A Mystery Banjo and the Racism in Our Past

Recently, I’ve been working on identifying artifacts and university memorabilia in our collections, and I came across a beautiful, four-stringed tenor banjo and its case. I did not anticipate that an item so innocuous as a musical instrument would lead down a path into learning about the university’s racist past, including minstrelsy and blackface.

To start, I could find no information about the banjo’s former owner, so I investigated the banjo and case themselves for clues.  Handwritten on the banjo head is “The Collegians, VPI, Blacksburg, VA.”, and the peghead identifies it as a Bruno banjo. Handwritten on the banjo’s case are the initials, “L.A.H.”

Searching through names related to our collections, I found the Lewis A. Hall Papers, Ms1983-009, very promising given his initials and his connection to Virginia Tech. Looking thru the collection, my excitement rose almost immediately when I found a reference to the Collegians – the band the banjo is advertising – in the printed items. Then I opened the folders of photographs and found a beautiful picture of the Collegians themselves, with one man holding this very banjo! A portrait in the collection is of Hall, and it’s clear he’s the same man holding the banjo.

Interested in finding out who else is in the photo, I pulled the Collegians folder in the Historical Photographs Collection. I found a copy of the same photo, dated 1923-1924, identifying the musicians from left: Robert B. Skinner (drummer); J.B. “Yash” Cole (trombone);  Arthur Scrivenor Jr. (piano); Lewis A. Hall (banjo, manager, and director); H. Gaines Goodwin (saxophone); Bill Harmon (saxophone); and S.C. Wilson (trumpet, not pictured). This picture is also used in the 1924 Bugle yearbook.

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There were two other pictures in the folder of Hall and the Collegians, dated 1922-1923, from left: L.A. “Lukie” Hall (tenor banjo); J.B. Cole (trumbone); R.S. “Bob” Skinner (traps); W. “Bass” Perkins (clarinet, violin, leader); Tom S. Rice (piano); W.D. “Willie” Harmon (saxophone); F.R. “Piggy” Hogg (saxophone, traps, manager); and S.C. “Stanley” Wilson (trumpet, not pictured).

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After discovering the owner’s name, I wanted to know a bit more about both Hall and the Collegians. To the latter first – A dance orchestra at VPI formed in 1918 as the Southern Syncopating Saxophone Six. They were later renamed Virginia Tech Jazz Orchestra and known as the College Six. In 1922, they became the Collegians, and in 1931, they finally became the Southern Colonels. Today, the jazz band continues to perform, as part of the Corps of Cadets Regimental Band, the Highty-Tighties.

Second, Lewis Augustus Hall was born Lewis Augustus Hall in 1903 in Norfolk, Virginia. He attended VPI from 1920 to 1924. In addition to playing for the Collegians (also called the Tech Orchestra), he was a member of the Norfolk Club, Cotillion Club, Tennis Squad, the American Society of Mechanical Engineering, and the Virginia Tech Minstrels (more on this below). He also served as athletic editor for The Virginia Tech, the predecessor of the Collegiate Times, assistant manager of basketball, and manager of the freshman basketball team. Finally, he rose thru the ranks of the Corps of Cadets, graduating as Lieutenant of Company F. In 1924, he graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering. Upon graduation, Hall joined the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company, retiring as assistant vice-president in 1968. He married and with his wife Virginia had two sons. Hall maintained a connection to Virginia Tech, serving on the board of directors for the Virginia Tech Alumni Association for 15 years and earning the Alumni Distinguished Service Award in 1977. He died in 1982.

As mentioned above, Hall performed in the student club, the Virginia Tech Minstrels. I’ve heard of minstrel shows before and knew that students at Virginia Tech had held them. But this was my first time coming across them inadvertently, so it was a shock to learn that the owner of this banjo was a member of a minstrelsy.

If you aren’t aware, minstrel shows in the United States were a performance typically including skits, jokes, and music – predominantly performed by white people in blackface as a spoof, full of stereotypes and racist depictions, of Black people and their cultures. The 1924 Bugle (pp. 346-347) discusses the group and even depicts members in blackface. The Collegians are also listed as the group’s orchestra and a photo of the group includes Hall holding the banjo.

