Whitehurst left a legacy of firsts for Black students
September 1, 2020
The first Black students admitted to Virginia Tech blazed the trail of proving they belonged academically at the university.
James Leslie Whitehurst Jr. then pushed for that path to extend through all aspects of campus life.
“These other guys went along with the segregated system. I think, ‘I can get my degree and get on with life,’ was their thought,” said Charles Johnson, a longtime Blacksburg barber who lived off-campus with some of the university’s first Black students. “But James, he wanted to change the whole system.”
Whitehurst and Robert Garfield Wells were admitted as the seventh and eighth Black students at Virginia Tech in 1959, six years after Irving Peddrew III became the first Black student in 1953. Like his predecessors, Whitehurst began his college years banned from living, eating, or otherwise using nonacademic facilities on campus because of his skin color.
By the time Whitehurst graduated in 1963, however, he’d broken the color barrier in the residence halls, dining halls, and on the dance floor at the traditional Ring Dance. He’d also go on to become the first Black member of Virginia Tech’s Board of Visitors in 1970.
“He was kind of like a Martin Luther King Jr. figure,” Johnson recalled. “And everyone knew that.”
In August, the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors voted unanimously to name a campus residence hall in honor of Whitehurst and the impact he had on creating a more inclusive campus environment.
“It would be a most appropriate and fitting tribute to name the residence hall built in 1962 and located at 240 Kent Street for James L. Whitehurst, Jr., a pioneering student committed to a life of serving others who blazed a trail for generations of students of color coming after him to live and learn in a space that was initially denied him,” the resolution reads in part.
A larger than life figure in many ways, Whitehurst was born in 1940 and spent his childhood in Portsmouth, Virginia. His brother, Eugene Whitehurst, recalls their childhood mirroring that of the 1950s television series, “The Little Rascals.”
“We had the dog with the ring around his eye and did all the same kinds of things they did,” said Eugene Whitehurst during a recent phone interview. “We made scooters. Built model airplanes. Made kites out of newspapers … our lives really paralleled theirs.”
Whitehurst graduated from I.C. Norcom High School and set his sights on Virginia Tech – then called Virginia Polytechnic Institute – to study electrical engineering. Engineering was the only subject Black students were admitted to study due to the separate-but-equal laws of that time. A similar program was not offered at any Black state university in Virginia.
Whitehurst arrived in Blacksburg in 1959, a little more than a year after Charlie Yates made history as the university’s first Black graduate. He soon began to develop a folk tale-like reputation for challenging the barriers Black students faced at Virginia Tech.
Eugene Whitehurst said his brother played football in high school, so perhaps it’s not surprising Whitehurst attempted to join the university team in Blacksburg. Originally denied the opportunity, Whitehurst filed an injunction with then Montgomery County Commonwealth Attorney Julius Goodman, which gained him the right to practice with the team, but not to use other facilities, such as locker rooms or showers. As a result, Whitehurst is said to have, on many occasions, trekked through downtown Blacksburg in full equipment as he made his way to and from practice and his off-campus living arrangements.
Ultimately, Whitehurst gave up trying to play football at Virginia Tech, filing a grievance with the Civil Rights Office in Washington, D.C., and leaving the team’s racial barrier to be broken officially in 1969 by John Dobbins.
Following his sophomore year, Whitehurst made it known he was done being made to live and eat off-campus. As a result of his request, as well as another injunction filed, he was provided with a room in Lane Hall, but with a limited number of white students living in nearby rooms.
The milestone is something Charles Johnson remembers well.
“The joke over there was that everybody on his floor moved off, so he had the whole third floor to himself,” said Johnson, who got to know well some of the first Black students through the tightknit Black community in the region and his later work in the campus barbershop.
“James Whitehurst practically lived at my house to tell you the truth,” said Johnson, who recalled often lending the student his car so he could drive to take flight training courses at a nearby airport.
Whitehurst was actually at Johnson’s house when he received a phone call informing him he’d overcome another barrier others tried and failed to break – attending Ring Dance.
“I believe on one or two occasions we went to see President [Walter] Newman,” said Essex Finney ’59, in a previous interview with the university. “He was very gentlemanly, but he was also very firm that we could not do that.”
Johnson said then Dean of Students James Dean called to tell Whitehurst and his date to come to the dance alongside the dean and the dean’s wife. He recalls the story being that they were seated in the balcony and allowed to dance only when all the other students were off the dance floor. Their dance, which was also alongside the dean and his wife, received a large round of applause.
“Dean Dean was a real nice fella,” Johnson said. “I think he did as much as he could for Whitehurst.”
Though Whitehurst became known for his strong stances against the injustices of his time, Johnson said blazing that trail didn’t come free of pain and strife.
“I’ve seen the tears running down his eyes from being hurt and stuff from what was going on over there,” he said. “I think he got identified as a troublemaker in a sense, and he ended up crying on my wife’s shoulder a lot.”
Following his 1963 graduation, Whitehurst joined the Air Force and served as a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War. He later rose to the rank of major in the Air Force Reserve in Virginia and was a member of the Air National Guard.
In 1970 he became the first Black member of the university’s Board of Visitors. He earned a juris doctorate from the University of Virginia in 1975 and also served on the University of Virginia – Law Council.
The decades that followed were relatively quieter for Whitehurst. He went on to operate a private law practice in Richmond and was a member of Unity of Richmond Church, where he was also on the Board of Directors before passing away in 2013.
Though he lived a life filled with remarkable events, Eugene Whitehurst said his brother rarely reflected on his past or his achievements and was, instead, more focused on the present.
“He was a right now kind of person. … So we didn’t dwell on that at all,” he said.
But Eugene Whitehurst said the passion for Virginia Tech was always evident.
“He was a proud alum, now,” he said. “He was definitely a Hokie.”
— Written by Travis Williams