African Americans at Washington and Lee

A Timeline

This timeline is being developed by a special working group established in August 2013 by Washington and Lee President Kenneth P. Ruscio to explore the role of African Americans in the history of the University. Direct questions or comments to the working group here.

1795

John Chavis, the first African American to receive a college education in the United States, enrolls in the winter session at Liberty Hall Academy, an earlier incarnation of Washington and Lee. Born in Granville County, N.C., to free black North Carolinians and raised near Mecklenberg, Va., Chavis had begun his studies for the ministry at age 29 at the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University).

1799

After successfully completing his studies at what had been renamed in 1798 Washington Academy, Chavis is granted a license to minister in the Presbyterian Church by the Lexington Presbytery.

Listen below to a brief biography of John Chavis by Washington and Lee history professor Ted DeLaney:



1826

Robinson obelisk"Jockey" John Robinson dies and leaves his entire estate to Washington College. An Irish immigrant who had himself been an indentured servant, Robinson had amassed a considerable fortune as a horse trader, whiskey distiller, and plantation owner. He lived on about 1,000 acres of land at Hart's Bottom, which would become the site of Buena Vista. Proceeds of the bequest, which was nearly as large as George Washington's gift of canal stock, included "all the negroes of which I may die possessed together with their increase shall be retained, for the purposes of labour, upon the above Lands (Hart's Bottom) for the space of fifty years after my decease."
[DOCUMENT: Excerpt from "Jockey" John Robinson's Will]

Accounts different slightly on the total number of enslaved men, women and children whom Robinson owned at the time of his death, but it ranged from 73 to 84.

Advertising Broadside 1826

An advertising broadside from Aug. 9, 1826, announces a public sale of Robinson's personal property, including horses, cattle, corn and three stills. The notice also advertises the slaves: "There will be hired, at the same time and place, ALL THE NEGROES, belonging to said Estate, excepting so many as may be considered necessary to work Hart's Bottom, and the old and infirm. — They will be hired either for the remainder of the present year, or until the first of Januaay [sic] 1828, as may be considered best — Terms will be made known at the sale."

A second advertisement in December 1826 announces "Negroes For Hire" for the ensuing year. It offers "Twenty Likely Negroes belonging to WASHINGTON COLEGE [sic] : consisting of Men, Women, Boys and Girls, many of them very valuable."

1827

The Washington College trustees compile "A list of negroes belonging to the Estate of John Robinson," which contains 84 names. Beside each name is the person's age, approximate value, additional details and physical characteristics, an indication of whether or not the person has been hired out by the college, and the hiring amount. This list includes six people who are listed as deceased, one as previously sold, two as having been traded, one as "owned by Chas. Barrett" and one as having been "given to his wife's master."
(DOCUMENT: A list of negroes belonging to the Estate of John Robinson)

1829

In a letter from Trustee Samuel McD. Reid to Philip Lindsey, a candidate to succeed George Addison Baxter as the college's president, Reid lists the Robinson slaves among the college's financial assets. In describing the endowment, Reid first cites the gift from George Washington of 100 shares in the James River Company and then describes "the estate of the late Mr. Robinson of Hart's Bottom consisting of valuable lands and between 70 & 80 negroes worth at a very low estimate forty thousand dollars."

Chapman Johnson, a prominent attorney from Staunton, offers his opinion that the Washington College trustees could sell the land of Hart's Bottom (now the location of Buena Vista, Virginia) that Robinson had left to the college, despite Robinson's explicit directions that it not be sold for 50 years after his death. Johnson based his opinion on the conclusion that common law "repudiated restraints on alienation." Though this opinion was for the estate itself, the college trustees believed that this reasoning extended to the enslaved people and would, therefore, allow the slaves to be sold in contradiction of Robinson's expressed wishes.

