UVa’s first Black Student Council President Discusses Change

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By RUTH SERVEN SMITH, The Daily Progress of Charlottesville undefined

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — In 1969, James R. Roebuck arrived at a University of Virginia that was still considered a gentleman’s university and was reluctantly enrolling Black graduate and undergraduate students.

Roebuck enrolled in UVa’s graduate philosophy program and became the Student Council’s first African-American president. He discussed his efforts to force university administrators to support Black students and enroll women at a UVa symposium on March 22.

UVa’s first African-American student president Dr. James R. Roebuck stands for a portrait at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va., on Friday, March 22, 2019. (Andrew Shurtleff/The Daily Progress via AP)

“The thing that was most important to me was making an institution that would provide equal opportunity to all students; making sure Black students could come here, as well as welcoming women,” he said at the event, which was intended to support equity at UVa and diverse student leadership.

Roebuck has served as a Pennsylvania state representative from Philadelphia since 1985. His experiences as an undergrad at Virginia Union University and then at UVa provided an early test of his political skills, as well as a vision of how student leadership could advance a slate of diverse demands.

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In 1969, he and fellow students issued a list of demands to then-President Edgar Shannon, demanding the school raise enrollment of Black students to 20 percent, enroll women and stop direct and indirect support of the war in Vietnam. The effort was featured in UVa professor Claudrena Harold’s 2016 short film “We Demand,” which was played at last Friday’s event.

In 1970, the student council passed a resolution to endorse similar demands. That year, UVa became coeducational.

“As the first African-American Student Council president, I’m sure you faced quite a few challenges in that role,” said Alex Cintron, the outgoing student council president and its first Latinx president. “I just want to know, what were the experiences like?”

“I have always said, what is important to me is not being the first African-American whatever, but what is important is getting to the second and the third African-American elected president,” Roebuck responded. “I understand it took 20 years to elect a second African-American president to the student council at UVa, and that concerns me.”

Roebuck said he and his fellow Black students formed a cohort of support and depended on local families, churches and organizations for a social group. He was also comfortable with pushing for change after years of advocacy for integrated movie theaters and the election of African-American officials in Richmond.

However, recent events in Virginia, Roebuck said, mentioning Attorney General Mark Herring and Gov. Ralph Northam’s admissions that they had both worn Blackface, make him worry that progress remains slow.

“I’m dismayed that these pictures are coming up and that people thought they were appropriate to publish in their yearbook,” he said. “I can’t imagine that you would want to put yourself in Blackface next to a Klansman in your yearbook, which represents your academic achievement.”

Still, though, Roebuck said he’s proud of his peers’ efforts that moved UVa toward offering education to all Virginians, and he encouraged current students to continue pushing for change and to help create social networks that will make minority students feel welcome.

“UVa offers great opportunities for students, but sometimes it’s an effort for students to be aware of that and feel they will have a comfortable, positive four-year experience,” he said.

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Information from: The Daily Progress, http://www.dailyprogress.com