Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, Tadmore Light Lodge, No. 6184 (Blacksburg, VA)

In honor of Black History Month, I thought I’d take this week to talk about the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows. If you’ve watched television or attended a movie in the last 50-60 years, you’ve probably seen a reference to Freemasonry or Masons. While the Masons have become a mythic symbol in popular culture that is often associated with conspiracy theories and the Illuminati, they originated like many secret fraternal organizations in a much more mundane environment: essentially as a guild or union and likely in the 14th Century (depending heavily on the history you read and what you consider the meaning of “originate”). Over the centuries many similar organizations were formed or broke away from Freemasonry. One such organization was the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows (GUOOF).

ms1988-009_oddfellows_b2f03_blueribbon
Membership Ribbon from GUOOF Tadmore Light Lodge, No. 6184, Blacksburg, VA

According to their organization’s published history, the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows was formed as a fraternal society in similar fashion to other Masonic societies. Its primary defining characteristic was its inclusivity. Anyone was welcome to join regardless of social status. Unfortunately, that inclusiveness led to a division in the order around the topic of race. In 1842/1843 New York, an effort was launched by a group from the Mother A.M.E. Zion Church to found a chapter of the GUOOF in America. They petitioned the current existing Odd Fellows lodges in America (members of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows) but were denied because the petitioners were black. Since one member of the church, Peter Ogden, was a member of a GUOOF lodge in England, he set sail to secure a charter for a new lodge. On March 1, 1843, the Philomathean Lodge No. 646 of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows was established in New York. From that time on, the GUOOF in America became a fraternal organization with primarily (while not exclusively) black membership.

Ms1988_009_oddfellowsTadmoreLightLodge_27thAnniversaryAnnouncment_undated.jpg
27th Anniversary Invitation for Tadmore Light Lodge, No. 6184 (undated)

Sometime in the early 1900’s (likely around 1904), Tadmore Light Lodge No. 6184 of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows was founded in Blacksburg, VA. By 1910, their roll showed 23 members.

Ms1988_009_1904_1911MinuteBook_130_131.jpg
1904-1911 Minute Book p.130-131

According to the Blacksburg Museum & Cultural Foundation, Tadmore Light Lodge had built or occupied a lodge hall in Blacksburg by 1907. The Odd Fellows Hall became a central part of New Town, an African American neighborhood in Blacksburg. The records from Tadmore Light Lodge show that the organization was active from the early 1900’s through the late 1960’s, holding regular meetings and social gatherings, collecting dues, and supporting members financially.

AppMembershp_1910_0928.jpg
Grand United Order of Odd Fellows Application for Membership c.1910

In the 1930’s, during the Great Depression, the GUOOF, like many other mutual support organizations, coordinated economic support efforts, insurance, and estate management for its members. The organization had regular reports from its Endowment Department about the amount of funds raised and who had been helped by those funds.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

According to the Interesting Facts noted on the GUOOF’s website:

In 1899, the GUOOF was the most powerful organization in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. There were 19 lodges and over 1000 members in the city. The organization had $46,000 in property, including two lodge halls. The organization
also had its own newspaper, The Odd Fellows Journal.

Members of the lodge in Blacksburg connected to the larger fraternal society through district conferences and national publications, including The Odd Fellows Journal. By the mid-1940’s, the Blacksburg lodge was receiving another publication: The Quarterly Bulletin. The Quarterly Bulletin was published in Philadelphia and appears to possibly have replaced The Odd Fellows Journal.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Of course, while the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows was an integral part of the community and helped to keep black Americans on their feet through the Great Depression and the Jim Crow era, it was also a secret fraternal society. As with any fraternity, it had its initiation ritual and required a firm commitment from its members. As early as 1929, the Applicant’s Agreement was worded like a legal contract – binding unless the law said it wasn’t (and even then only the part the law struck down became null and void).

The ritual changed a few times over the years and we have at least 2 different versions in our records (possibly 3). Joining the GUOOF involved an elaborate and solemn ceremony. Everything from the positions of people in the room to what was said was laid out in detail in the ritual book. I’ll give just a glance at the ritual, showing the initial setup and definition of some roles within the organization (the full book is much too long to share here – AND as a member of a fraternity myself, I would feel guilty sharing another organization’s secrets). Enjoy!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

If you want to know more, stop by Special Collections and ask for the Blacksburg [Virginia] Odd Fellows Records, 1902-1969, Ms1988-009. The records include financial records, correspondence, minute books, brochures of several annual conferences, by-laws and odd issues of the Odd Fellows Journal for the men’s lodge. There are also correspondence, minutes, and financial records for the women’s group – the Household of Ruth (check back next month for a blog post about the Household of Ruth in honor of Women’s History Month).