Hall’s and the Collegian’s involvement in minstrelsy shows that even an item as seemingly innocuous as a musical instrument can shed light on a part of our history that we – especially those of us in positions of privilege – do not always acknowledge. Yet, minstrel shows at Virginia Tech continued well into the 1960s, and this form of racism (and others) continues in America into the present day.

After Hollins College recently addressed controversy of blackface depictions in their yearbooks, Virginia Tech released the University Statement on Offensive Photographs to address the racist imagery in our past, and the University Libraries prepared a statement for our digital yearbook repositories to affirm our commitment to the Principles of Community and providing historical documentation to researchers.

My research about a mystery banjo took me down a path I could not imagine. I was at first excited to discover the owner’s identity, then horrified to learn about his and the instrument’s connection to racist entertainment. But in the end, the journey led me to learn more about this form of racism and how its legacy continues to impact American society. As the University statement says, “The history of our nation and the Commonwealth of Virginia has a common storyline starting with slavery and segregation, and moving toward our ultimate goal of treating everyone with respect and cherishing the strength that comes from diversity of identities and lived experiences. We, as a society, are somewhere in the middle of this process.”

For more information about blackface and minstrelsy, please read “Blackface: The Birth of an American Stereotype” from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture blog, A People’s Journey, A Nation’s Story, as well as Vox’s interview with author John Strausbaugh, “The complicated, always racist history of blackface” by Sean Illing.

(This post was edited May 22, 2019, with additional information about blackface and minstrelsy, the statements on offensive imagery in the Bugle yearbooks, and a revised title.)

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Presidential Inaugurations and Virginia Tech

Well, tomorrow is the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump, so I decided to scour our collections for items pertaining to presidents. At Special Collections you can find all sorts of material related to presidents – presidents of the U.S., presidents of organizations and businesses, and, of course, presidents of Virginia Tech. If you search our blog and our finding aids, you’ll find all sorts of posts and collections referencing all these presidential types. But I’d like to highlight items related to the presidential inaugurations of the U.S. and VT presidents that we maintain.

United States Presidential Inaugurations

The Highty-Tighties, Virginia Tech’s very own Corps of Cadets band, has performed for numerous U.S. presidents, including Theodore Roosevelt at an exposition in 1902 and in the pre-inauguration celebrations for Barack Obama’s first term in 2009. They have also gain national recognition through their performances at twelve inaugural parades, starting with Woodrow Wilson’s second inauguration in 1917 and ending with George W. Bush’s second in 2005. The band was also invited to play at William Howard Taft’s inauguration in 1909, which they were unable to attend, according to letters in Pres. Paul B. Barringer’s records, RG 2/6. During the mid-20th century, these parades doubled as band competitions, and the Highty Tighties won first prize three years consecutively in 1953, 1957, and 1961, the last year of the inaugural parade competition. Special Collections has photographs and other items related to the Highty Tighties at a few of the parades in the Historical Photograph Collection.

Special Collections also holds invitations to several U.S. presidential inaugurations in our manuscript collections. We also have materials related to the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s 1861 inauguration and a tintype from Abraham Lincoln’s 1864 re-election campaign. Below are inaugural invitations and programs for Zachary Taylor in 1849 from the Robert Taylor Preston Papers, Ms1992-003; Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941 in the John Henry Johnson Scrapbook, Ms2009-053; and Richard M. Nixon in 1969 in the Earl D. Gregory Collection, Ms1972-004.

Here are items from the press packet for the inauguration of Harry S Truman in 1949 in the Evert B. Clark Papers, Ms1989-022:

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Virginia Tech Presidential Installations

Being the repository for the University Archives, Special Collections, of course, maintains items related to the inaugurations or installations of the university presidents. For example, we have a video of James D. McComas’ inauguration in 1988 as 13th president of Virginia Tech. Several of the records of the presidents have files related to their inauguration ceremonies, including Walter Newman in RG 2/10, Boxes 2-3; T. Marshall Hahn in RG 2/11, Box 97; and William E. Lavery in RG 2/12, Boxes 1-2. Additionally, items related to the installation ceremonies are located in the Record Group Vertical Files and the University Libraries library catalog.

