Black History Month 2024 Highlights: Gregory H. Swanson, First Student to Integrate the University of Virginia
Feb 06, 2024|Written By: Faith Kelley
Abundant Life Ministries is celebrating Black History Month 2024 by taking time to reflect on historical events and notable people who have contributed to our unique Charlottesville community. Creating history isn’t easy, and we are thankful for all who led and continue to lead the way to a better tomorrow. To kick off this month of noteworthy stories is Gregory H. Swanson- the first student to integrate the University of Virginia.
The Abundant Life Center is located in the Prospect Avenue community (Fifeville) which is on the outskirts of the University of Virginia, just .9 miles away, and it’s hard to believe that Charlottesville’s hometown University wasn’t always accepting all students. At the University’s establishment, in 1819, slavery was still legal and present in Charlottesville Virginia until 1865, 46 years later, when slavery was abolished. Between the years of 1817 and 1865, 4,000 enslaved persons worked on the grounds of the University of Virginia.
It wasn’t until 131 years later from the establishment of the University and 85 years after the illegalization of slavery, that an African American student was admitted into the University of Virginia Law School- Gregory H. Swanson.
Swanson was raised in Danville, Virginia, and received his Law degree from Howard University, a historically black University in Washington, DC. In 1949, Swanson applied to the University of Virginia Law School to pursue studies in corporate and insurance law. Though his admission was supported by the Law School faculty, the Board of Visitors rejected him. The reasoning for Swanson’s application denial was:
“The applicant is a colored man. The Constitution and the laws of the State of Virginia provide that white and colored shall not be taught in the same schools.”
This was eventually passed on to the Virginia branch of the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People and they filed a lawsuit on his behalf, suing the University. This led to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordering that Swanson be admitted to the Law School. Though he was accepted into the Law School, Swanson still faced racial scrutiny and segregation. He was barred from living on Grounds and had to live in a colored-only hotel. He was also banned from social activities and “private” dance societies. Following his time at the University of Virginia, Swanson went on to work as an attorney for the Internal Revenue of Service and passed in 1992.
Because of Swanson, many generations of students have the opportunity to study at the University of Virginia, and their admission is not based on the color of their skin. In 2018, the UVA Law School dedicated an award to commemorate Swanson integrating the University of Virginia at a time when state law and culture wanted to not welcome him. Thank you, Gregory H. Swanson, for allowing many black students today to stand on the shoulders of your success.