LEXINGTON, Va. -- Theodore DeLaney walked to the front of the chapel where Civil War Gen. Robert E. Lee is buried, past the narrow white pews filled with the Washington and Lee University faculty.
He was a bundle of nerves. He was about to deliver the Founders' Day address honoring an 18th-century alumnus rarely mentioned in the days of the Old South: John Chavis, perhaps the first black man to graduate from an American college.
Washington and Lee University's Theodore DeLaney, right, looks at a 1965 photo of a high school band with junior Peter Jones. DeLaney will lead the African American studies program.
(Stephanie Gross For The Washington Post)
DeLaney got to the podium on unsteady legs, and before he had said a word, the faculty members stood and applauded. It was a moment in which DeLaney, overwhelmed, could see just how far he had come: from his childhood in the racially split college town in the 1950s to his early days at Washington and Lee working as a janitor and technician to a scholar at the liberal-arts college getting a standing ovation from his colleagues.
"I never dreamed I'd be in that spot," he said recently.
In the fall, the history professor will head the new African American studies program at Washington and Lee. It has been a long time coming -- some universities have had similar programs 30 years or more. But change came slowly to this place saturated in the history and traditions of the South. DeLaney is leading students on a research project about school desegregation in western Virginia, interviewing people who lived through the changes, listening to their stories about race and education and opportunity.
He knows this history: It's intertwined with his own.
DeLaney grew up in Lexington, close enough to Washington and Lee to fall asleep listening to the music from fraternity parties drifting through the warm night air. He dreamed of going to college there, but back then, the small Shenandoah Valley town was divided. Washington and Lee and the Virginia Military Institute, the two universities on the hill, were places where white southern gentlemen studied, and where African Americans worked -- as cooks, as maids and as gardeners.
DeLaney went to a school with black children and black teachers, and if he went to the movies, he sat in the balcony. If he bought a soda, he had to drink it outside the shop. "In Virginia, genteel as it was . . . there were people fighting like hell to keep it segregated," he said.
In 1961, when he graduated from high school, few African Americans had college degrees. DeLaney was offered a United Negro College Fund scholarship to Morehouse College, but his mother, a divorced barber with five children, worried about money and the early violence of the civil rights movement. She forbade him to go to Atlanta, so he resigned himself to staying in Lexington to help support the family.
For months, no one would hire him.
Finally, he got part-time work tending gardens for well-to-do white families. He considered the priesthood. Then he went to work at Washington and Lee as a janitor.
The professors in the biology department he cleaned soon saw how quickly he learned. After a year they asked him to be a lab technician.
Meanwhile change was coming -- slowly -- to Virginia schools. Years after the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, DeLaney's younger brother and sisters went to integrated schools. And in the mid-1960s, black students came to Washington and Lee.
DeLaney had gotten married, and his wife kept encouraging him to take classes. So did the professors with whom he worked. "He had this desire to learn," said Tom Nye, a retired biology professor.