Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Race, Politics, and Education in Tidewater Virginia

Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Race, Politics, and Education in Tidewater Virginia

Article excerpt

Christopher Newport College and the Shoe Lane Controversy of 1960-63

Most Americans today celebrate the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century and with good reason. Led by such remarkable leaders as Martin Luther King, Jr., African Americans struggled to overturn generations of racism, to integrate public institutions (especially elementary and secondary schools), and to expand voting rights. Their efforts, combined with decisive federal government action and support, led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These measures fundamentally and permanently changed race relations in the United States for the better. Although not inaccurate, this triumphant story of constructive transformation within the nation almost always ignores the related issues of housing, community settlement, and race. When these latter topics are examined, a different narrative emerges, one in which African American civil rights activists were much less successful in bringing about significant and positive changes. As one historian has recently written, an examination of race and housing reveals some of the "failures and limitations" of the civil rights movement.1

During the 1950s and 1960s, another important development swept the nation: the remarkable expansion of America's higher education system. Indeed, a number of new colleges were founded in the United States after World War II, and many existing colleges and universities expanded in a substantial fashion. Three factors account for this growth. First, the Cold War with the Soviet Union led U.S. policymakers to link access to higher education with national security. Therefore, the Truman and Eisenhower administrations enacted policies to help more students attend college so that America would have an adequate number of teachers, mathematicians, and scientists. Only then could the country maintain its technological and military edge over the Russians. Second, federal assistance in the form of the G.I. Bill of Rights, Pell Grants, and guaranteed student loans made college financially accessible to millions of young people. And third, the "baby boom" from 1946 to 1964 resulted in the birth of seventy-six million infants in the United States. This extraordinary demographic development made educators and politicians realize that many of these children would eventually attend what were already overcrowded institutions of higher learning.2

These two seemingly separate developments - the African American struggle for civil rights and fair housing and the dramatic expansion of higher education - at times intersected during these decades. This article examines the establishment of Christopher Newport College in Newport News within this complicated context. Founded in I960 as a two-year branch school of the College of William and Mary, Christopher Newport was created by the state's General Assembly to expand educational opportunities for Tidewater Virginians. When the college opened for classes in the fall of 1961, it had 171 students and eight faculty members, but no permanent campus. Therefore, classes were initially held in a late-nineteenth-century downtown public school building that was so old and dilapidated that the city no longer wanted it. Officials, though, strongly supported the new college and wanted to assist in its establishment. The Newport News city government particularly wished to help Christopher Newport find a permanent campus. In 1961, leaders thought the perfect location might be a sixty-acre tract of land along a quiet street named Shoe Lane.

Despite the city's progressive attitude with regard to higher education, the early 1960s was also a time of racial apartheid in Newport News. Its public schools and neighborhoods had been strictly segregated throughout the twentieth century. Like the state government in Richmond and most municipalities throughout the commonwealth, moreover, the city was then actively resisting the implementation of the Supreme Court's Brown v. …

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