1834

The Washington College trustees prepare "A list of slaves belonging to Washington College," which includes 67 men, women and children as of July 30, 1834. This list shows that 28 of the 67 individuals had been hired out during the previous year and had resulted in a total of $952.50 in income. The ages on the list ranged from 78 years to 3 months. A value was given to each individual, although there are 10 instances in which they are designated as "charge," indicating that the college was paying for the upkeep and receiving no value.
(DOCUMENT: A list of slaves belonging to Washington College July 30 1834)

1836

On January 11, the Washington College trustees conclude "a sale of negroes to Samuel Garland" of Lynchburg, Virginia, Garland co-owned a plantation in Hinds County, Mississippi, and indicated that he planned to send the slaves there. In addition to the approximately 55 enslaved people it sold to Garland, the college also sells five other slaves to individuals in Lexington and Rockbridge County and retains six men and one woman. The total of the sale is $22,974.91. There is a commission of $459.50. The net amount received is $22,515.41.
(DOCUMENT: Statement of sale 1836)

1838

John Chavis dies in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he had established the John Chavis School. He had taught free blacks in the evenings and whites during the days. Among his students were children from prominent white North Carolina families, including a future U.S. senator from North Carolina, Willie P. Mangum.

1852

The college sells its two remaining slaves — one to Dr. Archibald Graham, a Lexington physician, and one to William White, the college proctor. 

[DOCUMENT (PDF): Download the 2007 senior thesis by Emma Burris-Janssen, who traces the history of the Robinson slaves.]

1923

A major controversy erupts when Washington and Lee's football team leaves the field in Washington, Pennsylvania, rather than compete against Washington and Jefferson College, which has an African-American player named Pruner West on its roster. Washington and Jefferson's coach is John Heisman, for whom the Heisman Trophy is named. Heisman refuses to agree to what was a standard request by southern teams of the era, and the Generals forfeit the game, 1-0. Eight years earlier, a similar issue had arisen in a game at Rutgers. In that case, Rutgers acceded to W&L's demands and kept the player out of the game. The player in question was singer and actor Paul Robeson.

Ring-tum Phi Headline

1942

African-American cadets are among the 1,200 participants in the U.S. Army's School for Special Services that relocates to Washington and Lee's campus from Fort Meade, Maryland.

Army School for Special Services

1961

The University Christian Association wants to invite Martin Luther King Jr. to speak at W&L. The Board of Trustees rejects a faculty committee's request to allow King to appear.

1963

Ralph Ellison, the African-American writer and author of "Invisible Man," speaks in Lee Chapel on Nov. 15, telling the audience that the American novelist must have "the courage to tell the truth, whatever the truth might be, passionately and eloquently." Ellison was the first African American to speak in Lee Chapel.

Phi Headline on Ellison

1964

The Board of Trustees approves a statement on University admissions, which includes the following language: "No provision of the charter, no provision of the by-laws and no resolution of the Board has established a policy of discrimination among qualified applicants for admission."

1966

Dennis Haston becomes the first African-American student to matriculate as an undergraduate; the same year, Leslie Smith enters the School of Law. Haston transfers after his first year.

1968

Walter Blake and Carl Linwood Smothers enter W&L as freshmen and eventually become the first African Americans to receive bachelor's degrees from the University.

Marjorie Poindexter joins the University staff as secretary to James Whitehead, secretary to the Board of Trustees. During her 15 years at W&L, Poindexter served as an unofficial and informal counselor to W&L students, especially minority students. When she died in November 1983 at the age of 50, a special fund was created in her name to provide financial assistance to needy students in times of "unusual economic emergency or extraordinary want."

1969

Leslie Smith receives the juris doctor degree from the School of Law.

Leslie Smith receives law degree.

1971

The Student Association for Black Unity (SABU) is formed.

Leslie Smith '69L, the first African American to graduate from the School of Law, is murdered in Washington, D.C. His brother, Bobby R. Smith '74, writes a tribute to him in the 1972 Calyx.

1973

Latrelle Rainey is appointed assistant dean of students to work with minority students. He is minister of the First Baptist Church and also a lecturer in the Sociology Department.

1974

Elliott Hicks, of the Class of 1978, is the first African-American student on the Executive Committee of the Student Body when he is elected as the freshman representative.

1977

Reginald Yancey joins the faculty as an instructor in accounting, becoming the first African American on the University faculty.

SABU students stage a sit-in at the president's office to express the group's discontent over the conviction of an African-American student on an honor violation, over the lack of African-American faculty and over their dissatisfaction with the recruitment of African-American students.

Newspaper Headline on SABU Protest

1985

Six African-American women are in the first coeducational undergraduate class, which enters in September: Robin Bean Mireless, Daphen Blyden, Stephanie Coleman, Jessica Reynolds Pasley, Camille Travis and Roslayn Thompson-Blackwell.

1986

The University dedicates the John Chavis House as a cultural center and residence for minority students.

