This is the first report in an occasional series looking at the impact and lasting legacy of the 50-year-old Brown v. Board of Education integration ruling.
West Virginia University stood to gain a cool $25,000 in federal money. On one condition, Congress coaxed.
Let blacks enroll at WVU.
The year was 1890. West Virginia had been a state for only 27 years, and its slaves hadn’t been free for even that long: For the first two years of statehood, West Virginia whites were still allowed to enslave black people under age 21.
The state constitution made another thing clear: “White and colored persons shall not be taught in the same school.”
So when Congress dangled cash — half a million in today’s dollars — in front of the young state’s flagship university, West Virginia might have forfeited the money.
But Congress finally compromised. It offered West Virginia’s lawmakers — and the 16 other former slave states and territories that balked at allowing blacks to go to college — a solution more appealing than sending their sons and daughters to college with black children they could have bought and sold just 25 years before.
WVU could have its money ... if West Virginia built a separate college, just for blacks.
West Virginia State College was born.
So white, so fast
Sixty-four years later, a funny thing happened at West Virginia State College.
Whites started enrolling at the black college. In droves.
It was 1954, and the U.S. Supreme Court had just decided in Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., that the former slave states — including West Virginia — were simply going to have to teach blacks and whites in the same schools.
Ironically, “State” would have welcomed the white students before Brown. Although West Virginia’s white public colleges were forbidden to blacks, “Some kids who weren’t doing well at West Virginia University and Marshall were brought in to State on the quiet” before integration, recalled the late William Wallace, president at WVSC during integration, during a 1990 Charleston Gazette interview.
A few blacks already had trickled into West Virginia’s white public colleges, too. By the 1940s, blacks were attending grad school at WVU (the all-black colleges didn’t offer master’s degrees). In 1950, the white West Virginia school board decided to let blacks take undergraduate courses at the white public colleges, too — if those courses weren’t offered at the “Negro colleges.”
Little did WVSC know how eager Kanawha County whites would be to enroll in a “Negro college.”
Three weeks after Brown, the state school board ordered its colleges to integrate. Immediately, without any recruitment, 399 white students registered for the fall term at State.
Within three months of Brown, one in three WVSC students was white.
Why did WVSC become so white, so fast?
s The “white” colleges in the Kanawha Valley were inconvenient. There was a private college in Charleston, but it was expensive, and the less expensive West Virginia Tech was miles away.
s WVSC had lost more than half its enrollment over the previous five years. Blacks were leaving West Virginia as the coal mines mechanized and laid them off, and they couldn’t get hired in the fledgling chemical industry. Meanwhile, fewer blacks were fleeing the Deep South for more northerly colleges like State, as the Southern states started funding their black colleges better.
s WVSC was an exceptionally good school. State attributed this to its stellar faculty; WVSC could hire the finest black educators in each field, simply because white schools wouldn’t.
But white state schools Superintendent W.W. Trent credited racial politics with much of State’s success. “With both political parties maneuvering for the Negro vote,” WVSC got government money that white schools couldn’t, Trent wrote in his 1960 retrospective on desegregation.
Not always. In 1930, a coalition of prominent blacks wrote to the Legislature, pleading for money to replace the WVSC physical education building that had burned seven years before.
“The West Virginia State College is to the Negro people of West Virginia just what West Virginia University is to the white people,” they wrote.
It was nine more years before WVSC got a new phys ed building.
At any rate, by 1954, West Virginia’s politicians were ready to desegregate the colleges. In fact, they did one thing none of the other former slave states did: They took away the special money the federal government had been giving them since 1890 for West Virginia State College, and they gave it to WVU. Blacks could now attend WVU, so why not pump all the money into the flagship university?
Two decades later, West Virginia would be punished for desegregating so completely.
‘The little undercurrents,
the suspicions ...’
In the 1960s, with race hate detonating across the nation, WVSC was held up as a marvel of “integration in reverse.” The New York Times, CBS, the U.S. Information Agency and many more examined the little school at Institute.
There were no riots, no protests. At first, the board of trustees didn’t want to hire any white faculty, but President Wallace quashed that attitude. In the classrooms, white students huddled together in enclaves, so Wallace told professors to assign seats that would mix the races.
“Old customs are hard to erase,” Wallace said patiently in a 1963 Gazette interview. “Negroes will associate with Negroes and whites will associate with whites, and we have expected this while we work our way out of this custom.”
