College integrated in 1951

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February 19, 2008

10:37 AM

p. Three years before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling made segregation unconstitutional, Hulon Willis Sr. enrolled at the College as its first black student.

p. According to Lisa L. Heuvel’s September 1985 article in The Alumni Gazette, Willis visited the College with his wife, Alyce, in 1945 and “fell in love” with it.

p. “I was going through the Wren Building and thought what a great thing it would be to matricu¬late there,” Willis said. “I never dreamed it would happen.”

p. But his dream did come true. March 22, 1951, he was accepted into the school of educa¬tion and became the first black person to enroll at the College. Although he enrolled during a time when the majority of the United States was segre¬gated, Willis did not have anything negative to say about his experience at the College.

p. “William and Mary is tops in my book. It always has been and always will be,” he said. “The students didn’t accept all things about [my enrollment], but I wasn’t there for that … I was there to get an education, and my background as a Virginia State undergraduate was good. I was never under great pressure at William and Mary, although a lot of people were concerned for me.”

p. According to the Virginia State University Orientation Office, Willis received a Bachelor of Science degree in health and physical educa¬tion from Virginia State University, an histori¬cally black college, in 1949. He also taught in the Norfolk public school system for some time before beginning his studies at the College.

p. Willis commented that his professors treated him fairly. “They could have set up roadblocks for me, but they didn’t,” he said.

p. Some black students were offended by the idea of attending an institution that was so tied to Williamsburg, where there was a strong history of slavery.

p. “Some things you have to go above and beyond,” Willis said. “That was one of those times, and it still doesn’t take anything away from the history and prestige of William and Mary.”

p. In 1956, Willis graduated from the College, receiving a master’s degree in education. He then went on to be an assistant professor of health and physical education, as well as coaching wrestling and directing campus police at VSU.

p. Willis was also a member of the Parent’s Association Steering Committee at the College during the years his two children attended. His son, Hulon Willis Jr., graduated from the College in 1977, while his daughter Kimberly Willis studied at the College for three years before going elsewhere to finish her degree in 1980. This made the Willises family the first black generational family of the College.

p. After Willis’s death June 13, 1989, a group of black alumni, which was in the process of starting an association for black graduates of the College, named its organization in honor of Willis, according to the Dec. 7, 1989, arti¬cle in the Progress-Index. Willis’ son hoped that “the association will strengthen black participation in William and Mary’s alumni activities.”

p. The association went on to establish the Hulon Willis Sr. Memorial Scholarship Endowment to give financial support to minority students at the College.

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