could you explain what Angel Flight is?

Blackwell: Angel Flight is sort of a sister organization to the Air Force ROTC students. We didn't do anything military, anything like that. But we had a blue jumper with a white blouse, and we had a blue cape. And the Air Force actually gave us buttons and stuff.

End of tape 1, side a

Begin tape 1, side b

Blackwell: Another school had to initiate us into the Angel Flight. They had special speakers to come in and talk to us. And it was more social than military. But once a week we would go up to--because back then we thought it was a real privilege to go on upper quad because we weren't allowed up there all the time. It was just for the cadets. They lived up there exclusive; there were no civilians up there. So on Thursday we got to eat in Shultz with some members from the Air Force. The Air Force had a brother organization. I can't remember what it was called now, but they had their organization, and the girls were called Angel Flight. We would meet on Thursdays, and we would go sometimes to Shultz like I said to eat dinner with the brother group up there, or we would go out to the sponsor's house and do things out there.

Kennelly: So in those situations, was it mixed, black and white as far as eating together and all that? When you'd go up and eat dinner at Shultz?

Blackwell: Well when we went up to eat in Shultz, we ate as a group.

Kennelly: All the Angel Flight girls would be together?

Blackwell: Yes. We would eat with the group, the male group. I can't remember what they were called now, but we would all eat together.

Kennelly: So it was just like a real social kind of thing?

Blackwell: Yes.

Kennelly: We'll have to find some pictures of that. Do you think they might have them over at the Corps?

Blackwell: I don't know where they would be now. I know it was with the Air Force ROTC.

Kennelly: So you were a person who helped organize that here?

Blackwell: Yes. We had ranks just like in the Air Force. There was one girl that was the major. I think her name was Janice Lloyd. I was next, captain. And we were in the very first one that was formed because we had to read charters and everything and how it was done. It had to be done according to certain rules and regulations and everything.

Kennelly: So you were really taking a leadership role in putting that together?

Blackwell: Yes.

Kennelly: And then how did you recruit people to be involved in this?

Blackwell: They had to apply. They had to apply to become members, and then they went through a period of things they had to do. It was not an initiation like you see in some of the fraternities and sororities, but they had to have character and things like this. They would maybe go through an interview or something. They had to perform service, and then at the end of the period, the male group and the girl group would vote on whether they could come into that organization. I wish I could remember their names. I can't remember what the boys were called.

Kennelly: None of the other, of this group of six women, none of the other women pursued that? That was something you did on your own, that you were interested in?

Blackwell: Yes.

Kennelly: Were you politically active in any way?

Blackwell: No.

Kennelly: Did you go to any school dances?

Blackwell: I went to the formals. They were called formals. Back then we had spring formals, and winter formals, and Ring Dance. I went to all of those. They were big events when we were here.

Kennelly: Where you wear long dresses?

Blackwell: Yes, I think formals were two nights. On the first night you wore long dresses; on the second night you wore short dresses or cocktail dresses.

Kennelly: Did all the girls go?

Blackwell: No, not everyone. Linda Adams was very very religious, and she didn't do many things that the rest of us did because it was against her religion.

Kennelly: What about the other four girls then?

Blackwell: Yes. The only other person that I remember is my roommate, Chick, and I went. I know we went together sometimes with our dates, went to the same one. As far as Linda and Fredi are concerned, I don't know whether they went, but I know Chic and I did. And as far as Chiquita and Linda, I don't think that they went. I don't know. I know Linda didn't. Whether Chiquita went that first year I can't remember.

Kennelly: You just dance with black guys, and did you dance with the white guys too?

Blackwell: We basically danced with the person that we went there with.

Kennelly: Just your date?

Blackwell: Yes.

Kennelly: Were you dating your husband [Eli Blackwell] at the time?

Blackwell: Yes, well toward the second year. We started dating the second year.

Kennelly: What field is your husband in?

Blackwell: Mechanical engineering.

Kennelly: Did you say that your daughter is also pursuing mechanical engineering?

Blackwell: Yes.

