African Americans at Washington and Lee A Timeline

This timeline is being developed by a working group established in August 2013 by Washington and Lee President Kenneth P. Ruscio to explore the role of African Americans in the history of the University. Direct questions or comments to the working group here.


John Chavis, the first known African American to receive a college education in the United States, enrolls in the winter session at Liberty Hall Academy, an earlier incarnation of Washington and Lee. Born in Granville County, N.C., to free black North Carolinians and raised near Mecklenberg, Va., Chavis had begun his studies for the ministry at age 29 at the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University). Listen to W&L history professor Ted DeLaney describe the details of Chavis's life:


After successfully completing his studies at what had been renamed in 1798 Washington Academy, Chavis is granted a license to minister in the Presbyterian Church by the Lexington Presbytery on Nov. 19, 1800. He thereby became the first African-American to become so licensed by the Presbyterian Church in the United States. He preached his first sermon at Lexington Presbyterian Church one year later.


Robinson obelisk"Jockey" John Robinson dies and leaves his entire estate to Washington College. An Irish immigrant who had himself been an indentured servant, Robinson had amassed a considerable fortune as a horse trader, whiskey distiller, and plantation owner. He lived on about 1,000 acres of land at Hart's Bottom, which would become the site of Buena Vista. Proceeds of the bequest, which was nearly as large as George Washington's gift of canal stock, included "all the negroes of which I may die possessed together with their increase shall be retained, for the purposes of labour, upon the above Lands (Hart's Bottom) for the space of fifty years after my decease."
[DOCUMENT: Excerpt from "Jockey" John Robinson's Will]

Accounts differ slightly on the total number of enslaved men, women and children whom Robinson owned at the time of his death, but it ranged from 73 to 84.

Advertising Broadside 1826

An advertising broadside from Aug. 9, 1826, announces a public sale of Robinson's personal property, including horses, cattle, corn and three stills. The notice also advertises the slaves: "There will be hired, at the same time and place, ALL THE NEGROES, belonging to said Estate, excepting so many as may be considered necessary to work Hart's Bottom, and the old and infirm. — They will be hired either for the remainder of the present year, or until the first of January [sic] 1828, as may be considered best — Terms will be made known at the sale."

A second advertisement in December 1826 announces "Negroes For Hire" for the ensuing year. It offers "Twenty Likely Negroes belonging to WASHINGTON COLEGE [sic] : consisting of Men, Women, Boys and Girls, many of them very valuable."


The Washington College trustees compile "A list of negroes belonging to the Estate of John Robinson," which contains 84 names. Beside each name is the person's age, approximate value, additional details and physical characteristics, an indication of whether or not the person has been hired out by the college, and the hiring amount. This list includes six people who are listed as deceased, one as previously sold, two as having been traded, one as "owned by Chas. Barrett" and one as having been "given to his wife's master.
(DOCUMENT: A list of negroes belonging to the Estate of John Robinson)


In a letter from Trustee Samuel McD. Reid to Philip Lindsey, a candidate to succeed George Addison Baxter as the college's president, Reid lists the Robinson slaves among the college's financial assets. In describing the endowment, Reid first cites the gift from George Washington of 100 shares in the James River Company and then describes "the estate of the late Mr. Robinson of Hart's Bottom consisting of valuable lands and between 70 & 80 negroes worth at a very low estimate forty thousand dollars."

Chapman Johnson, a prominent attorney from Staunton, offers his opinion that the Washington College trustees could sell the land of Hart's Bottom (now the location of Buena Vista, Virginia) that Robinson had left to the college, despite Robinson's explicit directions that it not be sold for 50 years after his death. Johnson based his opinion on the conclusion that common law "repudiated restraints on alienation." Though this opinion was for the estate itself, the college trustees believed that this reasoning extended to the enslaved people and would, therefore, allow the slaves to be sold in contradiction of Robinson's expressed wishes.


