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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 Three

Jackie Butler and Eli Blackwell
Jackie Butler and Eli Blackwell after church

(Tape 1, side b cont'd)

Kennelly: When you came here to school, did your parents give you any special kind of advice?

Blackwell: No, just do the best that you can. That's probably why I had no problems coming here to Virginia Tech because in my family, with my parents and my grandparents that lived next door to us, my grandmother would always tell us to be nice to people, and people would be the same. They never taught us to hate anybody else just because they were white or we were black. Even though I guess we were oppressed, I never felt oppressed. I never experienced that. Most of the people in my town were very friendly. The part of the town where I live is just rural. It's not really a town; it's just rural. They have black people, and they have white people. We don't live right beside each other, but we lived like houses here, and you go a few miles, it's another house. Even though we went to different schools, it was just the way it was always, and we never thought about it as being anyway differently.

Blackwell: When I came here, of course, it was different because we were all mixed, and that was a novelty because it was new. But we didn't hate anybody else because some of the students that came were from larger cities than where I was from, and maybe they had experienced different things. But where I grew up, I hadn't experienced any of anything that would make me hate anybody or anything like that.

Kennelly: Like riding on a bus and having someone be rude to you on the bus?

Blackwell: Yes, because we had no bus. We didn't have any stop lights or anything like that.

Kennelly: So it wasn't like there was a library that you wanted to use and somebody said you couldn't use it or anything like that when you were growing up?

Blackwell: No.

Kennelly: Things were separate, but there wasn't...?

Blackwell: It was separate, and it had always been that way, and we just went to school. We had a new school at the time, and we had a library at the school. Basically, the church was the center of social stuff, and that's what we did, and everybody went about their business and did their own thing. I had always been a conscientious student, and when I came here, I just wanted to study and do well when I came here. It was a big event in my hometown that I was coming here, and everybody was supporting me and everything, and I didn't want to let them down. So I just tried to do the best I could.

Kennelly: Were there many other students from your high school that went on to college?

Blackwell: Yes. Many of the students from my high school went on to college, but not many of them came to Virginia Tech. The only other person that I know of, I'm sure there's some that have come that I don't know about, but Portia Carter, who I told you about, came the year after I did who was instrumental in my coming here. But they mostly went to black colleges.

Kennelly: Where you live now, are you in a city now?

Blackwell: Yes.

Kennelly: Is that very far from...?

Blackwell: Where I grew up?

Kennelly: Yes.

Blackwell: Two hours away.

Kennelly: So it is pretty far?

Blackwell: Two hours south. It's still right on the coast. Virginia goes out like a peninsula coming down, and it's right on the Chesapeake Bay. Portsmouth is like here, and Lancaster is up there, but it's still right on the Chesapeake Bay, both places.

Kennelly: Has Lancaster changed much? Is it still rural?

Blackwell: It's rural, but they do have a couple of stop lights now. And they have a McDonald's and a Burger King and a Pizza Hut that they've just built only in the town. They have a little town they called Killmonock. Right there in that little town they have a stop light, and they have several fast food restaurants. And they have a little mall, not a big shopping mall like you find in some of the big cities. But in the rest of the county, it's still rural.

Kennelly: Is there still like a black high school and a white high school?

Blackwell: No. A few years after I graduated, maybe three or four years, the school integrated. The school that I went to is now an elementary school, I think. And they have a brand new high school. They only have one high school in that county, and all the students go there.

Kennelly: Was there any sense, when you were in high school, that the white school had better teachers or anything was better? Did you have black teachers or white teachers?

Blackwell: Black teachers.

Kennelly: Or that you weren't getting as much for your tax dollars say as other people at another school in terms of equipment or buildings?