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:

 

The Life and Art of G. Preston Frazer

G. Preston Frazer in 1969
G. Preston Frazer, 1969 (Walter Gropius/G. Preston Frazer Papers, Ms1992-052)

Recently, we were relocating some large paintings for an exhibit in Special Collections, and as I researched the artist, I felt he deserved a spotlight here. The artists is G. Preston Frazer (1908-2003), an Associate Professor of Art at Virginia Tech from 1939 until 1974. Frazer graduated from Virginia Military Institute with a B.A. in Liberal Arts in 1929, before earning a B.S. in Engineering from the University of Hawaii in 1935. Two years later, Frazer received a masters degree in Architecture from Harvard University.

Cover of Frazer's Six Pencil Drawings of Honolulu, Hawaii, U.S.A.
Cover of Frazer’s Six Pencil Drawings of Honolulu, Hawaii, U.S.A.,1939 (G. Preston Frazer Collection, Ms2009-098)

Frazer began focusing his career on art, following work at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute and the Megiddo Expedition in Palestine. In 1939, he published Sixteen Pencil Impressions of Honolulu, Hawaii, U.S.A., inspired by his time in the then-territory. That year, he also began teaching in the architectural engineering department at Virginia Tech, but left to serve with the Second Armored Division of the U.S. Army during World War II, participating in the Normandy landings on D-Day. Upon leaving the military in 1946, Frazer had reached Major in the General Staff Corps and earned the Belgium Fourragere (twice), the French Medal of Liberty, and a Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster. He served in the Army Reserves until retiring at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 1968.

Returning to Virginia Tech in 1946, Frazer taught art in today’s College of Architecture and Urban Studies until his retirement in 1974. The university established the G. Preston Frazer Prize, awarded annually to art graduates, and the College continues to award students for their work in the G. Preston Frazer Architecture Fund/Architecture 2nd Year Competition.

One of the paintings by Frazer that Special Collections displayed is Hercules Shooting the Stymphalian Birds (photograph from exhibit below). A letter in the G. Preston Frazer Collection (Ms2009-098) explains where the idea came from: “One of my favorite sculptures is an archer shooting a bow – The large life size one by Bourdelle is in the Metropolitan, NY. I went to see it every time I was in NY, and I named it ‘Hercules Shooting the Stymphalian Birds.'” (You can see this sculpture online on the museum’s website.) He continues, “I painted (oil on canvas) a figure (life size [-] Mike Sr, was the model) – of ‘Hercules Shooting the Stymphalian Birds’ (a canvas about 5 ft. by 8 ft.)”

Frazer worked on the painting from his studio overlooking Virginia Tech, where students would visit to see his projects. He recounts a funny incident during his painting, “One of the students who came in saw the buildings and said ‘Oh, that is Burress Hall, V.P.I. I hope Hercules shoots it & burns it down! (said jokingly of course.) It was in the Joan [sic] Fonda anti-establishment, anti-war period, etc. I explained that Hercules was shooting the Stymphalian Birds. Hercules’s labors were good deeds. Hence instead of just shooting the Bow, he was destroying Birds which were enemies of Humans!!”

In addition to Hercules and the aforementioned G. Preston Frazer Collection (Ms2009-098), Special Collections has a painting Frazer made of Icarus and the Walter Gropius/G. Preston Frazer Papers (Ms1992-052), with photographs and correspondence between Frazer and Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus School. The G. Preston Frazer Artwork (Ms1992-055) contains a beautiful sketchbook of scenes in Spain in 1953 and several artworks. For your viewing pleasure, I end this post with a few of those pieces, including scenes from Blacksburg and the Virginia Tech campus. More can be seen on online at ImageBase.

When Orange Became The New Black (and Maroon the New Gray)

1896, a Formative Year for Virginia Tech Football

With a new school year about to start, and Lane Stadium soon to be filled with cheering fans, we can’t resist offering a little lesson from Hokie History 101. Well, this piece may belong in a 200-level course, since we’ve included a few obscure facts that the average fan isn’t likely to know.

In recognition of its broadening curriculum in science and technology, the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College in 1896 became the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute. The new name being more than a mouthful, it was shortened in popular usage to Virginia Polytechnic Institute, or VPI.

The school’s fledgling football program underwent changes of its own that year. Early on, the college had adopted school colors of black and cadet gray, but when worn on a striped football jersey, the colors resembled a prison convict’s uniform—a similarity that undoubtedly became a source of ridicule from opposing teams.

