On August 31, 1966 Sweet Briar College, a liberal arts women’s college in Virginia, opened its doors for the first black student: Marshalyn Yeargin, a junior transfer from Bennett College, a black women‘s college in Greensboro, North Carolina, was accepted for admission. Her case aroused so much interest that it was even documented by the Washington Post on September 3, 1966. In the interview, Yeargin expressed her surprise, for she “didn‘t figure there was going to be any big fuss“. In fact, Sweet Briar, being one of the first white schools in Virginia to admit black students, stirred the masses and fell from grace with the Attorney General for Virginia. But what had happened?
Indiana Fletcher Williams, owner of the Sweet Briar plantation, paved the way for the establishment of a women‘s college on her and her husband‘s property. In her will from 1889, she advised her trustees to accomplish her plan to found the Sweet Briar Institute. The only catch to it: according to Williams‘ will, the school was supposed to be “for the education of white girls and young women“ only, excluding students of other races.
Therefore, the integration of the college in the 1960s meant to break the will of the founder. However, in the background of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 many faculty members and students argued that Williams‘ restrictions were not up to date and decreased the quality of the education. Eventually, Sweet Briar filed suit in Amherst Circuit Court in August 17, 1964 asking for the right to accept anyone with the proper qualifications to Sweet Briar. The apparently good intentions of the school were not appreciated by everyone. For instance, the Attorney General for Amherst County claimed that “Sweet Briar did not come into court with clean hands or good faith“. He believed that the college needed federal money and was not acting out of good morals. The attorney suggested to dismiss the request of Sweet Briar. Sweet Briar had to struggle with the law for four years and go through several courts in order to eventually be able to change Indiana Fletcher Williams‘ will.
In my investigative article, I want to challenge the actual motives of Sweet Briar to integrate the college and display the overall reactions of staff, students and outsiders to this decision. I want to provide portraits of the first black students of Sweet Briar and find out what has become of them. Interesting for my research is also the question to what extent today‘s students are integrated or if some of them are subject to discrimination.
In order to answer my research questions, I will browse the archives of the Sweet Briar library, search for helpful newspaper and academic articles and legal documents, talk to college staff and students and also to alumnae.
So stay tuned, my research will provide you an insight into an important part of the history of Sweet Briar College.