Blackwell: Well when I was in high school, I didn't think about those things. I lived right on the main highway. You'd call it a highway, but it's just a road that goes past your house. The white high school in the county was in that town I told you about that just had the stop lights and everything now. That was in the town, and ours was out in the rural area. And sometimes when I was at my house, I could see when they were going to football games or something. I could see their bus going by, and we just said, "There goes Lancaster High School." That was it.

Kennelly: And it was just another school? And it wasn't that people felt they weren't being given as good an education?

Blackwell: Yes, because we had very good teachers, even though it was a small high school. Especially my homeroom teacher, he was very tough. He was a government teacher, a history teacher, and he was very strict. And we had a math teacher. Those are the two teachers that stick out in my mind. They were very, very tough, but when I came to Virginia Tech, I appreciated them more because they were that way, and I went back and told both of them that because some of the other teacher were easy, and when we got here, we paid for that. We were behind some of the other students that had come from other schools. But those two teachers, the classes that I had taken from them, I could compete with anyone else who was here at Virginia Tech.

Kennelly: In math and...?

Blackwell: Math and social studies. In fact, I shouldn't say this, but I was taking U.S. history class as an elective, and I was taking so many science classes (I was in biology at the time) I had learned so much from that teacher in high school that I didn't even have to read that book for that class when I was here at Virginia Tech. I just went right on straight on through that class without even having to study for that class.

Kennelly: Did you take an accelerated class in high school, or was it just a regular class?

Blackwell: It was just a regular class. He was just hard. Everybody didn't take his. You know they had different sections, like if you were in a higher class or lower class. But we didn't have that many students in our school. You had to take government and history; he taught world history and government. You had to take that in order to graduate. Some students did well, and some didn't, but he was strict on everybody.

Kennelly: What were the areas that you felt, you said that you were behind in some areas?

Blackwell: Chemistry for one. My high school teacher, the one that taught chemistry, we read through the book, we did the questions at the back of the book. When you did that, you had finished. If you could answer those questions, that was fine. When I got here and we did the laboratory work, that was something completely new to me.

Kennelly: You hadn't worked in a laboratory?

Blackwell: We had a laboratory in our school. We didn't do the experiments and in depth studies that they did here when we got here, and I was really behind in chemistry.

Kennelly: So some students might have come from high schools that had other facilities?

Blackwell: Yes. The teacher that taught chemistry also taught french. Now he could have been proficient in both of those subjects, but...

End tape 1, side b

Begin tape 2, side a

Kennelly: When you were in Germany, could you speak German?

Blackwell: Yes. When I first went over there, I couldn't speak it very well. There was one student in our class who could speak it fluently. I think his family was German here. He was from a German background, and he could speak it fluently. When I first got there, I had had a lot of classes here, but it was basically I could do work, I could translate it, and I could understand it, but I couldn't speak it that well. When I left there, I could speak it very well at that time. Basically because of living with my family. They could not speak English. My German father could speak a little bit of English, but the rest of the family could speak no English. So I had to communicate. I took my German dictionary with me everywhere. By the time I left, I could converse with people on the Autobahn or riding on the train or in the stores, everywhere. I definitely feel that if you want to learn a foreign language, you have to go and live in the culture in order to learn it, speak it, and everything. Even to think in that foreign language.

Kennelly: What's your kind of overall sense of your education you received at Tech?

Blackwell: I think my experiences at Virginia Tech prepared me for a lot of things that I've encountered since I left Virginia Tech. I think I've received a good education. I always tell everyone that it's a very good school. I encourage other students to come here. I feel that overall my experience at Virginia Tech was a positive one. I learned many things here, both socially and academically that I feel that I would not have learned if I had gone to an all black college.

Kennelly: Did you feel like you were breaking ground when you came here? Kind of the vanguard of things?

Blackwell: Well I knew we were the first. I knew that at the time when we first came here. So I guess in that sense, yes.

Kennelly: What happened then when you graduated?

Blackwell: When I graduated from Virginia Tech I got married, and then I went to work for the Virginia Employment Commission in South Boston, Virginia. My husband was drafted into the military. Like I said, during that time it was the Vietnam War going on, but he got sent to Bangkok, Thailand, and I went over there.

