Black Fire: Oral History Project
May 01, 2015
Interviewers: Carter Blackwell, Alice Burgess, Kevin Cao, Matheus Correa, Caroline Glen, VJ Jenkins, Jim Malnati, John Mathew, & Marcellus Wright
Interviewee: George Keith Martin
Our first interviewee is George Keith Martin, the first African American rector for the University of Virginia. Ever since attending the University of Virginia and graduating in 1975, Martin has remained an integral part of the University. He served on the Jefferson Scholars Foundation selection committee [and] in 2011, Martin was appointed to the Board of Visitors at UVA. After serving for two years, he was unanimously elected as Vice Rector, making him the first African American to hold that position at the University of Virginia.
Martin’s oral history will provide significant insight in the evolving nature of the black experience and race relations at the University of Virginia due to his involvement as a minority since 1971. While he attended UVA for his undergraduate years, his best friend was A. Leroy Hassell, the late chief justice of the Virginia Supreme Court. Hassell was an important figure in African American history due to his helping create the Office for African American Affairs, and the fact he was the first African American chief justice in Virginia. Martin was also in contact with famous athletes such as Clarence Cain and Oliver Singleton, who fought for their rights as African Americans to play for the University. While at school, Martin was on the executive board for the Black Student Alliance and at Madison House, a normally white-dominated organization at UVA. Martin’s involvement at the University of Virginia from his time going here as an undergrad to becoming Vice Rector for UVA will make him a valuable interviewee in terms of understanding race relations at the University of Virginia from the 1970s to the present day.
To start off, what is your full name, where are you from, and when did you first come to Charlottesville?
My full name is George Keith Martin, and, I live in Richmond currently. I’ve lived there most of my life, born in Fort Lee. My dad was in the Army, and, yeah for the most part I’ve lived in the Richmond metropolitan area except for the time that I was here in Charlottesville and I spent some time in DC when I was in law school…One exception I forgot to mention, we lived in Selma, Alabama for one year. [That’s] where my grandfather was from.
So, how did you decide to go to UVA? What drew you to UVA?
I graduated in 1975. It’s kind of an interesting story because when I was looking at colleges, there were two schools that were on my radar: Williams College and University of Virginia. And the irony is both were all-male schools at the time, but by the time I matriculated at the University of Virginia they started admitting women, so my first year here was the second year they had women in the classes…with some exceptions. There were women in the Nursing school and in some of the graduate programs. So, there were 500 women in my class, 500 in the class before, so when we were here there only 1000 women undergraduates. Kind of different from what is now.
What’s your favorite memory about your time here at UVA?
…That’s a hard question to answer, because I had a lot of – I have a lot of fond memories…I guess, I’ll mention two. One, I was in a Bible study here. It was led actually by a guy who at one point served as the president of the Black Student Alliance, and [it was] just a phenomenal Bible study; I really, really grew as a result of that experience. And then, I guess just generally, I met my best friend, Leroy Hassell, here, and I’ve told this story several times, it was at the lounge in the Hancock building, and someone said, “You need to meet this guy. He’s from Norfolk.” And I went up to him, introduced myself, and I asked his name and he said, “My name is Leroy Hassell. I’m from Norfolk, Virginia. I came to the University of Virginia because it’s the best school in the state of Virginia, and I am going to Harvard Law School because it’s the best law school in the country.” And I remember thinking, “Gosh, I just asked your name” but it made an impression on me, and I learned from that point forward to listen to whatever he said he was going to do. He ultimately became the Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court, and unfortunately passed away a couple years ago, but I can say I truly met my best friend here, and that whole experience was life-changing, but I do remember that encounter.
Kind of going off of that – you already partially answered this – who were your close friends here in your time as an undergraduate and how did they shape your experience?
Uh, Clarence Cain, and if you’ve seen the movie, Philadelphia with Tom Hanks, that was actually based on his life. Clarence was a year ahead of me, and treated me like I was his younger brother. In fact, I literally still have law books that he gave me when I went to law school, but he was just a real, real dear friend, And he made you feel like you were his only friend. Now the irony is he treated everybody like that, but he was a real good friend and looked out for me in many ways. [And] Oliver Singleton, another fellow who was in Clarence’s class. Oliver lives in Richmond now, and we’re still really good friends. The two of them [were] just incredibly smart, in fact, Oliver has a photographic memory, but they went out of their way to look out for younger African American students. Clarence was the one who actually came up with the idea for Spring Fling which you guys still celebrate, so he was just a phenomenal guy.
During your time at UVA, what were some of the things that you were involved with?