The Agitator

Charles Taylor Adams Played the Provocateur as Both Student and Alumnus

The title of the Herman Bruce Hawkins Papers (Ms1974-014) is a little misleading. While the materials in the one-box collection do relate to Hawkins (who graduated from Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 1910, had a  successful 50-year career in the power industry, remained actively involved in Virginia Tech’s alumni association, and was awarded Virginia Tech’s Distinguished Alumni Citation in 1961), the overwhelming focus is on Hawkins’ VPI classmate, Charles Taylor Adams.

A native of Richmond, Adams entered VPI as a sophomore in the school’s horticultural program in 1908. Adams became known on campus for his verbose and iconoclastic nature and his relative lack of interest in the discipline and protocol of a military school. The blurb below his picture in the 1910 Bugle sums up Adams (known more familiarly by his middle name) in this way: “Taylor has the hot-air supply of Montgomery County cornered, trussed up and stored away. And that isn’t the worst of it. If he’d keep it where he’s got it, we would not object so strenuously. But he always has it on tap … and you never can tell what is and what isn’t true.” Taylor also seems to have had a reputation for  excessive idealisism and was sometimes known to friends as “Quix,” short for Quixote.

In 1909, Adams was named editor-in-chief of The Virginia Tech, forerunner of today’s Collegiate Times. Taylor presented a number of tongue-in-cheek editorials and soon began running a regular feature, “Asbestographs,” so-called because the column was intended to cover “red-hot matter,” too incendiary to print on paper. Not quite living up to its stated purpose, the column usually featured gripes about mundane aspects of campus life: the stench from campus incinerators, the inefficient laundry service, and the lack of heat in the dorms being among the many grievances aired. Adams’ diatribes were often directed against his classmates, whom he castigated for their lack of enthusiasm and involvement.

The paper’s editorials took on a more weighty subject on January 26, 1910, when Adams addressed a  local issue. Some students had taken a dislike to a local Italian immigrant who had been peddling peanuts and popcorn (and, according to some, anarchism) and had pelted him with firecrackers. According to Adams (in language not politically correct), the Blacksburg mayor had paid an African-American Blacksburg resident to act as witness against two innocent cadets against whom the mayor held a grudge. The case was ultimately thrown out by the grand jury, but it came at a time when other issues were straining town-gown relations, and Adams’ editorial apparently received some negative attention from school authorities. In protest, Adams published the following week  a “Spotless Edition” of The Virginia Tech. The issue contained only advertising. The sections that would have held news stories and editorials were intentionally left blank.

adams002
The front page of the Virginia Tech’s “Spotless Edition,” February 2, 1910

Adams remained editor-in-chief and seems to have completed the school year, but records indicate that he never graduated from VPI. He did, however, go on to a successful career, working for several prestigious New York advertising firms.

In 1959, classmates Adams and Hawkins reconnected through correspondence.  The letters between the two served as an outlet for Adams’ views, and he wrote of his great regret  for having spent his years in advertising, rather than being a communist activist:

Did I ever tell you that I once met John Reed [the American journalist who chronicled Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution] and talked with him? (and how shamed I am now that his words moved me not, and I put him down as a wild eyed young radical).  It was in 1914, I think, in some smoke-filled bistro in Greenwich Village, and I was down there with some of my friends, and Reed came over to greet one of them … and not long thereafter he went over and was in the October Revolution … When I think that I might have done that, or something like it, I am shamed and deeply sick in spirit. For what have I done, in the seventy years I have had? … Advertising to make people buy things they do not need, at prices far beyond their true worth …

Remembering with fondness their time as classmates, Hawkins saw Adams as a frustrated idealist:

Your unhappiness though is, I suspect, that of so many intellectuals who expect too much of people. And with the people being what they are throughout the world, I wonder just where you might go to find happiness. In thinking back over the years I can recall now that you were a revolutionary from the start during our early years when we roamed the campus together at Blacksburg … You are though my favorite revolutionary and though it would have been thrilling to say, “I knew him well – he was one of my dearest friends” – I’m really glad that you didn’t distinguish yourself in the same way that John Reed and Lenin and Castro did.”