Kennelly: Was there much political going on here at that time?

Blackwell: Well at that time, the Vietnam War was going on. So there were alot of demonstrations and things on the drillfield. Because when we were here, the drillfield was our center of activity. Everything was around the drillfield. But I didn't get involved with any of what was going on, so I don't really know what was going on out there.

Kennelly: What about your husband? What kind of background did he come from? Where did he come from?

Eli Blackwell at a pinic Eli Blackwell from Bugle 1969
Eli Blackwell

Blackwell: He grew up in Lawrenceville, Virginia which is in the middle part of the state, right on the North Carolina border. That's a tobacco belt, and they had to work very hard. He grew up in a farming community. Even sometimes when the crop would come in they would have to get out of school to go and help reap the crops. So he had a very hard life, I think, harder than mine. Because my father did some farming, but it wasn't like his whole thing. That was their whole life. They planted tobacco, picked the tobacco, took it to market, all that sort of things. He has told me stories of how hard that was. Because I think they had to check each leaf or something like that.

He is the oldest in his family as I am in mine. My sister only finished two years of college, and my brother didn't go to college. His sister, who comes after him, is a lieutenant colonel in the Army, and his next brother is finishing his residency as a cardiac surgeon. He has another brother who's in the Army and then another one who lives next to his mother.

Kennelly: How did he happen to choose Tech? Do you know?

Blackwell: Well, he always wanted to be an engineer. From what he told me, everyone told him not to come here, but he had one teacher in his high school who told him about here and that it was a very good school for engineering. So he was determined to come here. In fact, when he came here, he said he came here on the bus, and he just had this one suitcase. He was in the Corps of Cadets. That's how he got here, but he was determined to come even though he was advised against coming here.

Kennelly: Who would advise him against and why?

Blackwell: Most of the people that knew that this was basically an all white school was telling him that he would have problems here and that if he came here he would be sorry. He should go to one of the black engineering schools instead of coming up here.

Kennelly: Who encouraged him then to come?

Blackwell: It was one of his teachers, but I don't know who they were.

Kennelly: So did he get a scholarship as well?

Blackwell: I'm not sure. If he did, it wasn't as much as the one that I received.

Kennelly: So did he have to work when he was here?

Blackwell: Yes, he worked while he was here. He had a work-study job, and then in the summers, I think it was after his freshman year, he went home and he worked in the sawmill. And then between his sophomore and junior year, he worked for some company up here putting fences in. As you ride down the highway, he still shows me there's one of the fences that he helped put in. And he worked with one of the construction companies around here, but he had to work the whole time.

Kennelly: Was your scholarship a four-year scholarship?

Blackwell: Yes, and it paid for basically everything except my books.

Kennelly: It paid for everything, room, board, and tuition?

Blackwell: Yes, it was a $4,000 scholarship, and it only cost a thousand dollars to come up here then.

Kennelly: Did your family help you with some of the other expenses?

Blackwell: My mother and my father gave me whatever the scholarship didn't cover. Because the only job that I had was just that work-study job that I was telling you about at Hillcrest.

Kennelly: So did they expect you to work at home? I mean, in the summertime?

Blackwell: Oh, I forgot. Between my freshman and sophomore year, I worked here in the microbiology lab because I was still majoring in biology at that time.

Kennelly: What were you doing there?

Blackwell: I was working with a graduate student, and I would help him with whatever he needed done in the lab. I autoclaved instruments and fixed petri dishes and stuff for experiments and watched them if he wanted to put down any of the information on the research projects or anything like that. I really liked that job. That was one of the best jobs I ever had, only because it was very interesting.

Then the next summer, I worked at home in Lancaster County with one of the extension agents for Virginia Tech. I helped with sewing projects that she was teaching little children in elementary school, and then they had a camp down in Williamsburg, and I went down there as one of the camp leaders to help them that summer.

