[On February 5, 2018, the University of Virginia School of Law commemorated Gregory Hayes Swanson, who attended UVA Law in the graduate L.L.M. program and was the first black student to enroll at UVA after winning his lawsuit to desegregate the University in 1950. Read more about the Swanson commemoration here.]
In a 1958 interview, Gregory Swanson appealed to the readers of the Washington Post: “What Negroes want most is to feel that they belong in the mainstream of American life.” Swanson knew firsthand the challenges that African Americans faced. Nine years prior, in the fall of 1949, Swanson initiated an application to the School of Law at the University of Virginia. Already a practicing lawyer, Swanson wanted to earn a graduate degree in law—an L.L.M. “My primary reason stems from the desire to teach law,” Swanson wrote to the law school’s Committee on Admissions. By the time of his application, Swanson had graduated from Howard University with an L.L.B. (now J.D.), returned to his home state of Virginia, and passed the bar. After several years of clerking and practicing law at firms in Richmond, Danville, and Martinsville, he decided teaching would be his next career move.
Swanson sent off his application materials in November 1949 expecting to hear the standard reply for an application from a black student. Rather than attend the University of Virginia, which interpreted state segregation laws in such a way as to prevent his enrollment, he anticipated that he would be offered “grant-in-aid from the state” to attend an out-of-state institution. Writing to his former dean at Howard about his UVA application, Swanson explained that under usual circumstances this would have been acceptable. But with the Sweatt and McLaurin cases to desegregate American universities currently before the U.S. Supreme Court, the timing seemed right to challenge the constitutionality of Virginia segregation practices in graduate education. Swanson aimed to gain admission to UVA Law, and when he did, he told the Howard dean, it would be “a triumph in the struggle to break down segregation and discrimination or to bring about equalization in education facilities.”
After reviewing Swanson’s application, the Law School’s Committee on Graduate Studies unanimously approved his admission as an L.L.M. student. Yet, their resounding endorsement was not enough. On January 19, 1950, the committee brought the matter of Swanson’s application before a full meeting of the law faculty. With one dissenting vote among the twelve faculty members in attendance, the law faculty also approved the Committee’s decision and sent the matter to UVA President Colgate Darden for a final determination. But it was the Board of Visitors who would have the ultimate say. On July 14, 1950, the UVA Board of Visitors denied Swanson’s application to UVA Law.
Within days of hearing of Swanson’s denial, the firm of Hill, Martin, & Robinson and the Virginia Chapter of the NAACP organized legal staff, including Thurgood Marshall, and resources to obtain Swanson’s admission to UVA Law. Swanson filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Western District in Charlottesville to gain admission to UVA Law for the upcoming fall 1950 semester. Swanson and his team succeeded, and on September 5, 1950, the District Court ruled in favor of his admittance. Not only was he a qualified applicant, the court explained, but UVA was the only state institution at which Swanson could pursue a graduate degree in law. The court order permitted Swanson to enroll immediately and barred UVA from denying admission to the UVA Law School to “any other Negro similarly situated.” Ten days later, Swanson registered as a student—as the first African-American student to attend the University of Virginia.
The lawsuit would not be the last challenge Swanson navigated in Charlottesville or at UVA. “It is difficult to stop realizing that I am on the spot as well as a stranger in this town,” he wrote to a family member just a week after commencing his studies. Whereas other law students lived close to grounds, Swanson lived more than a mile away—in the black neighborhood of Vinegar Hill. During his walks to school, “whites also stop to stare at me, for they realize that I am going to the Univ. I should like to read their minds. Sometimes, I feel that I do.” At the law school, Swanson’s experience in many ways mirrored that of other students. He studied tax law. He was nervous about being called on in class but proud of his first delivery. He ate lunch every day in the UVA Commons Cafeteria. Critically, however, Swanson endured repeated affronts to his presence, including fellow students who vocally opposed integration.
Nevertheless, Swanson used his time at UVA to build and enable a more inclusive environment. “I am endeavoring to participate [in] the University activities as much as possible so that the students can get used to the idea of a Negro being here,” he wrote to a family member in September 1950. Swanson attended lectures and football games, and he was a season ticket holder to the University’s Tuesday Evening Concert Group at Cabell Hall. He also joined the UVA YMCA’s new “Committee for Racial Understanding.”