Taylor Adams (left) and Herman Hawkins are pictured as classmates in the 1910 Bugle.

During the next few years, the two men occasionally exchanged letters that present in microcosm the contrast of opinions on the overarching issues of the day—civil  rights, nuclear arms, and the Vietnam War—Adams  espousing views that at the time were considered fairly radical and often sharing printed materials from such organizations as the NAACP and the Congress for Racial Equality, while Hawkins held on to prevailing conservative opinions, such as his take on Adams’ activities as a speech-writer for the NAACP:

I do believe that you are being unrealistic for the highest hurdle the Negro has to clear is that of prejudice[,] and what you are doing through the N.A.A.C.P. – the writing of speeches for the traveling educators being sent through the plague ridden Southern States – will do nothing more than harden and heighten this barrier of prejudice.

Hawkins abruptly cut off correspondence in 1962, though Adams apparently made at least one more attempt at contact. Adams, having  retired from advertising, continued to use much of his free time in sharing his opinions with whomever would listen. The Hawkins collection contains several opinion pieces that Adams contributed to publications both large and small.

In 1969, perhaps recalling the reaction that he’d been able to provoke as editor of the student newspaper 60 years earlier, Adams placed three advertisements in The Virginia Tech. In the first, he exhorted students and their parents to protest a raise in the school’s room and board rates. In another ad, Adams offered a five-dollar reward to the first person answering two questions: “How many Negroes are on the academic (not sports, dance, or Home Ec.) faculty of VPI?” and “Give name and brief description of all academic courses in Negro History, Culture and related specifically Negro subjects.” It was Adams’ third ad, however, that caused a stir.

Learning that U.S. Army Chief of Staff General William Westmoreland would be delivering an address at Virginia Tech’s ROTC commissioning ceremony on June 7, Adams  place an ad in the Tech calling for recruits for a “guerilla battalion” to protest the event. The ad generated a brief firestorm of controversy, and the Hawkins collection contains a number of opinion pieces against Adams specifically and school protests generally. In the end, Adams claimed that the ad was a joke. According to a May 22 article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch: “He said he ran it because he wanted ‘to stick a pin’ in the people at VPI, a school which he contends is behind the times.” Citing poor health, the 80-year-old Adams did not leave his home in New York to attend the event. A small, peaceful protest was, however, staged at the ceremony. (You can see footage of it in this Youtube video.)

VirginiaTech
Taylor Adams’ ad in a 1969 issue of The Virginia Tech

Adams continued writing about issues of the day into his 90s and died in 1981; Hawkins died that same year.

The Hawkins papers would of course be of interest to anybody researching Hawkins, and especially his involvement in the alumni association, but much more importantly, the papers provide a small glimpse into the private, conflicting opinions of two Virginia Tech alumni on some of the bigger questions confronting the United States during the 1950s and 1960s.

The Man, the Myth, the Mascot: Floyd H. Meade, Virginia Tech’s First Mascot Performer

Floyd "Hardtimes" Meade, 1921
Floyd “Hardtimes” Meade with his trained turkey at a 1921 football game

Floyd “Hardtimes” Meade. Many of you Hokie fans may know that name. We’ve mentioned him on this blog before in “Thanksgiving traditions at Virginia Tech” and When Orange Became The New Black (and Maroon the New Gray). He’s best remembered as the university’s first mascot performer, who dressed up as a clown in orange and maroon, and as the man who introduced the turkey to football games, influencing the HokieBird mascot.

But of course, Floyd Meade was more than that. People who knew the man recalled his activities at Virginia Tech to Col. Harry Temple, who wrote the epic history of Virginia Tech, The Bugle’s Echo (see also Harry Downing Temple Papers, Ms1988-039). But little about Meade’s family life has been discussed until now, thanks to the proliferation of genealogy websites, a search through digitized census, military, and vital records online reveals some important details about him and his family.

Floyd Hobson Meade (also Mead) was born October 2, 1882, in Blacksburg to Denie (also Dina) Meade. His father may have been either William Meade (on his marriage certificate) or Joe Dill (on his death certificate). Floyd also had a brother Emmett (b. 1880), sister Octavia (b. May 1895), and probably another brother named Alex (1887-1896).

According to Temple, Meade briefly lived with the family of Cadet N. W. Thomas, who brought him to campus in 1889. The students loved him, and after that, Meade started advertising the school’s athletic games. By 1896, he traveled with the football team on their trips as a mascot in the orange and maroon clown costume. (pp. 254-255) At this time, he also began working at the college in the Mess Hall (p. 448).