The Washington College trustees prepare "A list of slaves belonging to Washington College," which includes 67 men, women and children as of July 30, 1834. This list shows that 28 of the 67 individuals had been hired out during the previous year and had resulted in a total of $952.50 in income. The ages on the list ranged from 78 years to 3 months. A value was given to each individual, although there are 10 instances in which they are designated as "charge," indicating that the college was paying for the upkeep and receiving no value.
(DOCUMENT: A list of slaves belonging to Washington College July 30 1834)


On January 11, the Washington College trustees conclude "a sale of negroes to Samuel Garland" of Lynchburg, Virginia, Garland co-owned a plantation in Hinds County, Mississippi, and indicated that he planned to send the slaves there. In addition to the approximately 55 enslaved people it sold to Garland, the college also sells five other slaves to individuals in Lexington and Rockbridge County and retains six men and one woman. The total of the sale is $22,974.91. There is a commission of $459.50. The net amount received is $22,515.41.
(DOCUMENT: Statement of sale 1836)


John Chavis dies in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he had established the John Chavis School. He had taught free blacks in the evenings and whites during the days. Among his students were children from prominent white North Carolina families, including a future U.S. senator from North Carolina, Willie P. Mangum. Through his letters to Sen. Mangum, Chavis's political views were clear: he advocated education for blacks, accommodation with southern white people, and gradual emancipation of slaves. At least one account indicates that Chavis was a slaveholder. Historians have noted that many free blacks of Chavis's time may have been technically considered slaveholders because they elected to "own" a family member, including a wife, to protect that person. Records do not indicate whether or not this was the case with Chavis. Well after his death, historians considered Chavis a unique figure. As Charles Lee Smith wrote in 1888, "[o]ne of the most remarkable characters in the educational history of North Carolina was a negro. His life finds no parallel in the South, nor, so far as the writer is aware, in any part of our country."


The Board of Trustees' minutes from June 27, 1844, refer to the sale of those remaining enslaved individuals: "Resolved that the negroes now belonging to the College and hired out be sold and the proceeds when collected invested in stock or applied to the payment of debts — and that in their sales, family separation be avoided and owners selected of humane character."


The college sells two of its remaining slaves — one to Dr. Archibald Alexander, a Lexington physician, and one to William G. White, the college proctor and treasurer. According to Washington College records, as late as 1857, the Trustees were caring for three elderly, incapacitated slaves.


A major controversy erupts when Washington and Lee's football team leaves the field in Washington, Pennsylvania, rather than compete against Washington and Jefferson College, which has an African-American player named Pruner West on its roster. When Washington and Jefferson's Graduate Manager, or Athletic Director, Robert M. Murphy indicated that the Presidents had no intention of keeping West out of the game, the Generals forfeited, 1-0. Washington and Jefferson was coached that season by John Heisman. Eight years earlier, a similar issue had arisen in a game at Rutgers. In that case, Rutgers acceded to W&L's demands and kept the player out of the game. The player in question was singer and actor Paul Robeson.

Ring-tum Phi Headline


African-American cadets are among the 1,200 participants in the U.S. Army's School for Special Services that relocates to Washington and Lee's campus from Fort Meade, Maryland.

Army School for Special Services


The University Christian Association wants to invite Martin Luther King Jr. to speak at W&L. The Board of Trustees rejects a faculty committee's request to allow King to appear.


Ralph Ellison, the African-American writer and author of "Invisible Man," speaks in Lee Chapel on Nov. 15, telling the audience that the American novelist must have "the courage to tell the truth, whatever the truth might be, passionately and eloquently." Ellison was the first African American to speak in Lee Chapel.

Phi Headline on Ellison


Seven students from Hampton Institute visit W&L for a weekend "interracial cultural exchange" sponsored by R.E. Lee Episcopal Church in February. The visiting Hampton students attended Saturday morning classes, prompting the Roanoke Times to comment that it marked the first time since the late 18th Century that "Negroes had attended classes at Washington and Lee."

The Board of Trustees approves a statement on University admissions, which includes the following language: "No provision of the charter, no provision of the by-laws and no resolution of the Board has established a policy of discrimination among qualified applicants for admission."


Dennis Haston becomes the first African-American student to matriculate as an undergraduate; the same year, Leslie Smith enters the School of Law. Haston transfers after his first year.


Walter Blake and Carl Linwood Smothers enter W&L as freshmen and eventually become the first African Americans to receive bachelor's degrees from the University.

Marjorie Poindexter joins the University staff as secretary to James Whitehead, secretary to the Board of Trustees. During her 15 years at W&L, Poindexter served as an unofficial and informal counselor to W&L students, especially minority students. When she died in November 1983 at the age of 50, a special fund was created in her name to provide financial assistance to needy students in times of "unusual economic emergency or extraordinary want."


