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Our History: Featured Alumni/ae: Swanson, Gregory H., 1950

Over the decades our graduates have developed distinguished careers as justices, members of Congress, ambassadors, educators, business people, and community leaders in many fields. This site features some of those late graduates.

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Swanson, Gregory Hayes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gregory Hayes Swanson was the first African-American student to attend the University of Virginia and the University of Virginia School of Law. After winning his lawsuit against the University in September 1950, Swanson enrolled in the graduate LL.M. program at the Law School on September 15, 1950.

 

Swanson was born in Danville, Virginia in 1924 and attended Howard University as an undergraduate and as a law student. He graduated from Howard University School of Law in 1948 and took a job with Hill, Martin & Robinson in Richmond, Virginia, the preeminent civil rights litigation firm in the South. In 1950, Swanson opened his own law office in Martinsville, Virginia, and was a practicing lawyer when he applied to the LL.M. program at UVA Law. “My primary reason stems from the desire to teach law,” Swanson wrote to the law school’s Committee on Admissions.[1] 

 

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.[2] 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.”[3]

 

After reviewing Swanson’s application, the Law School’s Committee on Graduate Studies unanimously approved his admission as an LL.M. student. 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.[4] On July 14, 1950, the UVA Board of Visitors denied Swanson’s application to UVA Law.[5] 

 

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.[6] Swanson filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia in Charlottesville to gain admission to UVA Law for the upcoming fall 1950 semester.[7] 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.”[8] Ten days later, Swanson registered as a student—as the first African-American student to attend the University of Virginia.

 

Swanson faced a harsh climate of racial prejudice at UVA. In many ways, Swanson’s experience mirrored that of other students: he studied tax law; he was nervous about being called on in class; 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.[9] Shortly after arriving at the University, Swanson overheard a UVA student say, in casual conversation with another student, that “we should get that nigger out of the law school.” Swanson could not attend University dances that were held at whites-only local clubs, and he received no support in desegregating these events from University president Colgate Darden.[10] Whereas other law students lived close to Grounds, Swanson lived more than a mile away—in the black neighborhood of Vinegar Hill. During his 1.5-mile 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, he wrote to a family member in fall 1950.”[11] 

 

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.[12]  Swanson was an organizing member of the University YMCA’s new “Committee for Racial Understanding.”[13] He attended lectures and football games, and he was a season ticket holder to the University’s Tuesday Evening Concert Group at Cabell Hall.[14] 

 

In 1951, Swanson returned to Martinsville and reopened his practice after completing the single year of residency in Charlottesville that his graduate program required. He continued drafting his thesis, a requirement of the LL.M. degree program, while simultaneously building his firm. Swanson continued work on his master’s thesis through 1952, but he missed the two-year deadline to present the full, completed paper, and he never received his LL.M. degree.[15] In 1957, Swanson opened a law practice in Alexandria, Virginia. In 1961, he took a position with the Internal Revenue Service in Washington, D.C., where he worked until his retirement in 1984. Swanson passed away in 1992.[16]

 

Swanson dedicated his early career to fighting for civil rights for black Americans in both the courtroom and greater community. 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. 

 

The Papers of Gregory H. Swanson, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University

Papers of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Library of Congress

The Papers of Judge John Paul, Special Collections, UVA Law Library

 

[1] Gregory Swanson to Committee on Admissions, December 1, 1949, Gregory H. Swanson Papers, Howard University [cited hereafter as GSP].

[2] 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.

[3] Swanson to F.D. Wilkinson, January 30, 1950, GSP.

[4] UVA Law School Faculty Meeting minutes, January 19, 1950.

[5] Emerson Spies to Swanson, July 29, 1950, GSP.

[6] Memorandum, Spottswood Robinson to Thurgood Marshall, August 3, 1950, Box 247, Papers of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Library of Congress.

[7] 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.

[8] 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.

[9] “Say Swanson to be like ‘Any Other Student’ At U. of Va. Law School,” The Chicago Defender, September 23, 1950.

[10] Swanson to Darden, April 12, 1951 and Darden to Swanson, April 12, 1951, GHSP.

[11] Swanson to Marquerite, September 28, 1950, GSP.

[12] Swanson to Marquerite, September 28, 1950, GSP.

[13] YMCA meeting minutes, October 16, 1950, GSP.

[14] The Tuesday Evening Concert Group, Season Ticket 1950-1951; YMCA service programs, various dates, GSP.

[15] 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.

[16] “Gregory H. Swanson, 68, Lawyer with IRS, Dies,” The Washington Post, July 31, 1992.

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