In 1913, Floyd started bringing live turkeys to football games, inspired by the team’s informal nickname the “Gobblers.” He trained the birds to pull carts, walk on a leash, and flap their wings and gobble on command. Temple even recounts after a victorious Thanksgiving Day game against V.M.I., that the rotund turkey was cooked and served in the Mess Hall! He also played music for himself and for the cadets – Temple states he was a regular one-man-band playing a guitar, bass drum, and harmonica all at once (p. 3115-3116).

Floyd Meade, 1921
Floyd Meade, 1921. Notice carefully the two-toned color of his outfit – probably maroon on the left and orange on the right!

On August 25, 1913,  Floyd married Lucy M. Turner, daughter of Giles Turner and a cook in private service. Floyd and Lucy were both involved in the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows in America. In 1905, he joined Tadmore Light Lodge #6184, the Blacksburg chapter of the fraternal organization. We have the Blacksburg Odd Fellows Records, Ms1988-009, which includes a membership book with an entry for Meade. Minutes and attendance records list him as Past Noble Father (the highest degree or rank in the organization), and a number of other documents refer to Meade’s service as secretary of the organization. Lucy Meade was a member of the Household of Ruth, the female auxiliary of the Odd Fellows. (Floyd’s membership entry and other Odd Fellows items are on display through the end of February in our exhibit on the first floor of Newman!)

Floyd’s life wasn’t always good though, and on April 24, 1929, Meade’s mother Denie died at around the age of 72. In December, Floyd lost his job at Virginia Tech, according to Temple. So students took up a collection to help with his family’s living expenses, and alumni wrote letters to try and change administrators’ minds – to no avail. (p. 3846-3847) Then, tragedy struck once more, when Lucy died on June 28, 1931, around age 45 of heart disease.

Floyd continued to work as a cook or waiter in restaurants around town and even served as head waiter at the Lake Hotel in Mountain Lake. By 1940, he was working as a janitor in private service. The next year, Meade died on February 8, after a car accident.

Floyd Meade (seated) and unidentified man (possibly nephew Emmett Meade, Jr.)
Floyd Meade (seated) and unidentified man (possibly nephew Emmett Meade, Jr.)

In 2003, Meade’s life provided the inspiration for Lucy Sweeney’s musical Hard Times Blues, which was performed in Roanoke and at the Lyric Theatre in Blacksburg. After researching him myself, I hope hope HOPE there’s a revival one day soon!

Sources:

 

“Amanda: Colored Daughter of Virginia”

Hidden History at Special Collections III

(In this on-again, off-again (mostly off-again) series, we look at interesting pieces found in unexpected places—noteworthy items that, because they represent only a tiny part of a larger collection that’s devoted to unrelated topics—remain concealed to all but the most thorough of researchers.)

Despite an increased interest in the past couple of decades, Blacksburg’s early African-American experience remains an underrepresented piece of the town’s history. Such projects as the restoration of St. Luke and Odd Fellows Hall as a museum of black history have done much to preserve a long-ignored history, but still African-American contributions to Blacksburg’s early development remain greatly undocumented. With a dearth of primary sources, every scrap of information that comes to hand is a precious discovery. One such discovery is a brief, off-the-cuff essay found in the James Robbins Randolph Papers (Ms1971-001).

Born in 1891, James Randolph was the son of Lingan Randolph, a professor of mechanical engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. The younger Randolph grew up in Blacksburg and obtained his own degree in mechanical engineering at VPI in 1912. After earning a master’s degree at Harvard in 1921, Randolph taught physics and mechanical engineering at a succession of colleges and served in the U. S. Army Reserve Ordnance Department from 1931 to 1943.

Nearly all of Randolph’s surviving papers consist of his notes and writings on various subjects. Not surprisingly, most of these writings—both fiction and non-fiction—focus on science and technology, particularly rocketry. But within a collection of essays gathered under the title “Maybe We Are Not Wanted on Mars” is a brief, seemingly incongruous piece Randolph called “Amanda: Colored Daughter of Virginia.”

