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  News & Views

Alice Carlotta Jackson: She Was the First Black Applicant to the University of Virginia

by Terrell L. Strayhorn

The racial history of higher education in the state of Virginia may be characterized largely by traditional separate but equal policies and practices. These policies remained unchallenged until 1935 when Alice Carlotta Jackson, a black woman from Richmond, applied to the University of Virginia at Charlottesville.

Alice Jackson was born on June 2, 1913 to Dr. James E. Jackson and Clara Louise Kersey. Her father was a local pharmacist in the Jackson Ward district of Richmond. Alice Jackson received her education at two American Baptist home mission schools, Hartshorn Memorial College and Virginia Union University, a historically black educational institution in Richmond. Hartshorn merged with Virginia Union in 1930, to become an accredited four-year coeducational liberal arts college and theological seminary. In 1934 Alice Jackson was awarded a bachelor's degree in English from Virginia Union. She then attended Smith College (for women) in Northampton, Massachusetts, on a graduate scholarship. At Smith College, Jackson planned to earn a master's degree in French. But after one year at Smith, she found it necessary to return to Richmond as she no longer could afford the tuition.

Upon returning to Virginia, Alice Jackson applied to the University of Virginia to continue to work toward a master's degree in French. However, given the sociopolitical context of the state and the South at that time, Alice's application was denied on the basis of race and "other good and sufficient reasons," according to the September 20, 1935 issue of the Richmond-Times Dispatch. In fact, minutes of a meeting between the rector, Frederic W. Scott, and the board of visitors suggest that her application was turned down on the basis that the admission of white and colored persons to the same school was contrary to the long established and fixed policy of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Alice Jackson's application to UVA received much attention. In fact, Dr. J.M. Tinsley, president of the Richmond chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, indicated that court action would be instituted by his organization on behalf of Alice Jackson. But in the face of pending litigation, the Commonwealth offered Alice a scholarship to attend Columbia University in New York. In 1936 she continued her graduate study at Columbia and earned a master's degree in English and comparative literature. Jackson taught at a number of black colleges and universities over a 50-year teaching career. She died in 2001 at the age of 88.

Jackson's case represented a critical turning point in the battle to end racial segregation at southern universities. In short order, several other cases were filed including those involving Donald Gaines Murray's denial of admission to the University of Maryland Law School and Thomas Raymond Hocutts' rejection at the University of North Carolina. Despite the fact that these black pioneers were denied admission to the university of their choice, their cases led to the end of racial segregation in graduate education in the South. Specifically, litigation surrounding these events forced southern states to make provisions for Negroes to take graduate courses at institutions in the North where no color line was drawn.

As Alice Jackson later described in an autobiographical paper, her application was the first seed sown giving rise to the matter of equal educational opportunities in Virginia. The application led to the immediate establishment of funds for providing out-of-state scholarships for higher education for Negro college graduates. This trend would continue for another 15 years. The university would not open its doors to African Americans at the graduate level until 1950 when Gregory Swanson entered the university's law school.

Terrell L. Strayhorn is an assistant professor of educational psychology and counseling at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

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