Leslie Smith receives the juris doctor degree from the School of Law.

Leslie Smith receives law degree.


The Student Association for Black Unity (SABU) is formed.

Leslie Smith '69L, the first African American to graduate from the School of Law, is murdered in Washington, D.C. His brother, Bobby R. Smith '74, writes a tribute to him in the 1972 Calyx.


Latrelle Rainey is appointed assistant dean of students to work with minority students. He is minister of the First Baptist Church and also a lecturer in the Sociology Department.


Elliott Hicks, of the Class of 1978, is the first African-American student on the Executive Committee of the Student Body when he is elected as the freshman representative.


Reginald Yancey joins the faculty as an instructor in accounting, becoming the first African American on the University faculty.

SABU students stage a sit-in at the president's office to express the group's discontent over the conviction of an African-American student on an honor violation, over the lack of African-American faculty and over their dissatisfaction with the recruitment of African-American students.

Newspaper Headline on SABU Protest


Six African-American women are in the first coeducational undergraduate class, which enters in September: Robin Bean Mireless, Daphen Blyden, Stephanie Coleman, Jessica Reynolds Pasley, Camille Travis and Roslayn Thompson-Blackwell.


The University dedicates the John Chavis House as a cultural center and residence for minority students.

Chavis House Dedication Ceremony

Steven H. Hobbs, a professor of law, becomes the first African-American professor to receive tenure from the University. Professor Hobbs taught at W&L from 1981 to 1997.


The Minority Student Association boycotts Fancy Dress because of the year's theme, "Reconciliation Ball of 1865."


Willard Dumas, a member of the Class of 1991, becomes the first African-American student to serve as president of the Executive Committee of the Student Body.

Willard Dumas


A joint chapter of the historically black fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, is established with James Madison University. A chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha had been on the campus as early as the 1970s but lost its charter in the 1980s.


Tony Perry, of the Class of 1977, is the first African American elected to the W&L Athletic Hall of Fame. Perry was a football All-American and one of the top high jumpers in school history.

Tony Harris Hall of Fame Plaque


William B. Hill Jr. of Atlanta, a member of the Class of 1974 and the School of Law Class of 1977, is the first African American elected to the University's Board of Trustees. He takes the oath in February 1999. (See also 2009.)


In February, Washington and Lee hosts a symposium on Ralph Ellison, which featured Charles Johnson, the National Book Award novelist and philosopher, and John F. Callahan, Ralph Ellison's literary executor.

At its meeting on May 18, 2002, the University's Board of Trustees adopts a "Statement of Commitment to Diversity," which calls for the "recruitment and retention of a broad, inclusive student body, faculty and administration who represent a wide range of interests, abilities and cultures — a diverse array of talent." The statement was adopted in May 2001 by the Committee for a More Inclusive Community, which was composed of faculty, staff, students and trustees and began meeting in 1999 under the chairmanship of Trustee Thomas Shepherd. The Faculty Committee on Inclusiveness endorsed the statement in March 2002.
[DOCUMENT (PDF): "Statement of Commitment to Diversity"]


W&L establishes an African-American Studies Program with the goal of developing "students' knowledge of the history, art, political and religious life, economic realities, and culture of the people of African descent in America."

Two new historically African-American Greek letter organizations — the Beta Beta Nu chapter of Phi Beta Sigma fraternity and the Tau Omega chapter of Delta Sigma Theta sorority — were chartered on the campus in April, joining an existing chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.


Kente Ceremony 2006Marilyn Baker, of the Class of 1995, becomes the first African-American woman elected to the W&L Athletics Hall of Fame. She was W&L's first women's tennis All-American and was named the Intercollegiate Tennis Association National Player of the Year during her senior season, when she teamed with Natalia Garcia '97 to win the NCAA Division III doubles championship.

For the first time, African-American graduates are honored in the Donning of the Kente Ceremony on the night before Commencement. A member of the Class of 2006, Kristin Evans Burke, initiates the ceremony and is aided in its development by Tamara Futrell, associate dean of students. Each participating graduate asks a family member, friend or other significant individual to take part in the celebration. During the ceremony, a member of the University community presents a kente stole to this designated person, who then bestows the stole upon the graduate. The tradition acknowledges the significance of family, friends and the University community to the graduate.