In his five-page essay, the professor offers his views of race relations in the South, focusing primarily on the Blacksburg of his youth. His viewpoints might today be considered at best naïve, but they do offer some insights into race relations in Blacksburg a century ago. For example, Randolph attributes the necessity for the founding of New Town, a one-time historically black neighborhood near the present intersection of Main Street and Price’s Fork Road, to an influx of new residents:

Before the Civil War in the South, Negroes and whites lived side by side because they belonged to each other, and seldom had occasion to move separately. After the war both found it expedient to stay where they were … As the older people of both races died, or moved and were replaced by strangers, living side by side became less pleasant. So a group of Negroes bought a farm on the edge of town, divided it into lots, and called it Newtown.

Elsewhere in the essay, Randolph repeats his assertion that problems between the races resulted from disruptions by “outsiders.” Despite presenting a somewhat skewed look at the issue, Randolph recalls becoming aware at an early age that local relations between the races were not always easy, and that crises could erupt at any time:

Some of our students were from the mountains, where strange Negroes were apt to get shot, so we always feared a race riot, but it never came. As soon as we boys were big enough, Father told us how he planned to meet such an emergency. His plan was to round up as many as possible of our colored friends and get them into our house. Then he would take the front door, while we boys and the colored men took the back and sides. We were all good shots, and he explained that a man with peaceful intentions would come to the front door, whereas an enemy would try to sneak in somewhere else, so there was no harm in being trigger happy there.

It was around 1900, Randolph recalls, that “two colored girls, Amanda and Ella began coming to us once a week to give the house a real cleaning.” Thus began the family’s lifelong friendship with Amanda, who eventually became the Randolph’s cook. Later, when Amanda married, she and her husband John would live in the Randolph house while saving for a home of their own. Throughout the essay, Randolph writes of the couple with fondness and respect:

She and John were a thrifty industrious couple. He had his job. She worked part time for a white family, and she took in washing. She and John picked and canned fruits and vegetables on shares. They had fruit trees and a garden of their own. They had pigs and chickens. Their house was small and plain, but always neat. Their three daughters did well at school.

The Randolphs eventually left Blacksburg (James Randolph in 1914, his parents in 1918) but frequently corresponded with Amanda, and she visited the Randolphs in New Jersey on several occasions. James Randolph concludes his essay by remembering his last meeting with Amanda:

The last time I saw Amanda was when my father’s portrait was unveiled at the college where he had taught for so long … Amanda and her three daughters were among the invited guests. Her oldest daughter, Clio [sic], took Mother there … Amanda and I were talking when the meeting was called to order, and we sat down, side by side.

Randolph never provides Amanda’s last name, but a quick search of the census reveals the missing information. Among the inhabitants of the Randolph household in 1910, the census lists two servants named John B. and Amanda D. Rollins, aged 38 and 29, respectively. By 1920, John and Amanda owned a home of their own, which they shared with three daughters: Cleo, 10; Theriffee, 8; and Cuetta, 4. The census notes that the Rollins home was on a cross alley between Price’s Fork Road and Main Street, placing it within the bounds of what was at that time New Town. The family continues to appear in Blacksburg through the 1940 census, which shows Amanda Rollins, a 61-year-old, widowed cook, living on New Town Alley with daughters Cleo Price, 30; and “Quella” Rollins, 23. Cemetery readings on findagrave.com reveal that Amanda Rollins died in 1950 and is buried in Blacksburg. John B. Rollins (1878-1931) is also buried there, as are the couple’s daughters, Cleo Rollins Price (1910-1974), Theriffa Rollins Christian (1911-1956), and Cuetta Virginia Rollins Webb (1916-1987).

For more on Blacksburg’s African-American history and Special Collections’ role in helping to preserve it, see Sam Winn’s post of October 19, 2015, “Uncovering Hidden Histories: African Americans in Appalachia.”

 

Uncovering Hidden Histories: African Americans in Appalachia

One of our many roles in Special Collections is to shed light upon hidden histories, uncovering communities that are traditionally marginalized or forgotten by time. The long history of African-Americans in Appalachia, for example, has traditionally been overlooked. Through the communities of New Town, Wake Forest, and Nellie’s Cave (among others), Montgomery County has a particularly rich legacy to explore. We work with historians, genealogists, community members, and other institutions to document and preserve these stories for future generations.

Newman Library currently hosts “New Town: Across the Color Line”, an exhibit documenting  a predominantly African-American community that bordered the Virginia Tech campus until the late 20th century. Developed by the Virginia Tech Public History program, the exhibit includes items from the Blacksburg Odd Fellows Records (Ms1988-009) held by Special Collections. The exhibit will be open from October 5 through November 20.

