Historical Marker unveiled at Central Library for crucial desegregation case

A crowd assembled yesterday afternoon at the intersection of East Market Street and 3rd Street NW in downtown Charlottesville to watch the unveiling of a historic marker to commemorate an important moment in the desegregation of education in Virginia. In 1950, Gregory Swanson applied to attend the University of Virginia School of Law, but he was denied a space because he was Black. He sued in federal court citing 14th Amendment rights to equal protection, and a three-panel judge heard arguments on September 5 that year. 

David Plunkett is the director of the Jefferson Madison Regional Library, and he noted the historic nature of the building that is the library system’s headquarters.

“This building is formerly a federal building and home to the courtroom where Gregory Swanson won his legal petition for entry into the University of Virginia law school,” Plunkett said.     

Plunkett said Swanson’s case was part of the NAACP’s legal strategy to challenge the system of desegregation. 

“While the law school had admitted Mr. Swanson on his merit, with the support of staff including Mortimer Caplin, the Board of University Board of Visitors subsequently denied his admittance based on his skin color,” Plunkett said. “The case tried here overturned that ruling and helped lead to the desegregation of higher education in the South.”

One of the speakers at the event was M. Rick Turner of the Albemarle-Charlottesville NAACP

Risa Goluboff is the current Dean of the UVA Law School, and she said the marker celebrates Swanson’s bravery and persistence. 

“He did all this for a belief, for a legal and constitutional principle, for his own growth as a lawyer and a person, for his race, and for the nation as a whole,” Goluboff said. 

Swanson was represented by the law firm of Hill, Martin, & Robinson, with future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall serving as his legal counsel. 

Goluboff said the denial back in 1950 must be remembered, as well as the University’s condoning of slavery and the continuance of Jim Crow era laws. She said Swanson’s case should be celebrated.

“And when he succeeded, he became the first Black student not only at the University of Virginia Law School, not only at the University of Virginia writ large, but at any state in the former Confederacy,” Goluboff said. “Telling his story both forces and enables us to remember those aspects of our history of exclusion and segregation that we must know in order to repudiate them.” 

Also on hand at the ceremony was M. Rick Turner, a former president of the Albemarle-Charlottesville NAACP. He said Black students at UVA have always challenged the status quo of an institution founded to perpetuate racial and class inequalities. 

“It is worth remembering that the [admittance] of Black students at UVA years ago was not a benevolent gesture on the part of the UVA administrators and state officials, but rather the presence of Gregory Swanson paved the way,” Turner said. 

Turner also noted that Swanson withdrew from the University following pressure from students who did not welcome his presence.

To hear the event in full, visit the Charlottesville Podcasting Network where the full audio is posted and is available.

Gregory Swanson’s daughter Camille Swanson unveils the historic marker on May 19, 2022 (Credit: Sean Tubbs)

Before you go: The time to write and research of this article is covered by paid subscribers to Charlottesville Community Engagement. In fact, this particular installment comes from the May 20, 2022 edition of the program. To ensure this research can be sustained, please consider becoming a paid subscriber or contributing monthly through Patreon.

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