Virginia's minimal resistance: the desegregation of public graduate and professional education, 1935-1955

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Virginia Tech

In a twenty year period beginning in 1935, Virginia college and state officials reacted to increasing pressure from internal and external forces of change. The movement to desegregate public higher education was a major portion of that pressure. The defenses established by the state during these years reflected the interrelation of these forces and the Democratic Machine's attempt to balance all the forces so as to retain the maximum degree of segregated education at the minimum social, fiscal and political costs. Thus the state leaders used, what I have termed "minimal resistance" to the desegregation of their graduate and professional schools rather than the "massive resistance" that followed Brown v. Board of Education.

In the 1930s and 1940s, the state did all it could to retain segregated graduate and professional schools for whites with tuition grants to out-of-state schools and the cost-effective growth at Virginia State College. When these were declared insufficient by the U.S. Supreme Court, Virginia joined with other Southern States in joint educational ventures. By 1950, the Virginia officials realized that segregated higher education was all but a lost cause. They became conciliatory to the forces of desegregation in hopes of saving segregation in primary and secondary education. From 1950 to 1955, a period I call "limited desegregation" existed. During these years, the state's white graduate and professional schools admitted a very small number of black students under the "separate but equal" doctrine. The "Machine's" ability to control press and public debate on desegregation, together with contemporary political events and the attitudes of Virginians, account for the sequence of desegregation events in the state.