Brochure for New Town Exhibit on display in Newman Library, October 5 - November 20

The Odd Fellows Records help document an important African-American civic institution in early 20th century Blacksburg. Researchers interested in the experiences of African-Americans in Montgomery County and greater Appalachia can find many other resources in Special Collections. Manuscript collections, photographs, oral history interviews, and rare books provide insight into the experiences of African-American communities from antebellum times through the present day. The Christiansburg Industrial Institute Historical Documents (Ms1991-033) represent a collaboration between the Christiansburg Industrial Institute Alumni Association and Special Collections to document the prestigious institution that educated generations of Virginia students from the 1860s through school integration.

Black and white photograph of Baily-Morris Hall, a building on the campus of Christiansburg Industrial Institute. Several African American teachers stand on a staircase in front of the building.
Baily-Morris Hall on Christiansburg Institute campus with teachers, date unknown.

Another collection, entitled “Hidden History: The Black Experience in the Roanoke Valley Cassette Tapes and Transcripts” (Ms1992-049), includes approximately forty-six interviews with African-American residents of Roanoke, Virginia about the “cultural, social, and political history” of their community. The research papers of historian and community activist Richard Dickenson (Richard B. Dickenson Papers, Ms2011-043) include a wealth of information about local African-American history, including the free communities of antebellum Montgomery County and the many civic institutions of Christiansburg. The John Nicolay Papers, (Ms1987-027) include research files and oral histories that provide insight into churches, local institutions, and the historic African-American community of Wake Forest.

These collections represent a small fraction of the primary sources and publications that document African-American history in Special Collections. More importantly, these resources point to an abundant history still waiting to be uncovered.

Climbing the Water Tower: How Women Went from Intruders to Leaders at Virginia Tech

In the early 1920s, the first female students at Virginia Tech were not quite welcome. They had special rules to follow, there were no dormitories for women, and male students would throw water on them as they passed by the dorms. But one day, Ruth Terrett, a civil engineering student, decided to show the men she could do just as well as them. She donned a cadet uniform and climbed the university’s water tower, a tradition the male cadets undertook to prove their strength and ability. That day, Ruth proved that women, when given the chance, could do what men could.

Women throughout Virginia Tech’s history have encountered many obstacles, and have consistently overcome them. Sam Winn and I (Laurel Rozema) recently searched through Special Collections’ holdings to document these women and their achievements in the university’s history. Our work culminated in an exhibit at the Alumni Association’s Women’s Weekend and a slideshow, entitled “Climbing the Water Tower: How Women Went from Intruders to Leaders at Virginia Tech.” Let me share with you a few of those milestones now, or you can view the PDF of our slideshow here.

Women join the student population

Many people know the story of the first female students: twelve women, including five full-time students, enrolled in 1921. Two years later, transfer student Mary Brumfield received a bachelor’s in applied biology, earning her master’s from VPI in 1925, the first woman to achieve either degree. But, did you know women began attending VPI several years earlier? They were allowed to sit in courses during the fall and spring for no credit and were admitted to summer classes, starting in 1916. 1921 was still a milestone year as it was the first all courses were open to women seeking a college degree, because there was “no good reason for not doing so” as the university bulletin states.

First female graduates: Mary Ella Carr Brumfield (‘23; ‘25); Ruth Louise Terrett (‘25); Lucy Lee Lancaster (‘25); Lousie Jacobs (‘25); Carrie Taylor Sibold (‘25)
First female graduates: Mary Ella Carr Brumfield (‘23; ‘25); Ruth Louise Terrett (‘25); Lucy Lee Lancaster (‘25); Lousie Jacobs (‘25); Carrie Taylor Sibold (‘25)

The first coeds, it must be admitted, were more than likely all white, given that segregation was legal due to Jim Crow laws and the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) upholding “separate but equal” racial segregation in the public sphere. It’s not clear when women of color were first admitted to the university, but international students from Mexico, China, Puerto Rico, and other places were already attending VPI by the 1920s. We believe the first woman from India to attend VPI was Kamini Mohan Patwary, who earned a master’s in statistics in 1955. However, it wasn’t until 1966 that the first six African American women matriculated, thirteen years after the first African American man and 55 years after the first women. In 1968, Linda Adams became the first African American woman to graduate from Virginia Tech. (Read more about her on our previously blog post.)

