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Celebrating Change: Courage, Determination and Inclusion

Their story is one of inspiration, and it is our story, too. In the decade between 1954 and 1964, Vanderbilt University changed forever, as did our nation.

The black students who integrated Vanderbilt showed both courage and determination. They came to receive the best education they could and, in the process, they helped Vanderbilt become the great institution that it is today.

These young people were not alone in their quest. These changes would not have happened when they did without the support of others, such as Chancellors Branscomb and Heard, respectively. These were men who understood the tenor of the times, and as leaders they helped guide Vanderbilt through these years of challenge.

In 1954, when Bishop Joseph Johnson graduated from Vanderbilt after a year of baccalaureate work as a special student (with the approval of the Board of Trust), his year of hard work and triumph was against a backdrop of a nation amidst social upheaval. That year, the Supreme Court ruled against the “separate but equal” doctrine in the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, and in Boling v. Sharpe, thus overturning Plessy v. Ferguson. That year also saw efforts to complete the desegregation of the Armed Forces.

In 1964, when the first black undergraduate class of eight students entered Vanderbilt, the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party launched its campaign to register black voters in the state, leading to the Mississippi Freedom Summer. Also that year, Sidney Poitier won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in Lilies of the Field, the first black male actor to win the Oscar. In December of 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, for his work as a civil rights leader.

Consider our nation’s history during this decade of change, from the mid-1950’s to the mid-1960’s, and one will find that change was the order of the day. Vanderbilt was in the midst of change as well, and all who were involved—the students, the respective chancellors, and numerous others—left behind a legacy that is indeed worthy of celebration.