The Underground Refuge
Excluded elsewhere, UVA’s first Black students found community of their own
Heading away from the Grounds, many of UVA’s first Black students walked a familiar route, past restaurants where they were not welcome to eat, stores where they were not welcome to shop and a church where they were not welcome to worship, until they arrived at a tidy brick duplex off West Main Street.
There, they could get a meal and a few words of encouragement, or simply relax, exhale, and escape the “eerie feeling of being in a foreign country,” as one frequent visitor, John Merchant (Law ’58), the first Black graduate of UVA Law School, wrote years later.
Teresa Price, 95, lives there still and recalls the days when her house was a home away from home for many of UVA’s Black pioneers.
“They would pass your name on, just like the Underground Railroad,” she says.
A couple of blocks away, on the edge of Charlottesville’s Vinegar Hill, a historically Black neighborhood just west of downtown that was still vibrant in the late 1950s, Mae Jackson’s door was also always open. On Rose Hill Drive, the home of Charles and Virginia Yancey also offered refuge.
“We had a tight bond,” says Charles “Buddy” Yancey (Engr ’64), the son of Charles and Virginia. “We all recognized we were in it together.”
Town and gown, in this case, had much in common: devalued, minority status under the thumb of Jim Crow. Students faced intense pressure to succeed, compounded by the forces aligned against them. On the Grounds, they faced a range of offenses, from casual everyday snubs to overt racism. In town or on The Corner, their status as UVA students earned them no special privileges.
“My recollection is that we were pretty much kind of ignored,” says Robert Bland (Engr ’59), the first Black student to earn an undergraduate degree at UVA. “Folks didn’t go out of their way to make life miserable for us. Nor did they go out of their way to befriend us.
“To be fair, there were some folks who were certainly welcoming to us among the student body. Not a lot but there were some.”
For support, students headed off the Grounds and tapped into a network that evolved organically through churches and fraternal organizations in Charlottesville’s Black community. The important role played by the community in sustaining early students was highlighted in the 2017 book The Key to the Door: Experiences of Early African American Students at the University of Virginia, co-edited by Maurice Apprey, UVA’s dean of African American affairs.
In the book, Merchant wrote of the isolation he felt as the only Black law student during his three years at UVA. Merchant was raised in Connecticut and completed his undergraduate degree at Virginia Union, a historically Black college in Richmond. Overwhelmingly white UVA was indeed foreign soil.
“I was not acquainted with a single human being in Charlottesville, on or off campus. Advice was not available. A support system didn’t exist, and creating one seemed out of the question. I was alone with my Blackness, and the dark cloud surrounding me allowed no beacon of light to poke through and point a way.
“It was the real beginning of a period of loneliness and fear,” he wrote.
“Fortunately, in time, Charlottesville’s Black community provided the respite needed to maintain a sense of mission, direction and courage. It gave me time to be and feel normal around my friends—wonderful people who went out of their way to ease the burdens. I could not have endured without their help and friendship.”
William Womack (Med ’61) and Aubrey Jones (Engr ’63) also wrote of the support they received—not just from community members but from Black staffers at UVA who would occasionally give them an extra helping in the dining hall or unlock a classroom door so they could study at night.
Small gestures made a big difference. Price, a retired teacher and librarian, had a piano in her front room. Merchant would accompany her on guitar. She had two young sons for students to toss a ball with or read a book to. Harold Marsh (Engr ’60, Law ’66) taught Price’s younger son, Frank, to tie his shoes.
“I wasn’t famous for any meals,” she says, laughing. “They teased me because I only served hot dogs. But they got good meals at Miss Yancey’s.”
At the Jackson home, too. Mae Jackson, 97, lived with her husband, Ellard, a dentist, in a home built by his father, J.A., who was also a dentist. Like the Price home, it was within easy walking distance of Grounds.
On Saturday nights, students came to watch Perry Mason and eat a home-cooked meal.
“It was just a break for them to get off the campus and enjoy TV and camaraderie,” says Jackson, who now lives in Greenville, N.C. “I’d look forward to those Saturday nights to entertain them, to see them lighten up. It was hard for them. Very hard.”
Yancey knew firsthand how hard it could be, growing up in segregated Charlottesville. Eager to get away, he attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania before transferring home to save money.
UVA “was not my first choice, but it was the most practical choice,” he says.
He had no illusions about what coming back home meant.
“The operative word then was probably ‘no.’ No, you can’t eat here, you can’t participate in sports, you can’t worship at University Baptist Church.”
And no, you couldn’t get a haircut on The Corner, as Bland learned when he walked into a barbershop there.
“I walked in and the guy politely told me they were there to just serve students at the University,” he says. “When I told him I was a student at the University, he had to find another excuse.”
Bland grew up in Petersburg, Virginia, and had applied to UVA “on a lark, really,” he says. He was not expecting to get accepted. He planned to study engineering, an option unavailable at the state’s historically Black colleges at the time. The Commonwealth paid for Black students to go out of state for programs not offered at in-state HBCUs. Bland considered that path but decided to attend UVA, where he was one of three Black undergraduates to enroll in 1955.
“I was not a stranger to Charlottesville,” he says. “I had spent quite a bit of time growing up visiting with my aunt, who lived there. I knew the town and some of the people there and some of the people certainly knew me.
“We started going to some of the Black churches in Charlottesville. We got to meet a number of people there whom we had not known before. When they found out we were going to University they opened their homes to us and often would offer us a Sunday meal or a place to go and relax on Sunday after church.”
A hot meal could be tough to come by on Sunday, when many restaurants were closed. Social outlets were few and far between as well. Bren Wanna, a jazz club on Route 29 South owned by Price’s brother, Edward Jackson, was one of the few available to Black students.
“I’m sure I was there on more than one occasion,” Bland says.
Apprey, a professor of psychiatric medicine who has been at UVA since 1980 and has served as dean of the Office of African American Affairs since 2006, got to know many of the school’s first Black students when they would return for lectures or reunions. He would take them out to dinner—often at restaurants where they would have been prohibited from eating while students.
“They would tell me stories about their experiences,” he says. “It’s in that context I heard about Teresa Price.”
Apprey met Price when he gave an early graduate a ride to her home one evening. He listened to their stories of the early years and realized how intertwined their lives had become.
“That’s when the story became fuller. When the time came to pay homage to those early graduates it was very easy to start with Teresa Price and to ask how she thought they would feel about talking about their early experiences.
“Her immediate and human response was as follows: ‘It would be very hard for them. It would be too painful for them.’
“Whenever I hear something like that, I also know there is another side to talking about pain. Which is that they may welcome it also. That actually encouraged me to continue with the project.”
Those who volunteered to write their stories found it an opportunity for “reconfiguration,” Apprey says.
“They began to tell their own stories. They began to own their own stories.”
For many, Price and others in the community were part of their story.
Over the years, as the numbers of Black students grew, and other support systems developed, fewer made their way to her home.
Not more than two or three years ago, however, Price says she got a call from the brother of a former student, who told her his grandson was coming to UVA.
“He said, ‘I told him about you and to come down to your house or get in touch. He’s got your number.’”
“I never heard from that boy.”
“It’s a whole different ballgame now,” she says. “But the first years were pretty tense for them. And they were eternally grateful, because they kept in touch for a long time.”