One-half century ago, the Supreme Court of the United States declared unconstitutional racially segregated public elementary and secondary schools in Brown v. Board of Education. The pathbreaking opinion culminated a three-decade effort that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People ("NAACP") and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund ("LDF"), an independent litigating entity, had orchestrated. An important feature of the evolving NAACP and LDF tactical approach was to contest the segregation of government-sponsored professional and graduate education, particularly implicating law schools in jurisdictions bordering the South, namely Maryland, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas. These pioneering attorneys and the NAACP seemed to emphasize the desegregation of law schools for reasons intrinsic to legal education, such as preparing additional African-American practicing lawyers who would vindicate fundamental civil rights through litigation.

The Supreme Court decided the Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas challenges by ordering the government-supported law schools in those jurisdictions to admit the African-American plaintiffs, while the Justices' resolution of the Texas appeal most directly fostered the determination which the Court issued in Brown. However, attempts to combat segregated government-sponsored legal education, mainly through litigation, proceeded in the overwhelming majority of the border and southern states.

These propositions and the fiftieth anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling in Brown mean that the desegregation of Virginia law schools warrants assessment. This article undertakes that effort. The first section in the piece descriptively reviews the origins and development of the principal national challenges to segregated legal education. The second part initially evaluates how no African American matriculated at any accredited law school which operated in the Commonwealth until the mid-twentieth century. The segment then explores why and how African Americans desegregated the University of Virginia and the College of William and Mary, the two government-supported institutions that offered legal training, before the Supreme Court had rendered the landmark Brown decision. The section next canvasses the slow pace at which legal education's integration proceeded in the Old Dominion after the University of Virginia and the Marshall-Wythe Schools of Law had admitted their first African-American students and even once the Justices had published the Brown opinion. The survey ascertains that the public institutions, as well as the University of Richmond and Washington and Lee University, the Commonwealth's two mid-century private schools, acted with considerably more deliberation than speed. The essay concludes by proffering several lessons which can be extracted from the desegregation of legal education in the Old Dominion.

Document Type


Publication Date