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New Charlottesville marker commemorates first Black UVa law student

Randi B. Hagi
Gregory Swanson's daughter, Camille Swanson, stands by the marker with UVa Law School Dean Risa Goluboff.

A new state historical marker was unveiled in Charlottesville Thursday afternoon. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports. 

[sounds of traffic, people talking]

"The University of Virginia, established in 1819 for white men only, rejected the application of Gregory Swanson to its graduate school of law in 1950 because he was black. Swanson, a lawyer from Danville, filed suit with the support of the NAACP."

These words are now emblazoned on a historical marker outside the public library in Charlottesville. Over 75 people gathered for the marker's unveiling, which was placed before what was once the old federal courthouse where Swanson argued his case.

[sounds of applause]

Randi B. Hagi
Jeffrey Powell and Camille Swanson

Swanson ultimately won this case and became the first Black student to attend UVa. His daughter, Camille Swanson, and his nephew, Jeffrey Powell, attended the event.

CAMILLE SWANSON: It was quite emotional … It was redeeming.

JEFFREY POWELL: … He didn't brag about it … And I spent a lot of time with him, and I didn't even know about it.

SWANSON: About his accomplishment.

POWELL: We were fraternity brothers, we watched games together, we hung out together, we cooked out together, we rode around together, played tennis together, and he never mentioned it.

Randi B. Hagi
The Jefferson-Madison Regional Library, formerly the federal courthouse, where Swanson argued his case for admittance to UVa in 1950.

SWANSON: … I understand that his journey to and from his residence was quite harrowing at times, and he fought a lot of negative behavior and energy to be on this campus … He was very witty. He loved books. He loved words. He read the dictionary every day. … He spent a lot of time with us, and encouraged, you know, us to get a good education, for opportunity. But he was very loving, affectionate.

POWELL: He was just a good friend. Somebody that I miss.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.