Kennelly: Did you say Thailand?

Blackwell: Yes. I lived there for 15 months, and then I came back to Tidewater, Virginia, which is where I am now. And I worked for the Virginia Employment Commission down there. I worked in claims, when I was in South Boston, unemployment insurance. And when I went to Norfolk, I worked as a teacher of adults who were welfare recipients. I taught them how to get a job, how to keep a job, how to prepare for the interview, things like that. I did that for about six months, and they needed someone to work in claims, so I went back to working in unemployment claims. And also, sometimes in interviewing people for jobs and to send them on jobs and to work with some of the students in vocational education, all with the Virginia Employment Commission. And then when my first daughter, just before she was born, I retired, sort of, and I haven't gainfully worked since that time, but I've been very involved with the school system in Portsmouth, in PTA and several of their committees and conferences and things like that.

At the school now, for the past six years I've been a director of a volunteer program which is a community and parents program for the high school that my daughter attends. We try to get the community and the parents more involved in the schools. We try to just let them see what's going on and hopefully rid some of the discipline problems, encourage some of the students to do better because a lot of the parents feel that once the students get in high school they don't have to support them as much as they did when they were in elementary school. So I've been in charge with getting volunteers for different areas of the school, and several people who have retired, to get them back involved in the school, and just anybody who come in and just give some their time to helping out in the school.

Kennelly: Is that a mixed school?

Blackwell: Yes.

Kennelly: In Portsmouth, you're living in a regular urban...

Blackwell: Yes.

Kennelly: Right in the middle of the city?

Blackwell: No, no. I live in the suburbs.

Kennelly: And is it like a mixed area?

Blackwell: Yes.

Kennelly: How many kids do you have? Children?

Blackwell: Two.

Kennelly: Both girls?

Blackwell: Yes.

Kennelly: And so one is...

Blackwell: Here and one is in the eleventh grade.

Kennelly: And their names?

Blackwell: The one's here is named Lori, and the one in high school is Stacy.

Kennelly: Did you get married very soon after you graduated then?

Blackwell: Actually, like I told you, I finished all my credits that summer in Germany. I think I got about either 9 or 12 credits from that experience there. I don't remember how many it was, but I finished all the requirements for my degree that summer.

Kennelly: And this was the summer after your third year of school?

Blackwell: Yes.

Kennelly: That's unusual to go through that fast, isn't it?

Well, I went to summer school the first year. I was sort of in a hurry to finish, so I went to summer school my first year, and then I took extra classes. I guess you would call it an overload of classes so that I could finish. Because I had planned to go into occupational therapy, and I figured I would be going on after that. But after that year in Germany, in September when we came back, my husband now proposed to me, so we decided to get married. We got married in December, but he still hadn't finished college, even though he got here before I did. So we lived in Blacksburg until June, and then we both marched and got our diplomas in June.

Kennelly: So that September to June after Germany you were...

Blackwell: I was here.

Kennelly: But not in school?

Blackwell: No.

Kennelly: You were through?

Blackwell: Yes.

Kennelly: So what did you do then?

Blackwell: I looked for a job. Everytime I would go out and I would look for a job, everyone would tell me they knew that I had finished, and they knew that I would probably be leaving soon, so I had difficulties finding a job. But I went to the Virginia Employment Commission in Radford. And just so happened that one day when I was over there, there was the head of the department from Dublin, Virginia, who happened to be in there, and he knew the supervisor for the South Boston, Virginia--Halifax County division down in South Boston. And when my husband got drafted into the military, we knew that on a certain date he had to go. He called down there and got an interview for me down there because he had heard that they needed an employment and claims interviewer. And that's how I got to South Boston, and my husband went into the military, and I moved to South Boston. I rented a room from a lady down there, and I worked down there for almost two years. My husband went to Bangkok; he was there almost a year before I went to Bangkok. Then I went over there for 15 months. And then when he got out, he sent his resume out to several companies. One of them was General Electric Company, and they had a television division in Portsmouth, actually Suffolk. Portsmouth and Suffolk are right there on the same line. That's how we got down there in Tidewater, Virginia area.