There wasn’t much for women to do athletically in the early years, so Ruth Terrett, mentioned above, started an informal women’s basketball team before graduating in 1925. Women joined the cheerleading team in 1941, but were not officially recognized as members until the 1955-1956 school year. The first intramural women’s sport was basketball in 1967. Three years later, swimming became the first intercollegiate sport for women, and women were allowed to compete on the gymnastics team.

Because the Corps of Cadets did not admit women, Patricia Ann Miller was denied permission to enroll in Corps classes. Despite this, in 1959, she became the first woman commissioned during graduation when she successfully applied for a commission from the Army Women’s Medical Specialist Corps. Finally, in 1973, the Corps formed the L Squadron, exclusively for female cadets. Deborah J. Noss became the first female squadron commander and Cheryl A. Butler the first female African American cadet (and squadron leader the next year). In 1975, women were admitted to join the cadet band, and four years later, the L Squadron was disbanded to order to integrate women into the formerly all-male companies. In 1987, Denise Shuster became the first female regimental commander and in 2005, Christina Royal the first African American female regimental commander.

Female students who were not athletes or cadets had other ways of “breaking the glass ceiling”. In 1953, Betty Delores Stough became the first woman to receive a doctorate, in parasitology. Jean Harshbarger was the first woman elected class president for the Class of 1974. In 1968, Jaqueline D. Dandridge was the first woman of color in the homecoming court, and Marva L. Felder became the first African American homecoming queen in 1983.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Women join the workforce

What about the women working at VPI? Ella Agnew is often remembered as the first female home demonstration agent in the nation in 1910. When the university became headquarters for the Virginia Cooperative Extension, Agnew and the other agents became staff of the university. Agnew was also the first woman to receive VPI’s Certificate of Merit in 1926, and Agnew Hall was the first campus building named after a woman in 1949. However, few realize she was not the first woman to work at Tech. In 1902, Frances Brockenbrough became Superintendent of the Infirmary, and the next year Mary G. Lacy became the first female Librarian and Margaret Spencer the President’s Secretary.

Other female agents worked for the Extension during its early years at the university. In fact, although the African American division was headquartered at Hampton Institute, the agents were considered non-resident staff of VPI, first listed in the 1917 university catalog. One of these women was Lizzie Jenkins, who became the first African American female home demonstration agent in Virginia in 1913.

Women faculty members are first listed in the university catalog for 1921-1922. Mary Moore Davis ranked as a professor and worked as a state home demonstration agent in the Extension Division. She also established the home economics degree program at VPI. The first Dean of Women was Mildred Tate, who served from 1937 to 1947, and the first female academic dean was Laura Jean Harper, who in 1960 became the first Dean of the School of Home Economics. (Read more about her on our previously blog post.) Heidi Ford in 1970, Ella L. Bates in 1974, and Johnnie Miles in 1974 became the first female African American faculty members at Virginia Tech.

Women began achieving executive positions in the 1980s and 1990s. Sandra Sullivan was named Vice President for Student Affairs in 1982, and Peggy S. Meszaros served as the first (and currently only) female Provost from 1995 to 2000. Women started serving on the Board of Visitors in 1944, when VPI and Radford College merged. However in 2014, Deborah L. Petrine became the first female Rector in the university’s then 142-year history.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Women by the numbers

Virginia Tech has gone through enormous changes since its founding in 1872, especially in the growth of opportunities for women. Women on the staff have grown from one female administrative officer in 1902 to five women faculty members (only 4.7% of the faculty) in 1921 to 1,525 or 39.5% of the faculty in 2014. The student population has grown from 12 women or 1.3% of the students in 1921 to 13,241 women or 42.4% of the student population in 2014.

According to the Digest of Education Statistics, in Fall 2013, women accounted for 54.6% of enrolled students, 48.8% of faculty, and 54.5% of total employees (including faculty) in degree-granting public institutions in the U.S. However, the Digest also shows that women received only 30.8% of the degrees conferred by STEM schools in 2012-2013. So, as far as women have come, there’s still more to do.

An Uneasy Birth

Marking the 100th Anniversary of D. W. Griffith’s Controversial Landmark Film, The Birth of a Nation

While recently pulling materials for an exhibit on silent films, I happened upon a small promotional flyer, probably from Blacksburg’s Lyric Theatre, for D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, which saw its initial theatrical release on March 3, 1915.

Though Griffith’s work is considered a watershed in cinematic history, few today can claim to have watched it in its entirety. The film’s relegation to a remote corner of public consciousness can be attributed to its silent film format (considered quaint or boring by most modern viewers) and to its treatment of a subject matter that is today widely seen as repugnant.