Then the next summer after that, I went to Germany. In fact, that's where I finished my studies at Virginia Tech. I finished here in three years. At the end of that summer, I had enough credits to graduate. One of the girls that lived on my hall had gone to Germany the year before, and she told me all about Virginia Tech's study abroad program, and I applied and was accepted into that program. From June of 1969 until September, I was in Germany and studied at the university there.

Kennelly: Which university?

Blackwell: In Wurzburg. Then we had two weeks of separate travel that we could travel throughout Europe. The program involved four weeks of residential stay with a German family where we had to attend school each day except on the weekends. The second part of the studying abroad would be travel with one of the professors from Virginia Tech and a tour guide from Germany throughout East and West Germany.

Kennelly: Well what was that experience like?

Blackwell: It was great. I lucked out. The German family that I stayed with was wonderful. They had three children, eight, six, and two. He worked in the post office, and she stayed at home. And they had an extended family. On the weekends they got together and did things, and they were very supportive of whatever I was doing in the classroom. They would help me out.

Going to school was wonderful. They had a German professor there who would pick up where our professor here left off because even though he was our chaperone over there, he also taught some of the subjects we were taking while we were there, along with the German professor. We had to eat in their university cafeteria (that was interesting) and learn how to ride the rail system and the bus system over there. It was all a great learning experience. There were sixteen students in the group from Virginia Tech that went to Germany. There were other students on the same plane that were going to other countries. We all went to Amsterdam and went out from there to the countries where we were going.

In traveling back and forth throughout Germany at that time, the one thing that I remember, for the very first time--I don't know how it is now--in Germany, I felt for the very first time there was no discrimination between black and white. We were all treated equally there. And some of the students in the group even mentioned that at the time. I had noticed that, but some of the students, when it was time to come back home and we were talking about coming back home and things like that, and I was the only black student to get in that group, also noticed.

Kennelly: In the whole group?

Blackwell: Yes, and they mentioned that because they had seen how things were throughout our travels and places we had toured. Everybody was just treated the same, equally without regards to color and that was one of the things I remember most about that trip over there.

Kennelly: What did the other students say about it?

Blackwell: When it was time to come home we were having such a good time, I said I didn't really want to come back. And they said, "Well I guess you don't." You know, one of those things like that. And then that was the reason why they said, "I guess you don't."

Kennelly: Because they noticed that you were treated differently here?

Blackwell: Yes. Well, not just me, but, you know, the way things were in the United States.

Kennelly: The German students, I mean just people just generally were much more...?

Blackwell: Friendly. One time I was in a bank to change money, and this little old lady came up to me, and she was touching me. I didn't know what she was doing, and she was holding my hand. Then she was saying sch&oumln, sch&oumln, which means beautiful in German, and she was talking about me because I guess she had never seen a black person before or a dark person. She was looking at me, and she was trying to see, she was rubbing like this, if this would come off I guess. I remember that.

Kennelly: But doing it in a way that it wasn't offensive?

Blackwell: Yes, she was just inquisitive.

Kennelly: When you were here at school, did it feel like it was kind of removed from the rest of the world?

Blackwell: Well... as I said in our dormitory because then basically we went to class, we came to our dormitory, we went to the cafeteria. That was all we did back then. It wasn't that much that we did other than that, except on the weekends. Sometimes, like I was telling you, we'd do things on the weekends. Sometimes, but not all the time. Once everyone got to know you, then it was just like I was Jackie, and they were Susan. That was it.

But in the classroom sometimes when you go to class, and you were the only black person in the class, you would feel like everyone was staring at you. And I remember sometimes walking across the drillfield when it was cold, the first year I came up here--I think it snowed from October to May. It was so cold. I would think to myself sometimes that if I was walking to class between my dorm and the classroom, and I would faint here on this drillfield, no one would care. Everyone would just keep walking by. This was just some of the things that you would think about sometimes. You would wonder to yourself if anyone would stop or if they would just keep going.

Kennelly: How were the white guys?

Blackwell: Well the only ones that I associated with were basically the ones I met in the classroom. The ones that you got to know, they were fine. The school was so big in regards to what I had been used to, and you actually only associated with the people that were in your small circle of friends.