Well, a lot of things. I was co-director of the Summer Preparatory Program, which we used to call Transitions at that point, one summer. Clarence actually led it before, and when he went to law school, I took over. And I was also on resident staff for three years, the Senior Resident at the Echols dorm my last year. and I was also on the Executive Board of Black Student Alliance. I was a Speech Communications major, and I was the student rep. to the faculty in the Speech Communication department. Also, on the board of the Madison House, and was part of a fraternity and officer in the fraternity, and I mentioned the bible study already, which was a phenomenal bible study.
So, during this time you were here, UVA was going through a big transition of admitting African American students [and] having African American players on its sports teams. Were you involved in any sort of activism, during your time at UVA?
Yes, I was. It was an interesting time, because – I probably should’ve mentioned this earlier – there were 98 African American students in my class which was a 100% increase over the previous year. Now, the fourth-year class had 8 students when they began; three of them graduated, so my 1st yearthere only three African Americans that graduated. Ironically one of those individuals is now on the Board of Visitors with me, [name unclear]. We went through a period of – I guess you could say – of constantly reminding the administration of the importance of recruiting not just African American students but faculty as well, and when I was on the board of the Black Student Alliance I remember a time when– there were two other students with me – we thought the BSA was moving a little too slow, so we appointed ourselves as a committee of three and arranged for a meeting with the Provost to complain about the lack of black faculty. There were a couple, but obviously we felt like they could do a better job with, so it was kind of interesting because…Actually I misspoke; we were trying to meet with the president, but instead we were given a meeting with the provost and a gentleman who was the dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (they merged and had one Dean). But they kept putting us off until it was close to exams. When it was close to exams they finally had time to meet. I think they thought that because it was close to exams we would not agree to meet, but we all had good grades and we said, “Look, as long as you’re not going to hold the meeting during a time when we have an exam, we’ll be there.” So, we had this meeting with
the Provost and with the Assistant Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. And, you know, we were very respectful, we said we really wanted them to consider hiring more black faculty, to which they responded, “Well, we have a hard time finding qualified candidates.” So, we said, “We thought you were going to say that, and we have three resumes for you.” So, we gave them the three resumes and, to their credit they hired one of them. But I will tell you what was sort of interesting though – it was sort of intimidating – was that they had this dossier on us, and they had information that we knew that they could not have gathered that from our applications, so…a little intimidating, but nevertheless that was one incident. I participated in a couple of other protests, but the irony is, I think my very first semester here, I participated in two protests very early on, but you know, that’s what students do.
And during your time as an undergraduate during this big transition, what were some of the struggles you faced while here in the community?
You mean personally or African Americans in general?
Okay. I think the biggest struggle for African American at that time was the social life, because the school had been primarily all male, so all the social activities centered around fraternities and Rugby Road. So, from a social standpoint we felt sort of isolated. In fact, quite candidly, I mentioned there were 98 African Americans in my class, only 35 of us graduated. Most of the others were men; in fact, I forgot to mention, of that 98, 28 were women, 70 guys. 27 women graduated, so most of the women stayed, but a lot of the guys left, and primarily because of the lack of social life. That was sort of difficult because you felt sort of isolated in that regard, but it’s gotten much better from what I can see.
What did you do after you graduated from UVA?
I went to law school…Well, immediately I went to Washington to work for the Children’s Defense Fund, and then I went to law school.
And since graduating and before coming on the Board, how did you remain involved at UVA?
That’s a very good question. Most of my involvement over the years has been through the Ridley Fund, and then we established a scholarship in the name of Clarence Cain, so I was involved in raising a lot of money for that. In fact, of the scholarship money that Ridley has, 20% of it resides in the Clarence Cain Fund, so we raised a lot of money for that. So, I’ve been involved in that regard, and also, you know, big sports fan, so I’ve had season’s tickets for football for quite a while, right on the 45-yard line, 5 rows back from the team.
Great spot! And how long have you been on the Board? When were you appointed, and how did that process go?
I was appointed in 2011. Interestingly enough, I actually served on the Board of Visitors at James Madison before, and I was on the Governor’s [unclear] Commission on Higher Education, so I had some experience on a Board of Visitors before, and I also am on the Board of Visitors at the law school at Regent, I’ve been on that Board for about 12 years now. So, I’ve been on the UVA Board for almost 4 years. My first term will end June the 30th, and it’s been a very interesting and rewarding experience. It’s an honor, obviously, to serve as the Rector of the Board, a position that Thomas Jefferson once held, it is an honor. UVA is unique; I’m going to say my experience on JMU’s Board helped me, but this is a much more active Board than most schools, and it’s been a very, very interesting and very, very engaged Board, so very hands on.