His graduate program required only one year in residence, so Swanson returned to Martinsville in 1951 and reopened his former practice. There, he continued drafting his thesis, a requirement of the L.L.M. degree program, while simultaneously building his firm. Balancing his career with his studies proved difficult, as it often did for L.L.M. students, and Swanson missed the two-year deadline to submit his completed thesis. He would not receive his L.L.M. degree, nor did anyone else in his graduate cohort. This, however, did little to impede Swanson. Instead of teaching, Swanson dedicated his early career to fighting for civil rights for black Americans in both the courtroom and greater community. Throughout the 1950s, he was an active member of the Virginia Chapter of the NAACP and the Virginia Voters League, as well as his fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, which was dedicated to supporting black students and black civil rights.
By the time he was interviewed by the Washington Post in 1958, Swanson’s legacy was obvious. One year prior to the article, there were eleven Africans Americans enrolled at the University of Virginia. Moreover, Swanson’s commitment to racial understanding endured. He encouraged communities to form groups similar to the YMCA committee that he had served on at UVA. And he implored Americans to advocate for their fellow citizens. For Swanson, inaction was unacceptable, a belief he embodied throughout his time at UVA. “Life is cheapened where man’s inhumanity to man prevails,” Swanson wrote just before he enrolled at the University of Virginia, “and those who remain silent in the wake of such action… become an integral part of the conspiracy of silence.”
FURTHER READING AND RESEARCH:
The Papers of Gregory H. Swanson
Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University
Papers of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund
Library of Congress
Plaintiff case materials and correspondence
The Papers of Judge John Paul
Special Collections, UVA Law Library
Correspondence and court filings for Swanson v. Rector & Visitors of Univ. of Va.
The Papers of Oliver Hill
Virginia State University
[This Collection is currently being processed and will be available to researchers in Fall 2018]
The Papers of Sarah Patton Boyle
Special Collections, UVA Library
Correspondence with Gregory Swanson
Margaret Edds, We Face the Dawn: Oliver Hill, Spottswood Robinson, and the Legal Team that Dismantled Jim Crow (Charlottesville: The University of Virginia Press, 2018).
 Susanna McBee, “First Negro to Attend U. of Virginia Sees Need for ‘Massive Assistance.’ The Washington Post and Times Herald, 01 September 1958, A8.
 Gregory Swanson to Committee on Admissions, December 1, 1949, Gregory H. Swanson Papers, Howard University [cited hereafter as GSP].
 The two cases were Sweatt v. Painter, 339 U.S. 629 (1950) regarding the admission of a black student to the University of Texas Law School; McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, 339 U.S. 637 (1950), regarding segregated educational facilities at the University of Oklahoma. Swanson to George Marion, November 30, 1949, GSP.
 Swanson to F.D. Wilkinson, January 30, 1950, GSP.
 UVA Law School Faculty Meeting minutes, January 19, 1950.
 Emerson Spies to Swanson, July 29, 1950, GSP.
 Memorandum, Spottswood Robinson to Thurgood Marshall, August 3, 1950, Box 247, Papers of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Library of Congress.
 Complaint, Swanson v. Rector & Visitors of Univ. of Va., No. 30 (W.D. Va. Sept. 5, 1950), Box 42, MSS 81-7, Judicial Papers of Judge John Paul, Special Collections UVA Law Library.
 Judgment at 3, Swanson v. Rector & Visitors of Univ. of Va., No. 30 (W.D. Va. Sept. 5, 1950), Box 42, MSS 81-7, Judicial Papers of Judge John Paul, Special Collections UVA Law Library.
 Swanson to Marquerite, September 28, 1950, GSP.
 Swanson to Marquerite, September 28, 1950, GSP.
 The Tuesday Evening Concert Group, Season Ticket 1950-1951; YMCA service programs, various dates, GSP.
 YMCA meeting minutes, October 16, 1950, GSP.
 Swanson to Leslie Buckler, May 16, 1951, GSP. The annual catalog for the law school in place at the time of Swanson’s admission and enrollment at UVA Law specified that L.L.M. students would progress from their period of residence to a candidate for the degree after submitting a project plan and a description of their thesis to the graduate committee and earning the committee’s approval to become a degree candidate. The catalog specified that L.L.M. students must submit a completed thesis within two years from the date at which they became a candidate for the degree. The University of Virginia Record: Department of Law 1949-1950 (Charlottesville: The University of Virginia, 1949), 16.
 McBee, “First Negro to Attend U. of Virginia Sees Need for ‘Massive Assistance,’ The Washington Post and Times Herald, 01 September 1958, A8.
 Swanson to Sarah Boyle, August 28, 1950, GSP.