Kennelly: What about in the Angel Flight, were there guys in that group too?

Blackwell: In the Angel Flight there were only girls, but then there was a brother organization with all boys. That should be in one of the yearbooks, what they were. They were fine. If they said anything, they said it some place I couldn't hear it.

Kennelly: But were they friendly?

Blackwell: Yes.

Kennelly: I noticed that of the group of women that you were the only one in this picture right there had your picture in the yearbook that year. Do you remember why that happened?

Blackwell: Well they send a notice in your mailbox that said to come and take your pictures for the yearbook. And at my high school we just took pictures every year, so I just thought you were supposed to go and get your picture taken. So whenever they would send a notice, I would just go get my picture taken.

Kennelly: I'm glad you did. But how come the other girls didn't? Was there any reason, or they just didn't get around to it some years?

Blackwell: I don't know why they didn't take their pictures the first year. I just thought everybody took their pictures.

Kennelly: You said you went with some of the maids to their churches?

Blackwell: Yes.

Kennelly: Do you remember their names?

Blackwell: Yes. The one that was in our dorm, her name was Belle Snell, and she lived on Jackson Street here right in Blacksburg within walking distance.

Kennelly: What church did she go to?

Blackwell: I can't remember the name of the church, but it was a little Methodist church that was right there right within walking distance from campus. But that was when I went to church with her. I went to Blacksburg Baptist Church, and I went there because I was a Baptist, and they just asked you where you wanted to go, and I went there. The people were very nice and friendly and everything, so I went to Sunday school there sometimes and then to the worship service there sometimes, and I don't remember anyone ever being discriminatory or anything like that.

Kennelly: So it's the church right over here?

Blackwell: Yes, right down at the end of the Mall.

Kennelly: Were you the only person going to that one?

Blackwell: Yes, because Chick--Marguerite--my roommate, was Episcopalian, and she went to that church.

Kennelly: And none of the guys were going?

Blackwell: I don't remember any being there. I think they went to the Black churches. This other friend that I told you that I still keep in contact with who's a missionary now in Uganda, she and I would walk there on Sundays, to Blacksburg Baptist. I don't remember what the rest of the students were, but Linda, who I told you was very religious. Linda Adams was Holiness. I went to church with everybody. I visited the churches, but I went to church with her one time that I remember. And I went to church with Chick one time to the Episcopal church. I think it was because there was this archaeologist--I think his name was Leakey. I think he was visiting the campus or something, and they had a special ceremony or something, and she took me to church with her.

Kennelly: Was there a Holiness church here?

Blackwell: Yes. It was somewhere close by because we didn't have any cars or anything, so it had to be within walking distance. I don't think she had someone to take her there, but it was right here in Blacksburg. I think we walked there. We usually walked everywhere that we went.

Kennelly: So the girl who was going to the Episcopalian church that was?

Blackwell: That was my roommate.

Kennelly: That was a mixed church?

Blackwell: Yes.

Kennelly: Then the other churches were all black churches that people were going to?

Blackwell: I think they were mixed because when we got here, they gave us a list of churches. We just went to the ones that were on the list, but like for Mrs. Snell's church, once you got to know her that was an all black church. And I visited there several times.

Kennelly: Kind of a social visit?

Blackwell: Yes, she would invite us to her church.

Kennelly: Were the people in town friendly?

Blackwell: Yes. Mrs. Snell and her family. I got to know her and her children. Then there was another family that was very important to me, Gustina and Alonzo Brisco. He worked in the infirmary. I think he was the cook there or something or the help there. I don't know what he did there, but he worked at the infirmary. I met his wife through Mrs. Snell who was also working one summer with Mrs. Brisco's sister, who was also a maid here. By the way, Mrs. Brisco worked for Dr. Hahn in his house. She was his housekeeper. That's why I think he had another house off campus because she used to tell me about a house off campus. Anyway, they were very nice people. They would always invite me over to their house, and I went over there. That was within walking distance from here too.

Kennelly: Were they black?

Blackwell: Yes, they were.

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