Kennelly: What is your husband doing now?

Blackwell: He is working for Newport News Shipbuilding now. He's not working for GE, but he's still a mechanical engineer there.

Kennelly: For the Newport News Shipbuilding?

Blackwell: Yes.

Kennelly: Are there any racial problems in the schools that your children are in now?

Blackwell: Not overt racial problems, but I think some still exist. The students, from what my daughter tells me, the students still congregate in groups. They still separate themselves within the school.

Kennelly: In both of the schools?

Blackwell: Which school are you referring to?

Kennelly: I guess your daughter's in high school?

Blackwell: Yes, Stacy.

Kennelly: And that's the same school that your other daughter just came out of?

Blackwell: Yes.

Kennelly: Has your daughter spoken much about that here at Tech now?

Blackwell: No, she hasn't mention any type of that problem. In fact, most of her friends here are white.

Kennelly: So did you have any special advice for her when she came here?

Well she sort of grew up hearing Virginia Tech from the time she was born.

Kennelly: From both of you?

Blackwell: Yes.

Kennelly: Because you were so positive. Is that why?

Blackwell: Yes, I guess, and she always, from the time she was little, she would tell everyone that she was coming here. Her senior year, she did apply to three other colleges, and she got accepted to all the other three. But in the end she decided to come here, and I think in the back of her mind, she probably knew she was coming here all along. When she was growing up, in the summer when we were on vacation, we would come up here and visit sometimes. So that she had seen the campus before she came up here. She didn't always know she wanted to major in engineering, but she always said--she would tell her friends that she would probably end up at Virginia Tech.

Kennelly: Is that an unusual field for girls to be in, mechanical engineering?

Blackwell: Well, in the past it was, but more and more people are getting into engineering now.

Kennelly: So, when you came up to visit, was it to see the place, or just to see friends that were in the area or the combination?

Blackwell: Well, we always came to tour the school. Basically what we did, we knew where everything was, and we just drove around and said this is this, and this is this. But at the time the Briscos and the Snells, both of them had since died. Mrs. Snell...

Kennelly: She died?

Blackwell: Yes, and Mr. and Mrs. Brisco also, but both of my daughters remember Mr. Brisco because we would come and visit him and his wife before she died. But his wife died earlier than he did, so they don't remember her as well. He lived within walking distance from the campus, and he was a model train buff. And he always had trains in his basement and everything, and they remember that from when they were growing up.

Kennelly: Were there any things that, looking back, you think could be needed to be improved from how things were when you were here then?

Blackwell: Well I can't really think of anything because when I was here, I didn't give it that much thought. And I've kept up with Virginia Tech pretty much over the years, and I've seen the progress they've made in all areas. So I can't really offer any advice in that area.

Kennelly: There's alot of talk about affirmative action policies now. Do you have any opinions on that?

Blackwell: No.

Kennelly: Are there other things that you'd like to bring up that I haven't asked you about or anything that stands out?

Blackwell: I think you've pretty much covered everything.

Kennelly: Would you answer that question again that I just asked you about the names? I was just wondering about the black or African American.

Blackwell: Well as I was saying, I don't mind whichever term you used because I would think we were all Americans, and too much emphasis is placed on whether you're a black American, a white American, an Asian American or whatever type of American. We're all Americans, and as I was saying, like Shakespeare said: "A rose by any other name smells just as sweet...," or something like that. It doesn't really matter. I just think with everything that's going on in the United States now, if we want this country to stay great and to survive in this world, that we have to all start pulling together instead of being more divided.

End of Interview

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