So, coming back to UVA and serving on the Board, how have you seen UVA change over the past few decades since you were an undergraduate to now, specifically with the experience of African Americans at UVA?
Sure. Well, obviously the numbers have increased substantially, and of course when I was here most of the African American students were males, and just looking across Grounds, you get the strong sense that the African American students have done a much better job of becoming integrated into the total University community. Not to say that we didn’t have people taking full advantage of the opportunities when I was here, but it seems like the students today do a much, much better job of making sure that they partake of all of the opportunities that are available, and I think that’s so important because, as you know, you learn a lot in the classroom but learn a lot from interacting with professors outside the classroom and interacting with your fellow students. That’s a big part of the residential experience that makes UVA unique – that is the opportunities to grow outside of the classroom. Obviously, we say that student self-governance is a core value at UVA, and so you have plenty of opportunities to get involved in terms of leadership opportunities. So, how has it changed? I think that for African Americans just seeing the students first of all the numbers, significantly more African American students now than before, but engaged in all aspects of the University. Jalen Ross, for example, just finished his term as President of the Student Council. And, of course, Dr. Marcus Martin – we’re not related, but we joke that we are – you know, that position did not exist when I was here, it’s a very, very important position, Dr. Martin [this part is unclear]. And just the number of faculty, for example, you guys have, you’ve improved significantly in terms of the number of African American faculty.
Mentioning African American students now, recently in the past two or years starting 2012, the numbers dipped below a thousand for the time since the 1980s. So, do you have an idea of why that happened?
Well, I think it’s a couple of things. One, from what I’m told in terms of what students classify themselves now, I don’t know the categories, but there’s another category, “mixed race”, on the application form, so we’re probably not capturing the numbers that we were capturing before just because of that change on the form. But also I think, the competition in terms of schools, students that we’re competing for, competition’s probably gotten a little stiffer, but I think we’re still doing a good job, and I think it’s impressive that we can still say that for over, what, 20 years now we’ve had the highest graduation rate for African American students from any public school in the country. From what I understand, the GPA for African American students between 2.5 and 4.0 has gone [up] significantly, so I think we’re making a lot of progress. Obviously, we’d like to have better numbers, but hopefully if we keep chipping away at it, we’ll get back.
A more general question, what do you think of UVA today, in light of what has happened with Martese, as a parent of a current UVA students?
Well, you know, I was here for that rally on the 18th of March, and that was a most, most unfortunate event. As I said, I can’t imagine what set of circumstances would cause anyone to be abused like that, I think that was uncalled for, and there’s no way you can justify that. So on a personal level, I really felt for [Martese] and his mother and brother, and I hope that no permanent damage has been done to him both emotionally and physically. Obviously, that was not something that was initiated by forces associated with [the video cuts out here] And I think what we also saw as a result of that, it sort of touched a spot there, where folks have now started to talk about some things, some other concerns that they have. And what’s I guess a little distressing is that some of the concerns that you hear from the students are the same concerns that were when I was here, and you would hope that – I’d
been gone a long time – in period of time, that some of those things would’ve been addressed.
My personal observation is that student life is a lot better for African American students today than it was when I was here, and don’t get me wrong, I had a rich and rewarding experience here. The perfect institution does not exist, the perfect college does not exist, and we’re always going to have issues, and some of the negative things that we encountered were clearly… the positive outweighed the negative by a long shot, but I would hope that the students would continue to work together primarily with the administration to address some of the concerns that they’ve identified. But I think it’s also important to be positive. With the example of how I, with two other friends, we went to meet with the President but ended up meeting with the Provost, we took the initiative, and I’m convinced that if we had just said, “We need to hire more black faculty” nothing would’ve happened. So we took the initiative, we found the resumes of some folks that we knew were highly qualified, and we put them in a position where it was very difficult to deny that these applicants were qualified, so I think the students probably need to be more proactive, more creative, and give administration some good options, because sometimes when students are close to the problem, they have a better idea of how to solve that problem than the administration who are not quite as close to that. And if you look at that from a historic standpoint, you can see plenty of instances where people who really are close to an issue or problem are better understanding as to what the solution is.
…The students today seem to be fighting for some of the same issues, they’re raising some of the same concerns that you had when you were here, what are some instances of that?
Well I think the faculty piece is a big part of that…That’s a challenge that a lot of schools are facing but that’s no excuse… I think if we really want to improve that situation, we can find a solution working together. I think it is going to require help from the students and from the system faculty, as well as some of the folks in the administration [who are] trying to get a better handle on negatives in terms of what’s holding us back as we try to attract minority faculty.
