Virginia Lt. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, who as a young man could not attend the University of Virginia because of his race, today addressed the university's 180th commencement, saying that "changes have come" not only to the once all-white, male institution, but to society in general.
Wilder, the first black to be elected to statewide office in Virginia, told the 3,600 graduates that except for imparities of health, "not one of you has come into this world with any real advantage" or disadvantage. "I'm not suggesting that this is a perfect world, but . . . opportunities do exist.
"We've seen blacks rise, from what was a real permanent underclass, to compete at every level if given the opportunity to do so, and to prove wrong those who felt that they were humanly unable to perform at those levels," he said to applause from an audience of 18,000 that filled the sun-baked lawn in front of the Rotunda, the famous setting designed by the school's founder, Thomas Jefferson.
"We see women not only in the work force, but occupying positions of influence at every conceivable level of government and society," he said to more applause.
One of his running mates, Attorney General Mary Sue Terry, is the first woman to hold statewide office in Virginia.
In both instances, he said, "it didn't just come about . . . . Some people had to believe it so, and fought to bring it about."
He decried "a middle America sometimes comfortably forgetting how it came to be, and sometimes saying to you and to me that they just came about."
On a personal note, Wilder said it "warms me with a poetic and an ironic justice" that his daughter, Loren, was among those who graduated today from a school that he was "not . . . able to attend . . . during my time." His son, Larry, who graduated two years ago, will graduate from the law school here next year.
"To say that this is just another commencement address or to say that it has no effect on me, would be . . . false," Wilder said.
A few blacks attended the university in the early 1950s under court orders, but it was 1959 before a black was awarded an undergraduate degree. A year earlier a black had graduated from the law school. But by 1968, there were still only 52 full-time black students on the "grounds," as the campus is called.
A black admissions officer was hired in 1968, and the next year, black enrollment topped 1 percent for the first time, with 134 blacks making up 1.4 percent. Blacks made up 6.4 percent of this year's student body of 16,889. Women, who now account for about half the enrollment, were first accepted as beginning students in 1970.
Wilder, who has been a popular speaker around the country since his election last November, touched on national affairs.
"We all love this country," he said, "but more importantly, we love the freedom that has come from new ideas, from a constitution made by rebels, from a constitution born in strife and tempest and rebellion.
Although he had praise for radicals in his address, Wilder said in an interview afterward that he "never thought of myself as a radical," and did not consider applying to Virginia upon graduating from high school in 1947.
He attended Virginia Union University, a private school in Richmond, and Howard University Law School. He said the state of Virginia paid his tuition at Howard in lieu of providing "separate but equal" in-state opportunities for blacks.
He also said he gave no thought to rejecting the offer to speak here today. "I wouldn't have missed it for anything in the world," he said, not just because of his daughter, but, as he told the audience, because "the persons who have preceded me . . . are of such prestige and renown that this honor, while flattering, is humbling to me." Recent speakers have included Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Lady Bird Johnson, and Vice President Bush.
The university awards no honorary degrees, in keeping with Jefferson's view that it should award no degrees at all. But the school does honor a few of its students, and today's major winners were: Michael Jordan Fisch of Fairfax and Mary Sharon Dod of Roanoke, the Algernon Sydney Sullivan award, presented to the two graduates who show "high qualities of heart and mind"; Philip David Golrick of Arlington, the $250 John L. Williams Prize as "best honors student," and Joseph E. Chontos of Gaithersburg, the $500 Anne van Schaack Essay award for an essay on a subject that interested or concerned Jefferson.