The Birth of a Nation purports to tell the story of America’s Civil War and the origin of the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction. In doing so, the film portrays the Klan as a noble organization devoted to protecting Southern society from marauding bands of brutish, lecherous Freedmen and their manipulative, hypocritical carpetbagger allies.

The Birth of a Nation flyer cover, depicting a cross-wielding Klan member in full regalia sitting astride a rearing horse, hints strongly at the film’s content and point of view.
The Birth of a Nation flyer cover, depicting a cross-wielding Klan member in full regalia sitting astride a rearing horse, hints strongly at the film’s content and point of view.

 

The plot for The Birth of a Nation was based on Thomas F. Dixon Jr.’s novel The Clansman, the second volume in a trilogy about the Reconstruction South. A North Carolina Baptist minister, attorney, and state legislator, Dixon became a popular author around the turn of the 20th century, publishing more than 20 novels. The Clansman

The Clansman is among five of Dixon’s novels held by Special Collections. The library’s main collection holds several more titles.
The Clansman is among five of Dixon’s novels held by Special Collections. The library’s main collection holds several more titles.

is today remembered as his most famous (or infamous) work, and from it was drawn the film’s Southern apologist version of the Klan’s origins.

In bringing Dixon’s tale to the screen, Griffith spared no expense and pioneered a number of moviemaking techniques and technologies: The Birth of a Nation is said to have been the first film to employ night photography, panning motion shots, the iris effect, the intercutting of parallel action sequences, and many more advances that would become mainstays of cinematic narrative. Griffith also employed hundreds of extras in staging epic Civil War battle scenes and interspersed his story with accurate tableaux of scenes from American history. The film was unlike anything that movie-going audiences had seen to that time.

 

Inside, the flyer lists some of the innovations and enormous costs associated with the film’s production.
Inside, the flyer lists some of the innovations and enormous costs associated with the film’s production.

Griffith’s accuracy and attention to detail exploited the public’s willingness to take its history lessons from fictionalized accounts. An uninformed audience, seeing accurately portrayed historical scenes presented side-by-side with Dixon’s skewed view of events, might be partially forgiven for accepting all as fact. Even supposedly knowledgeable viewers, however, were enthralled by Griffith’s prowess as a storyteller. The film is said to have been the first to be screened in the White House. After seeing it, President Wilson, himself a historian, reportedly said, “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” The film’s widespread popularity and its audience’s impressionability are credited with being partially responsible for the KKK’s resurgence and rise to political prominence during the 1910s and 1920s.

CAPTION: A page from the flyer illustrates how The Birth of a Nation mixed historic events with a subjective, fanciful view of the Klan’s origins.
A page from the flyer illustrates how The Birth of a Nation mixed accurate historical depictions of the Civil War with with a subjective, fanciful interpretation of events.

Even in 1915, however, the film spurred controversy. The NAACP staged protests in several major cities and made repeated efforts to have the film banned from theaters. Letter-writing campaigns sought to educate the public on the facts of Reconstruction and to warn of the film’s inflammatory nature, while boycotts attempted to provide economic deterrents against the film’s release. Such efforts were in fact successful in having the film banned from the theatres of a handful of large cities but could not prevent its nationwide release.

Testimony to its immense popularity at the time, The Birth of a Nation continued to enjoy periodic revivals for years, and it is said to have remained America’s highest-grossing film until being toppled by another Civil War / Reconstruction epic, Gone with the Wind, more than twenty years later.

Despite his film’s overwhelming commercial success, Griffith was not immune to criticism. Partially in response to negative comments on his film’s racially intolerant themes, Griffith released his magnum opus, Intolerance, the following year. The three-and-a-half hour epic tells four parallel stories from different time periods of human history, each illustrating the catastrophic consequences of intolerance. Griffith would continue to make films throughout the silent era with varying degrees of success, but he never again matched the achievements of The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Should The Birth of a Nation be considered an early cinematic masterpiece that is marred by its skewed interpretation of history and its outdated, hateful view of racial relations, or should any film (or other work of art) be considered a masterpiece when it advocates a point of view that is later almost universally abhorred as destructive and wrongheaded? In answering this question in his 2003 review of the film in 2003, critic Roger Ebert wrote: “’The Birth of a Nation’ is not a bad film because it argues for evil… [I]t is a great film that argues for evil. To understand how it does so is to learn a great deal about film, and even something about evil.”