At the beginning of the decade, WVSC was still mostly black. The 1960 college yearbook features black men with curls cropped close, black women with straightened hair and button earrings, and just a few white faces sprinkled here and there — whites dancing with whites at the prom, wide-smiling white women in poofy strapless dresses amongst the dark-skinned campus beauty queens.
By 1965, whites outnumbered blacks at WVSC four-to-one.
With the Civil Rights Movement in full swing, black WVSC students were staging sit-ins at the segregated Diamond department store lunch counter and demonstrating to have a campus building named for Malcolm X. But racial tensions on campus remained relatively minor.
A white woman won a campus beauty title that had always gone to a black woman, and some black students objected.
White students often spent their first three years at convenient, inexpensive State, then transferred to the nearby private college for their senior year so they wouldn’t have a “black school” on their diploma.
In 1966, a reporter from Jamaica came to WVSC in a program arranged by the U.S. State Department.
“True — white and Negro students share dormitories,” she reported. “There is even a tiny bit of interracial dating.
“But: with all this there are the little undercurrents, the suspicions as to who is sincere ...”
State’s first white administrator, Edwin Hoffman, remembered a seemingly innocuous incident in a 1998 article in the Monthly Review:
“Then there was the evening when my wife and I, strolling on campus, were saucily greeted by a trio of black dormitory students: ‘Good evening, Dean Hoffman. Good evening, Miss Ann’ — a hardly subtle reminder that any white administrator and his spouse could be regarded as akin to the master and mistress of a plantation.”
If West Virginia’s politicians had been just a smidgen more racist in 1954, WVSC might have gotten rich.
While West Virginians saw Brown as their cue to quit maintaining separate black colleges, their neighbors to the south and east did not.
Rather than give up the black “land-grant” colleges they’d been forced to open in 1890, those states just kept them. Blacks and whites were technically allowed to enroll at each others’ colleges, but in reality, it didn’t happen much. And the states didn’t put much “land-grant” money into the old black colleges, either.
In the 1970s, the federal government decided to give those black land-grant colleges some extra money — quite a bit of extra money — to make up for the financial mistreatment they’d suffered.
But not West Virginia State College. Because West Virginia had relinquished WVSC’s land-grant status, it didn’t qualify.
“That’s when West Virginia started losing out for integrating,” said R. Charles Byers, State’s vice president for planning and advancement.
On a recent weekday, Byers was in his office gathering information about how long ago those other colleges — with all their millions that passed WVSC by — became universities. He planned to show his report to the Legislature, to bolster WVSC’s three-year argument that it should be allowed to call itself a university, too.
On the last day of the legislative session, a bill to that effect did pass, but not without a few powerful lawmakers throwing up roadblocks along the way.
“A lot of people are against things they know are right,” Byers said. “What’s right always prevails.”
WVSC has battled since the late 1980s to regain some of the prestige and wealth it lost because of desegregation. An act of Congress finally restored its land-grant status.
But WVU still gets nine times as much land-grant money as its historically black land-grant cousin.
“The people in political power are in their 60s and 70s. They went to segregated schools,” said Byers, 57, who himself attended a segregated elementary school in Dunbar. “They still think of West Virginia State as a black school. Some legislators actually still think West Virginia State is an all-black school.”
Some blacks, and whites, wonder if WVSC really did integrate. With 85 percent of the student body now white, they wonder if the school’s rich black heritage was simply absorbed and killed by whites. Over the years, some alumni have bemoaned the loss of State’s “gracious tradition,” the tight-knit family of blacks — and a few whites — who forged an intellectual and social haven in a hostile time.
“True enough, you don’t want to forget your heritage,” Byers said. “West Virginia State College has been through a lot of struggles.”
But today, there’s a new heritage. It includes the mother whose infant squalled from an open dorm window one evening last week, across the grassy quad where a young black man paused as dusk fell, to gaze momentarily upon the plaques honoring the black men who have led his college.
It includes many, many Kanawha countians who are the first in their families to go to college.
“A role model — that’s what West Virginia State offers a lot of people,” Byers said. “The first-generation students can come here and see so many others who are like them — black and white. They can look at them and say, ‘I can do that also.’”
To contact staff writer Tara Tuckwiller, use e-mail or call 348-5189.