Emma Burris-Janssen, of the Class of 2007, writes her senior honors thesis in history on the history of the "Jockey" John Robinson slaves at Washington College. Her thesis is titled "An Inheritance of Slavery: The Tale of 'Jockey' John Robinson, His Slaves, and Washington College."


In October, African-American alumni participate in a special reunion, "Return. Reconnect. Renew," featuring a keynote address by William B. Hill Jr., of the Class of 1974 and the School of Law Class of 1977. Listen to William B. HIll Jr.'s address:


Three of the University's choral groups — the University Singers, the Men's Glee Club and Cantatrici — combine for the premiere of the MLK Remembrance Concert at Lexington's First Baptist Church. Created by Shane Lynch, assistant professor of music and director of choral activities, the concert blends performances by the choral groups with a reading of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream Speech." The performance is one of the central elements of the W&L's annual Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Celebration.

The Tau Zeta chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., is colonized on campus on March 20. Founded in 1908, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., is the nation's oldest historically black sorority.


Almost 50 years after Ralph Ellison's historic 1963 visit to Lee Chapel, the University hosts a major symposium about the author on the 60th anniversary of publication of "The Invisible Man." The symposium, "The New Territory: Ralph Ellison and the Twenty First Century," draws Ellison scholars from around the world.

The School of Law suspends classes on Martin Luther King Jr. Day for the 2012-13 academic year and beyond in order to sponsor programming on Dr. King and his legacy.


Africana Studies replaces African-American Studies and becomes the newest minor at W&L. Africana Studies is an interdisciplinary minor that examines the culture and experiences of African people and those who make up the African Diaspora throughout the world. Relevant courses come from a variety of disciplines including literature, history, sociology, economics, politics, art and music.


A group of students in the School of Law circulates a letter demanding that the University fully recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day on the undergraduate campus; that the University stop allowing neo-Confederates to march on campus on Lee-Jackson Day and hold programs in Lee Chapel; that the University remove all Confederate flags from its property, including flags located in Lee Chapel; and that the University issue an official apology for its participation in chattel slavery as well as a denunciation of Robert E. Lee's participation in slavery.

In July, President Kenneth P. Ruscio wrote a message to the community in which he announced that replica Confederate battle flags would be removed from Lee Chapel and that the University would enter into an agreement with the American Civil War museum to receive on loan one or more of the original restored flags for display on a rotating basis in the Lee Chapel Museum. In addition, President Ruscio announced that the University would continue to study its involvement with slavery, acknowledging that "this was a regrettable chapter of our history, and we must confront and try to understand this chapter."

The undergraduate faculty votes to suspend classes on Martin Luther King Jr. Day effective with the 2015-16 academic year; the School of Law began suspending classes on that day in 2012.


Historical Marker
On April 5, the University formally introduced a historical marker, "A Difficult, Yet Undeniable, History," recognizing the enslaved men and women owned by Washington College in the 19th century. The marker is located in a memorial garden between Robinson and Tucker halls. It includes the two lists of those men and women who were bequeathed to the college by John Robinson. Speaking at the event introducing the marker, Washington and Lee President Kenneth P. Ruscio said: "We can't tell only those stories that make us feel good about ourselves. We can't ignore the stories that make us uncomfortable. Uncomfortable truths must be examined. Somehow we have to try to come to terms with those parts of our past that we wish had never happened, those events that we have come to regret. We tell them so that we may learn from them. Today we are taking an important step, but only a step, in meeting that obligation as we introduce this historical marker." In addition to President Ruscio's remarks, Anthonia Adams of the Class of 2016 read a poem, "at the cemetery, walnut grove plantation south carolina, 1989" by Lucille Clifton. In addition, members of the community read aloud the names of the men and women who are listed on the marker. (Download a pdf of the brochure.) Listen to President Ruscio's remarks:


In August 2017 following the violent protests in Charlottesville, Va., President Will Dudley appointed the Commission on Institutional History and Community to lead W&L students, faculty, staff and alumni in an examination of how our history — and the ways that we teach, discuss and represent it — shapes our community.