Norbon R. Patrick, a guard on the 1893 team, poses in the jersey that necessitated a change of school colors.
Norbon R. Patrick, a guard on the 1893 team, poses in the jersey
that necessitated a change of school colors.

A committee reviewed the colors used by other colleges and decided that burnt orange and Chicago maroon would provide a unique color combination (as indeed it did and continues to do). The new colors debuted not in the opening game of 1896, but in the second game, at home against Roanoke College, on October 20.

The black jersey sported by the 1895 team, just prior to the school’s name change, featured the letters AMC encircled by a large C in white.
The black jersey sported by the 1895 team, just prior to the school’s name change,
featured the letters AMC encircled by a large C in white.
The first orange-and-maroon jersey featured an oversized V under a smaller P, reflecting a de-emphasis of the word “Institute” in popular usage of the school’s name.
The first orange-and-maroon jersey featured an oversized V under a smaller P, reflecting
a de-emphasis of the word “Institute” in popular usage of the school’s name.

Changes came to fan support, as well. By the 1890s, the college cheer, or yell, had become a popular means of boosting enthusiasm at campus athletic events. As long as they incorporated the name of the college and / or team, the words in these yells weren’t as important as the rhythm and tone. Cheers relied on creative, invented words–words that were easy and fun to yell–as is evident in the first yell adopted by VAMC:

Rip, Rah, Ree,
Vah, Vah, Vee,
Vir-gin-i-a
A. M. C.
Vir-gin-i-a
Virg-gin-i-a
Ree, Ree,
A. M. C.

 An abridged, peppier version of the longer yell seems to have been used more frequently by fans at games:

 Rip, Rah, Ree!
Va, Va, Vee!
Virginia, Virginia!
A-M-C!

By the 1895 season, the students had adopted a new, somewhat more complex college yell, published in the 1896 Bugle:

Hicki! Hicki! Hicki!
Sis! Bom! Bar!
A. and M. College,
Wah! Who! Wah!
Vivla! Vivla! Vivla! Vee!
Virginia! Virginia! A. M. C.!

The “Wah! Who! Wah!” bit may have been a little too reminiscent of the “Wah-hoo-wah!” yell of University of Virginia fans, and the 1896 Bugle records a separate yell that was used to cheer the 1895 football squad :

Do! Do! Ha! Ha! Dom-i-di-i-dee;
Wah! Wah!
A. M. C.
Hip Hip, Hip, Hurrah!
Virgin-u-a!, Virgini-u-ah,
Wee! Wee!
A. M. C.-c-c-c-c-c-boom!!!! Football

The school’s new name rendered these yells obsolete, but rather than simply incorporate the new name into existing yells, the Athletic Association sponsored a contest for a new yell (which, as things turned out, is fortunate, or we might otherwise all be cheering “Let’s go, Hickies!” or be members of “the Do Do Nation” today). The composer of the winning entry would receive a five-dollar prize.

Oscar Meade Stull (1874-1964), a senior majoring in applied chemistry and serving as cadet first lieutenant and adjutant, put his imagination to work in composing a cheer that used fun, invented words and incorporated the school’s new name:

Hoki, Hoki, Hoki, Hy!
Techs, Techs, VPI!
Sola-Rex, Sola-Rah.
Polytechs — Vir-gin-i-a!
Rae, Ri, VPI!

Oscar Meade Stull, '96, the first person to ever hear the “What is a Hokie?” question.
Oscar Meade Stull, ’96, the first person to ever hear
the “What is a Hokie?” question.

Stull’s submission became the winning entry and is said to have made its debut when the cadets traveled to Richmond and participated in the laying of the cornerstone for the city’s Jefferson Davis monument on July 2, 1896. As Stull recalled some 60 years later, “I was surprised when my yell was accepted, but I needed the five spot.” In addition to the fiver, Stull earned a lasting place in Virginia Tech history. The legacy was an unexpected one. In a 1956 letter to Virginia Tech library director Seymour Robb, Stull wrote, “I am more surprised in recent years that [the Hokie yell] has endured for 60 years!”