Can you describe your relationship with President Sullivan?
We have a really good relationship– I’ve enjoyed try[ing] to get to know her better. We need to talk a lot… In fact, I’m meeting with her just after I meet with you guys! I think she’s done a really, really good job, especially in such a challenging year, but I give her high marks [as] she really has shown a lot of strength. She has been gracious, and it takes a lot to be in this position, especially in the year that we’ve had, to deal with one crisis after another… and at the same time still have to run the University. Students go to class, [and] you still have to eat, [alongside] all the other things that you do for the crisis going on. [So] you have to continue to do what you normally do and at the same time pay attention to the crisis, so I’m very pleased and I acknowledge that it’s a tough job.
What would you say your biggest accomplishments have been since you have been sitting in this position — what are you are most proud of during your time here, and if you are reappointed, what are some things you would like to accomplish in the future?
I’ll start with the special meeting with the committee of Diversity & Inclusion, and we find the inclusion is very, very important. We now know that that committee is going to exist for quite a while, and I think it’s a signal to the community and to the board… We want to give it the same
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priority as all the other committees. There are other ones that are very important [too] like finance and student affairs.
We also adopted strategic plans called the…and I can get credit for putting that together, but we’ve also come up with a plan to fund that initiative. We’ve come up with a plan to fund Access UVA, and I think now we’re in the position where we’re better able to do both because [that was] one of the concerns we had a few years ago. The programs first started as an $11 million which became about $44 million, and with projects and projections we thought that it was going to continue to rise — [luckily] the plan will sustain that. I think every student should know it’s one of the best financial aid packages in the country for public or private institutions, and I think it gives us again the opportunity to discuss diversity.
Low socioeconomic status students should have the same opportunity to come here as wealthy student students, and I think that’s important for everybody, because you can learn from it. Earlier, we talked about how you can learn as much outside the classroom as you can inside the classroom, and if you are going to have a rich educational experience, you need people from all walks of life — races, geographical backgrounds, different countries, and so forth and so on. That diversity will help you grow as an individual, and we have a global economy which is only going to get better. So, I would argue that the most recent plan not only benefited lower and middle-class families but also the entire university — because that diversity of different backgrounds that is really important in terms of your educational experience.
20 years down the road, what would you like to have seen change at UVA?
I’m going to answer that a little bit differently. Personally, this is not the Board’s opinion, I would love to see mandatory Semester Abroad. As I said earlier, we truly live in a global economy and I think it’s so important for people to get exposure to other parts of the world and take that into consideration in terms of how you may think about different issues. A substantial period of time in another country helps in terms of language and it helps in terms of worldview… because of technology, we are all connected, because of the economy, we are all connected.
You mentioned this briefly before, but with respect to student interaction with the board, how do you think students right now are being heard and represented — and how would you recommend the students to become more involved?
When I meet with students in the lawn rooms or in the pavilions, they often ask me questions, but I also ask them questions, and in fact during one of those sessions I left them with a question. I said “figure out a strategy to address underage drinking”… and so I planted the seed, and I left and thought I’m going to let you all have the conversation. I think it’s so important to have students feel like they are involved with the board members.
We are always open to hearing suggestions — we have a list-serve for all the board, and we interview a student to make BOV selections, and we just try to reach out as much as possible to students. I reached out to Student Council last year. And I did a Flash Seminar last spring. In the fall, we obviously need to do as much as we can to reach out to the students now. When I was here, I had no idea what the Board of Visitors was and I’m sure there are a lot of students in the same boat who do not totally understand. And I think that it is important to understand that Jefferson had an idea and he called it the Board of Visitors for a reason. We are not here to supplant the President; we are not here running the University– it is not an operating board, it is an advisory board — oh no, I’m sorry, a policy board. The role of the board is basically to develop policy. I don’t believe in
micromanagement; the responsibility of the board is to set policy at the high-level of the president, and I think one of the [advantages] of having a board made up of people like ours, of people who come from different backgrounds, is that they can bring that perspective to the President, and challenge the president to think outside the box when necessary. All bring ideas that they may have gathered from other places such as a corporate board, serving on the board of another university, or sitting on a commission of higher education. Whatever opportunities they have had, they can band together and give information… [these people] bring that knowledge and experience to the University.
Now, obviously, there are plenty of instances where those ideas just don’t apply to academia, but I think it’s worth having a conversation. And I hope one of the things that we do not get away from in the future is having this conversation. And like Jefferson expressed, if you have people who express diverse thoughts, you will eventually find the truth. You do want an environment where people feel comfortable speaking, but I will say hopefully in a constructive way, because otherwise you shut down communication and I would hope that we would try to work towards a solution.
