African American Public Relations Corporation

Exalting a positive image of African Americans

Monday, March 21, 2005

Once Excluded From Va. College, Black Professor Takes a Top Post

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 21, 2005; Page A01

LEXINGTON, Va. -- Theodore DeLaney walked to the front of the chapel where Civil War Gen. Robert E. Lee is buried, past the narrow white pews filled with the Washington and Lee University faculty.
He was a bundle of nerves. He was about to deliver the Founders' Day address honoring an 18th-century alumnus rarely mentioned in the days of the Old South: John Chavis, perhaps the first black man to graduate from an American college.
DeLaney got to the podium on unsteady legs, and before he had said a word, the faculty members stood and applauded. It was a moment in which DeLaney, overwhelmed, could see just how far he had come: from his childhood in the racially split college town in the 1950s to his early days at Washington and Lee working as a janitor and technician to a scholar at the liberal-arts college getting a standing ovation from his colleagues.
"I never dreamed I'd be in that spot," he said recently.
In the fall, the history professor will head the new African American studies program at Washington and Lee. It has been a long time coming -- some universities have had similar programs 30 years or more. But change came slowly to this place saturated in the history and traditions of the South. DeLaney is leading students on a research project about school desegregation in western Virginia, interviewing people who lived through the changes, listening to their stories about race and education and opportunity.
He knows this history: It's intertwined with his own.
DeLaney grew up in Lexington, close enough to Washington and Lee to fall asleep listening to the music from fraternity parties drifting through the warm night air. He dreamed of going to college there, but back then, the small Shenandoah Valley town was divided. Washington and Lee and the Virginia Military Institute, the two universities on the hill, were places where white southern gentlemen studied, and where African Americans worked -- as cooks, as maids and as gardeners.
DeLaney went to a school with black children and black teachers, and if he went to the movies, he sat in the balcony. If he bought a soda, he had to drink it outside the shop. "In Virginia, genteel as it was . . . there were people fighting like hell to keep it segregated," he said.
In 1961, when he graduated from high school, few African Americans had college degrees. DeLaney was offered a United Negro College Fund scholarship to Morehouse College, but his mother, a divorced barber with five children, worried about money and the early violence of the civil rights movement. She forbade him to go to Atlanta, so he resigned himself to staying in Lexington to help support the family.
For months, no one would hire him.
Finally, he got part-time work tending gardens for well-to-do white families. He considered the priesthood. Then he went to work at Washington and Lee as a janitor.
The professors in the biology department he cleaned soon saw how quickly he learned. After a year they asked him to be a lab technician.
Meanwhile change was coming -- slowly -- to Virginia schools. Years after the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, DeLaney's younger brother and sisters went to integrated schools. And in the mid-1960s, black students came to Washington and Lee.
DeLaney had gotten married, and his wife kept encouraging him to take classes. So did the professors with whom he worked. "He had this desire to learn," said Tom Nye, a retired biology professor.
But DeLaney was scared. So he kept working, taking care of the greenhouse and the animals, setting up labs. His son Damien remembers visiting the lab as a toddler, watching his dad feed a mouse to a snake. Students in the lab remember DeLaney's friendliness, his practical jokes and his kindness: One, just when he had run out of money, found a big bag of groceries on his kitchen table.
In 1979, DeLaney finally got the courage to sign up for a class. Four years later, when he was 40, he quit his job and became a full-time student at Washington and Lee. His wife, the treasurer of Lexington, supported them financially while he took lots of art and biology classes, avoided math and researched John Chavis while studying history. Often he and his son, then in elementary school, would sit across the table, both doing lessons.
One day after he had graduated from college and started teaching high school in North Carolina, DeLaney opened a letter from Washington and Lee while standing in line at a drug store. A professor he knew had written to urge him to go back to school to get his doctorate.
DeLaney was so shocked he dropped the letter.
But he did it. DeLaney defended his dissertation in summer 1995 at the College of William and Mary with Damien watching -- just months before he started as a freshman there. Then DeLaney went home to Lexington, to the sweeping lawns and patterned brick paths of Washington and Lee.
"We got Ted back -- it's one of the smartest things the school's ever done," said Holt Merchant, chairman of the history department.
There's still a southern gentility to the school, where students smile and drawl hello to strangers, drop purses without worrying about theft and sometimes wear jackets and ties to class in the white-columned buildings. The school still has a hard time recruiting black students, several professors said, to a place where the Old South and Civil War linger. People make pilgrimages to Lee's tomb and to Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson's house a few steps away.
It's something DeLaney can hardly avoid. Sometimes he just walks away -- from a white student years ago who told him he couldn't greet him publicly on campus, from a tourist wearing a Confederate flag T-shirt that said, "If this flag offends you, you need a lesson in history."
He has pushed for change at the college and seen Washington and Lee move forward to recruit students and faculty of different races and cultures from across the country and the world. That's why he was asked to speak about John Chavis in 2001, and why the college now sends out postcards about Chavis. Now 12 percent of the nearly 1,800 undergraduates are not white; about 4 percent of them are African American. In the law school, 19 percent are not white, and 9 percent are African American.
Two years ago, Damien DeLaney graduated from the law school at Washington and Lee, and his father, fighting back tears, got to hand him the diploma.
In class on a recent morning, DeLaney, 61, with his gray beard, bow tie and little round spectacles, wrote on the chalkboard and pushed students to think harder. "He's a superb teacher, students absolutely adore him," Merchant said. "He attracts hordes of followers."
People keep stopping DeLaney as he walks. They know him from the lab, or class, or church, or local Democratic politics, or just because he's Ted DeLaney, and everyone knows Ted DeLaney.
He and his wife live in the tiny, white house in Lexington that his mother bought decades ago; he wanted to stay connected to the black community. It's worn and crowded, he said, but with memories as close at hand as the places worn smooth around the wrought-iron handles of the knotty-pine cabinets.
DeLaney hopes the desegregation project, which started with people meeting in Lee Chapel to tell their stories, will be a book one day. "I want to get some scholarship out there that can be a legacy," he said.
He has one more dream: Someday, before he retires, he wants to leave Washington and Lee. He wants to teach at a historically black college, he said, "to come full circle."

Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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