As part of a year-long series, "Washington and Lee: Education and History," historian Blaine Brownell, a 1965 graduate of W&L, presented a lecture on "Race, Divil Rights and W&L in the 1960s." His presentation was based on a chapter from his 2007 book, "Washington and Lee University, 1930-2000: Tradition and Transformation." Watch the lecture below:

Blaine Brownell, "Race, Civil Rights, and W&L in the 1960s."

Elizabeth Mugo, a member of the Class of 2019 from Irma, South Carolina, was elected president of the Executive Committee of the Student Body, thereby becoming the first African American woman to be chosen by her fellow students. Mugo is majoring in sociology and anthropology double major, with a minor in Africana studies and poverty and human capability studies. She previously served as vice president of the Executive Committee and has been a Bonner Program senior intern, an Owings Fellow and a student representative on the Commission on Institutional History and Community. In her campaign speech for the office, Mugo asked the W&L student body to "imagine a placewhere diversity and inclusion are not words that we throw around but rather values of our community." Read her speech.


The Commission on Institutional History and Community issued its report to President Will Dudley in May, and the report was shared with the university community. The commission's report encompassed 118 pages and contained 31 distinct recommendations.

In August, President Will Dudley provided his response to the report on the Commission on Institutional History and Community in which he addressed many of the commission's specific recommendations and announced the plan to appoint a Director of Institutional History who will lead the efforts to "tell our stories completely and honestly — in our museums and historical sites, curriculum, orientations, alumni programming, and publications."

Theodore D. DeLaney Jr., a 1985 graduate and associate professor of history at W&L, presented the annual Fall Convocation address, titled "W&L History: Traditions, Transformations, and the Consequences of Change." A Lexington native who grew up only a few blocks from the W&L campus, Ted DeLaney began a career that has spanned more than half a century when he started as a custodian at 19 and quickly transitioned to a a lab technician in the Biology Department, where he spent the next 20 years. He enrolled as a full-time student W&L at the age of 40 and graduated cum laude with a B.A. in history in 1985. He earned the Ph.D. from the College of William and Mary and would eventually return to W&L to teach in the Department of History for the past 23 years. Watch his talk below:

At its meeting on Oct. 6, W&L's Board of Trustees votes to rename Robinson Hall in honor of John Chavis, the first African American to receive a college education in the United States. (See 1795 above.) 

Three students in a First-Year Writing Seminar — Caroline Hall '22, Jeremiah Kohl '22 and Nick Watson '22 — research and produced a video on the experiences of W&L's early black athletes. The video was  final project for Professor Ricardo Wilson's first-year writing seminar, "Race, Memory, Nation." View the video below:



The university makes enhancements to the historical marker honoring enslaved men and women owned by Washington College in the 19th century, adding pavers, lights, benches and directional signs to the area surrounding the memorial garden between Chavis and Tucker Halls.

Chavis PlaqueChavis Dedication

The University dedicated Chavis Hall in ceremonies in March during the Black Alumni Reunion. Speakers included Tammy Futrell, Dean for Diversity, Inclusion and Student Engagement; Elizabeth Mugo '19, president of the Executive Committee of the Student Body; Ted DeLaney '85, Professor of History; and President Will Dudley. Download a brochure on Chavis Hall.

Watch Ceremonial Dedication of Chavis Hall.

Joëlle Simeu, a member of the Class of 2020 from Elkins Park, Pa., became the first black woman to be elected to chair the Student Judicial Committee. She ran unopposed after serving as junior justice on the SJC. Read about her election in the Ring-tum Phi.

During the School of Law Reunions in April, officials unveiled a new installation that celebrates the life and legacy of Leslie Devan Smith Jr., '69L, the first African-American graduate of the law school.

Lee Smith Display

The University bestowed an honorary Doctor of Letters degree upon retiring history professor Ted DeLaney '85 during the Commencement exercises on May 23, 2019. Read the citation.

Elizabeth Mugo '19, the first black woman to serve as president of the Executive Committee of the Student Body, addressed the Commencement exercises for the Class of 2019. Watch her address below:

Commencement 2019: Elizabeth Mugo, President, Executive Committee of the Student Body, 2018-19 from Washington and Lee News on Vimeo.

See the bibliography of material from which this Timeline has been drawn.