Chavis House Dedication Ceremony

1988

The Minority Student Association boycotts Fancy Dress because of the year's theme, "Reconciliation Ball of 1865."

1990

Willard Dumas, a member of the Class of 1991, becomes the first African-American student to serve as president of the Executive Committee of the Student Body.

Willard Dumas

1991

A joint chapter of the historically black fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, is established with James Madison University. A chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha had been on the campus as early as the 1970s but lost its charter in the 1980s.

1995

Tony Perry, of the Class of 1977, is the first African American elected to the W&L Athletic Hall of Fame. Perry was a football All-American and one of the top high jumpers in school history.

Tony Harris Hall of Fame Plaque

1998

William B. Hill Jr. of Atlanta, a member of the Class of 1974 and the School of Law Class of 1977, is the first African American elected to the University's Board of Trustees. He takes the oath in February 1999. (See also 2009.)

2002

In February, Washington and Lee hosts a symposium on Ralph Ellison, which featured Charles Johnson, the National Book Award novelist and philosopher, and John F. Callahan, Ralph Ellison's literary executor.

At its meeting on May 18, 2002, the University's Board of Trustees adopts a "Statement of Commitment to Diversity," which calls for the "recruitment and retention of a broad, inclusive student body, faculty and administration who represent a wide range of interests, abilities and cultures — a diverse array of talent." The statement was adopted in May 2001 by the Committee for a More Inclusive Community, which was composed of faculty, staff, students and trustees and began meeting in 1999 under the chairmanship of Trustee Thomas Shepherd. The Faculty Committee on Inclusiveness endorsed the statement in March 2002.
[DOCUMENT (PDF): "Statement of Commitment to Diversity"]

2005

W&L establishes an African-American Studies Program with the goal of developing "students' knowledge of the history, art, political and religious life, economic realities, and culture of the people of African descent in America."

2006

Kente Ceremony 2006Marilyn Baker, of the Class of 1995, becomes the first African-American woman elected to the W&L Athletics Hall of Fame. She was W&L's first women's tennis All-American and was named the Intercollegiate Tennis Association National Player of the Year during her senior season, when she teamed with Natalia Garcia '97 to win the NCAA Division III doubles championship.

For the first time, African-American graduates are honored in the Donning of the Kente Ceremony on the night before Commencement. A member of the Class of 2006, Kristin Evans Burke, initiates the ceremony and is aided in its development by Tamara Futrell, associate dean of students. Each participating graduate asks a family member, friend or other significant individual to take part in the celebration. During the ceremony, a member of the University community presents a kente stole to this designated person, who then bestows the stole upon the graduate. The tradition acknowledges the significance of family, friends and the University community to the graduate.

2007

Emma Burris-Janssen, of the Class of 2007, writes her senior honors thesis in history on the history of the "Jockey" John Robinson slaves at Washington College. Her thesis is titled "An Inheritance of Slavery: The Tale of 'Jockey' John Robinson, His Slaves, and Washington College."
[DOCUMENT (PDF): Download Burris-Janssen's honors thesis.]

2009

In October, African-American alumni participate in a special reunion, "Return. Reconnect. Renew," featuring a keynote address by William B. Hill Jr., of the Class of 1974 and the School of Law Class of 1977. Listen to his comments below.

2011

Three of the University's choral groups — the University Singers, the Men's Glee Club and Cantatrici — combine for the premiere of the MLK Remembrance Concert at Lexington's First Baptist Church. Created by Shane Lynch, assistant professor of music and director of choral activities, the concert blends performances by the choral groups with a reading of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream Speech." The performance is one of the central elements of the W&L's annual Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Celebration.

The Tau Zeta chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., is colonized on campus on March 20. Founded in 1908, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., is the nation's oldest historically black sorority.

The historically black sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha installs its first members on campus in March. 

2012

Almost 50 years after Ralph Ellison's historic 1963 visit to Lee Chapel, the University hosts a major symposium about the author on the 60th anniversary of publication of "The Invisible Man." The symposium, "The New Territory: Ralph Ellison and the Twenty First Century," draws Ellison scholars from around the world.

2013

Africana Studies replaces African-American Studies and becomes the newest minor at W&L. Africana Studies is an interdisciplinary minor that examines the culture and experiences of African people and those who make up the African Diaspora throughout the world. Relevant courses come from a variety of disciplines including literature, history, sociology, economics, politics, art and music.

See the bibliography of material from which this Timeline has been drawn.