And I’ll take you back to my first-year experience… I was an Echols scholar and I took two first year seminars and one of the seminars had a guy from North Carolina. In fairness, I was the only African American in both of those. We had a conversation one day about the economic benefits of segregation, and it was the first time in my life that I had ever had a conversation about segregation that wasn’t emotional… and even though I thought he was wrong, it was still interesting, and I appreciated the fact that he was being sincere and candid. I’ve never forgotten that conversation. And I had similar conversations with other students. I think we’re at a point now where we can’t [have these talks] because of political correctness– people are afraid to say what they think, but the issue is if you don’t have an individual who is willing to say something that might not be popular, you never have the opportunity to express a contrary view and you may miss out on the chance to persuade that person that they are wrong; but if they don’t feel comfortable expressing their fears at that point, they will continue to be locked into that position. And I do believe that openness of thinking during that conversation was valuable, and if we had never had that conversation, or if I had gotten emotional and called him a racist and so forth and so on, it would have shut down, and we would have never gotten to that point. You need to make sure that people in this community feel free to have [discourse] even if [their opinions] are not popular and even if we think they are wrong. In all fairness, this is America, and [that first year] was entitled to have that view, but I don’t have to dislike him just because we didn’t agree on something, so I have respect for him.
You mentioned that during your time here, you were involved in a Bible study… How has your faith influenced you during your time as a student, and now while serving on the board?
That’s a good question. I spent a great deal of time during my formative years with my grandmother. She taught Sunday school at the church that we went to. [We had] ties with them and I would go to that Church a lot because of my grandmother, but I never really had a personal account with Christ; fellow students introduced me to Christ while I was here. In fact, I like to say that while I was here, I met Christ and Mickey Rays — and both changed my life!
When I was a student here much earlier, this fellow who had been the president of the BSA started a Bible study and it was a time of real growth… I actually still have the Bible that I used when I was a student here, and I can tell you that on most pages there’s not a lot of white because I wrote a lot in the margins, and even though some of the pages are coming out, I still have that Bible. It really was a growth period. I can give you three specific examples [of firms trying to recruit me]… I didn’t go and [eventually] all three of those firms imploded and they do not exist anymore so it would’ve been a complete disaster. One of the law firms I worked for when I was in law school; at one point it was the largest firm in the world, but then it imploded, and the woman who was my supervisor was $1 million in debt. So, I look back on that and say “God saved me from the situation” so I am very thankful!
How have you seen the faith community develop on grounds from your time as a student until now?
From what I’ve seen UVA has a very strong faith community. I’m very impressed with these organizations [many of which] did not exist when I was here. The Bible study was the closest thing there was to a formal organized effort. The impression that I [have] is very good, and I think it’s fantastic. I wish it had been here when I had been a student!
Going back to the recent incident with Martese– what role would you say faith has played in the way that students have responded?
I know that right before the rally a group of students gathered and prayed and that was really, really good. I personally spoke to Martese that night, and I wanted to show him that we were there to support him — we sent him a message that he was in our prayers and thoughts, so hopefully as a result of prayer, there will be healing, because that’s important. Negative things [followed] because of [what was] clearly a breach of trust, but hopefully we will heal, and Faith will play a role in terms of the community. I think those in the faith community here can do a good job with reaching out to people who are hurt by that and help them understand that it’s okay to be angry for a season but you’ve got to get past it, and the anger in of itself is not going to fix anything, so get past the anger and work constructively to find solutions. Hopefully as a result of working together with people from the faith community, trust will grow, and I think that’s part of the solution.
Any final comments or stories that stick out to you from when you were a student?
When I was here, I also used to go to the church in the community — it was an integrated church that really impressed me, and three of my professors went to that church, professors I was very fond of. I took every class that they offered… It was really neat to see the professors spending time with the students at that level and also to see that they were professors who were believers in the broader community as well. I recently got a nice note from one of my professors. I really remember this particular professor because she used to invite the class over to her house for dinner and she was really nice to all of us. We have a wonderful community here; I think, as a school, faculty go out of their way to reach out to the students, to invite them to dinner, to invite students to other programs in the community (like church) especially for first-year students. It is nice when there is an adult that steps in and fills that void. I think UVA has a tremendous faculty and that the students are great as well. I think we have a tremendous blessing here in the University of Virginia and hopefully when the students now and you guys graduate, you will have the same warm feeling that I do. And do what you can to make sure that future generations enjoy the benefits that you have enjoyed.