According to various histories, 1896 also marked the year in which Floyd “Hard Times” Meade (1882-1941) came to be associated with the football team. Just 14 years old at the time, Meade worked part-time in the campus mess hall and was adopted as an unofficial mascot by the team. As mascot, Meade frequently performed at games dressed as a clown in orange and maroon, his antics probably not so dissimilar to mascots of later years. Meade would later figure prominently in the evolution of the team’s mascot and traditions. But his is a story for a future blog post.

Floyd “Hard Times” Meade, from the 1899 Bugle.
Floyd “Hard Times” Meade, from the 1899 Bugle.

The traditions begun in 1896 served the team well. The VPI gridders won that first orange-and-maroon game over Roanoke College 12-0, and the team eventually went 5-2-1, ending the season with a 24-0 rout of then-archrival VMI. The eight-game season was the longest played since the team’s founding, and though it would be nearly a decade before VPI regularly played that many games a year, the success of that season proved the feasibility of scheduling more games.

It would take some time for an “e” to be added to Stull’s “hoki,” and though his cheer incorporated the names “Techs” and “Polytechs,” the school seems to have made little effort in promoting the use of these names. The Cohee, an 1897-1898 publication of the Athletic Association, makes no mention of the names; the press most often referred to the team simply as “V.P.I.” or by generic terms such as “the Blacksburg eleven.” It would be several years before VPI teams came to be known more commonly as Techs, Polytechs, or Techmen; more than a decade to be known as The Gobblers; and still longer to be called The Hokies, but the seeds for all that has followed were sown in 1896.

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.

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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.

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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.

Ringing in the Junior Year

As a relatively new employee at Virginia Tech, I’ve been learning about the university by working occasionally on records in the University Archives. Currently, I am working on memorabilia and documents regarding the Ring Design Committee and the annual Ring Dance. You may already be aware of the tradition of the Virginia Tech class rings, but if not, then let me share what I’ve learned from our materials!

Class of 2005 Example Ring Mold
One of several ring molds for the Class of 2005

Each class at Virginia Tech designs their own class ring, rather than having one school ring for multiple classes. The tradition began in 1911, when the classes of 1911 through 1914 designed the first class rings at Virginia Tech. Each class since then designs and premieres their rings in the fall of their Junior year. A committee of class officers and student body appointees works with the Virginia Tech Alumni Association and a vendor to design a ring unique for that class but with traditional elements, such as eagles, the American flag, campus buildings, and a chain symbolizing class unity surrounding the school name and stone. Each ring collection since 1991 is named in honor of a distinguished alum or important associate of the university. (On a related note, the Class of 2011’s class gift to the university is a statue of a class ring merging the designs from the 1911 and 2011 class rings, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the tradition.)

In addition to ring proposals and committee planning documents, the University Archives has many wax molds like in the picture above and ring brochures, exemplified below.

One of the ring brochures discusses a a new tradition started in 2012 by alums of the Class of 1964. The Hokie Gold Legacy Program allows alumni to donate or bequeath their class rings to be either displayed or melted down for reuse in new class rings. The Class of 2014 received the first class rings made with the donations. This is a really neat initiative to bring together the past, present, and future students at Virginia Tech and to promote sustainability through reuse.

Another part of the Virginia Tech class ring tradition started in 1934. Each class holds a Ring Dance in the spring of the Junior year to symbolize the transition from junior to senior. At the dance, each student wears their date’s ring on a ribbon of one of the class colors. The Corps of Cadets form the shape of the class year and perform a sabre arch. Then, couples exchange their rings, during the song “Moonlight and VPI”, written by Fred Waring and Charles Gaynor for Virginia Tech. Over 30 years ago, one company of the Corps of Cadets released a small pig onto the dance floor after the ring exchange as a prank, and the Virginia Tech Swine Club continues the tradition to this today! At the end of the night, attendees go to the Drillfield to watch fireworks, hear the playing of “Silver Taps”, and witness the firing of the Corps cannon, Skipper. The students also receive gifts with the class logo and ring dance theme, such as t-shirts, drink glasses, and koozies.

The University Archives receives some memorabilia as well as invitations and tickets to the Ring Dance and Ring Week:

If you want to see some of the class rings, check out the Virginia Tech Alumni Association’s website. Also, visit the History of Virginia Tech (2010) website to learn more about university traditions.