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At Washington and Lee, Black alumni mark milestone of ball ‘to celebrate our existence’

Change has come slowly to this southern university with a long history even as leaders push for diversity

Members of the Student Association for Black Unity at Washington and Lee University in 1975. (Courtesy of Patrick Hinely)
9 min

On his way to Washington and Lee University for his freshman year in 1970, Robert Ford and his father stopped on the way in rural Virginia to get gas. “It was like a movie,” he said. The conversation froze, and the room filled with White people turned to stare at his Black family.

Back then his mother carried a metal picnic basket when they traveled in the South, to avoid segregated restaurants and hostility. And he was starting school as one of the few Black students at a university where Confederate flags were abundant, Gen. Robert E. Lee was buried on campus, and the school was about to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his death. “We opened that campus to a lot of different thought,” Ford recalled of students who helped integrate the school.

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On Saturday, he and some of the earliest Black graduates of Washington and Lee plan to celebrate the 50th anniversary of a tradition they launched: the Black Ball. The formal event created in the early 1970s brought together Black students and their dates from Virginia women’s colleges at a time when they did not always feel welcome on campus, a place that has been both defined and divided by its history. The ball was hosted by the nascent Student Association for Black Unity, a group formed after racist incidents at Washington and Lee that turned into a lifelong brotherhood for its founders.

Now, months after university leaders declined to change the school’s name despite calls to do so from students and some alumni, scores of Black graduates are reuniting and reflecting on how their alma mater has evolved. Those conversations are happening at a time when colleges and institutions across the country are facing a racial reckoning, as well as pushback from those who want to hold fast to the traditions of the past.

In some ways, the differences are stark: The private university is no longer all male. Confederate flags are no longer welcome. School leaders actively recruit students and faculty of color. And members of the Student Association for Black Unity no longer carry guns in their jackets for protection, as a student researcher said some early members of the group did because of overt hostility on campus and in town.

But the past endures in other ways. The school’s honor system and rigorous academics are still a defining part of the experience. The white columns and brick walkways still create a picture-perfect setting in the Virginia mountains. And Lexington is still a small town with the gravesites of two of the Confederacy’s most storied generals, Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

“Change here is a process that usually happens rather slowly,” said Lynn Rainville, director of institutional history and museums at Washington and Lee. The group of men who founded the Student Association for Black Unity in the early 1970s were the first real cohort of Black students, more than the one or two enrolled in the several years prior. Women weren’t admitted until the 1980s.

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Rainville’s job was created in recent years to more fully confront the institution’s long history, from its sale of enslaved people to the men who helped integrate the school. In the school’s 270-plus-year history, it has changed names multiple times. The first known Black man to graduate from an American university, John Chavis, earned his degree from the academy that became Washington and Lee in the 1790s.

During the difficult process of integration, she said, “There are some crazy things that happened here.” Some Black men never considered Washington and Lee. Some left. But those who graduated in those early years created lifelong bonds not only to one another, but, over time, to the school as well.

“It slowly affects your DNA,” said William Hill, an attorney and former deputy attorney general in Georgia. Hill, who graduated from both the college and the law school, served as a university trustee and was a founding member of the Student Association for Black Unity, chose the school against his father’s strongly-worded opinion, because it made him uncomfortable. That learned ability to confront challenges has long been an asset to him, he said. “Washington and Lee was very good for me.”

Efforts to increase diversity

William Dudley became president of Washington and Lee in 2017, just months before white supremacist marches and violence shook nearby Charlottesville and gave greater urgency to the debates many institutions were having about history and identity. In his five years at the school, he and other university leaders have made increasing diversity of students and faculty a priority, he said, including by increasing the student financial aid budget by 40 percent so students can attend without loans and working toward a goal of funding fully need-blind admissions. His message to applicants with need: “We can and will make it affordable.”

The current first-year class is the most diverse in the university’s history, according to university officials, who said 23 percent of undergraduates who are U.S. citizens are students of color, and 7 percent are Black. Provost Lena Hill, one of several Black administrators promoted and hired under Dudley, described efforts to recruit and retain a diverse faculty, including a new center on southern race relations, culture and politics named in honor of a pioneering Black faculty member.

In the past five years more than half of the tenure-track faculty hired have been people of color, and 22 percent are Black, according to university officials. For some alumni, students, and others, recent shifts such as renaming Lee Chapel and other buildings on campus endanger the school’s identity and its defining principles. Other universities have seen similar groups form to hold fast to campus traditions and decry what are seen as efforts to rewrite history. But for some students, the changes feel glacial.

“It’s a huge culture shock. I don’t think there’s anything that can really prepare you for it,” said Amber Morrison, a junior who is president of the Student Association for Black Unity. She is Black and Puerto Rican and said she is grateful for her education and the resources provided to groups like hers, but said the campus culture is abrasive and difficult for minorities. “Not only do we have a very White campus, but an extremely wealthy campus,” she said.

Winter Ashley, a multiracial 17-year-old first-year student from Arizona, said, “It’s difficult to navigate this university when it was so clearly made for one type of person. The racist and patriarchal structures this school was founded upon still exist. They haven’t changed them.”

Forming a safe community

Robert Ford came from Baltimore and enrolled with the “first fifteen,” as the Black men in the class of 1974 came to be known, although there had been a few other Black students who preceded them. “We were essentially the group that was breaking the color line there,” he said.

Some of them had never been in class with White students, Hill said. Some professors had never taught Black students before. He bought a trigonometry textbook and tried to catch up at nights to understand calculus lectures during the day. There was no soul music on the jukebox. “It was an absolute culture shock,” he said.

There were some violent incidents with students and with people from the surrounding community, Ford said. One student had bleach poured under the door of his dorm and the room vandalized. Other threats followed after Black students voiced objections to the song “Dixie” being played at basketball game, with those and other incidents leading them to create the Student Association for Black Unity.

The school’s president was supportive, and “Dixie” was banned at campus events, Ford and other early members said. “They were quick on some things, slow on other things,” Ford said. The group hosted a Black culture week in 1972 that included a symposium, speeches by scholars and leaders, performances by a choir, and ended with a formal.

“We decided we’re going to have a Black Ball to celebrate our existence here at Washington and Lee,” said John X. Miller, a member who earned two degrees there. They invited not only dates from other colleges, but staff members and people in Lexington, where they had ties through church, tutoring programs for local children, and other means. “It was a celebration for Black folk in general,” Ford said. “I’m sure they weren’t going to the Fancy Dress balls at the school,” a tradition since the early 1900s. “But the Black Ball was welcoming to them.”

In the 1980s, some of the Student Association for Black Unity founders were upset when the name was changed to include other minority groups, which they felt diluted the mission of the organization and marginalized Black students. After that, Ford severed tied to Washington and Lee for years until an old friend persuaded him that students needed support.

The group was reformed about a decade ago and the Black Ball began anew. This year’s event is set for Saturday evening. Dudley got a tuxedo for the event. Ford, who is 69, was looking forward to this weekend. “I will put on my knee brace,” he said, laughing. “It gives me an opportunity to go down the Soul Train Line and show these young people these old fogies can dance, too.”

Even as they reflect on how the school has changed since they were students, alumni like Ford also say the work is not over. “There needed to be, and still needs to be, some important institutional changes within the university,” he said. “They’re working on that. They got a start back in the ’70s. And I think more and more they have been realizing, some things need to change, some things don’t. I guess they’re trying to figure that out in the United States of America as a whole.”