Vanderbilt Lawyer - Volume 36, Number 1


How Key Decisions About Racial Integration Moved Vanderbilt From an Institution of Regional Focus to One With a National Scope of Interests and Thinking

Excerpted from D. Don Welch's forthcoming book, Vanderbilt Law School: Aspirations and Realities

In the 19th century, Vanderbilt Law School had begun to enroll Native American students, and a small number of international students from Asia. In the early 20th century, students with Latino names, such as Octavio Acevedo, Xavier Christ and Joseph Rodriguez, were registered.1 Breaking such racial and ethnic barriers took place, apparently without incident. But this prior experience did nothing to prepare the school, the university and the alumni for the admission of African-American students in the mid-1950s.

When Frederick T. Work and Edward Melvin Porter registered for the fall term at the law school in 1956, they made Vanderbilt the first integrated private law school in the South.

Work was a graduate of Fisk University, where he had been an all-conference basketball player, and the son of two Fisk professors, one of whom was that university's internationally-known composer and director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Porter came to Vanderbilt after graduating from Tennessee State University where he had been president of the student government association, which followed four years of military service. They became the school's first African-American alumni when they graduated in 1959.

However, Vanderbilt Law School did not arrive at this point easily or without controversy. When the application to the Law School in 1949 by an African-American student, Robert E. Williams of Nashville, was brought to the attention of the Board of Trust, Chancellor Harvie Branscomb was instructed to send the following reply to Williams: "This is to acknowledge receipt of your registered letter of May 25 addressed to me, and your letter of June 7 addressed to the School of Law. This is to advise you that Vanderbilt cannot entertain your application for admission to the School of Law."2 Branscomb proposed a qualifying phrase which would have stated that his application could not be entertained "at this time," but the phrase was stricken from the letter by the Board.3

From that point forward, the law school moved slowly but inexorably toward integrating the student body, pushed and pulled by factors both external and internal to the university. In 1950, the faculty of Yale Law School introduced a proposal to add an integration standard for membership in the Association of American Law Schools (AALS), to be considered at that year's annual meeting. The Yale proposal was sent to committee at the AALS meeting; a similar resolution was subsequently approved at the December 1952 meeting. The Vanderbilt faculty had reservations in 1951 about taking a position contrary to university policy. They decided that Vanderbilt should abstain on such votes, unless "circumstances arising at the meeting make it unwise to abstain, then the delegates are authorized to take whatever action they believe to be most consistent with the views on the subject known to be entertained by the Chancellor and law faculty."4 Ray Forrester, who served as the law school's dean from 1949 to 1952, corresponded with Branscomb on the topic, and in his responses to Forrester's memos in late 1951, Branscomb revealed both his personal commitment to integration ("achieving the ends which you and I both wish to achieve"), and his insistence that Vanderbilt not be forced by external forces to integrate (the "right handling of the segregation issue" might require withdrawing from the AALS).5

Just as Dean Forrester passed along information to Branscomb about the progress of integration at other schools, Branscomb passed along news of such developments to the Board and even instigated the writing of a letter by the Divinity School faculty in the fall of 1952 expressing their belief that black students should be admitted.6 The University of Tennessee had admitted African-American students in 1951, leading Branscomb to comment to the Board: "It is my understanding from our legal counsel that laws still stand upon the statute books of Tennessee requiring a completely dual system of education... I doubt, however, that it is practical for us to avoid the problem by pleading this legal situation. The public is not likely to be convinced that what is legal in Knoxville is illegal in Nashville."7

After the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision in Brown v. Board of Education in May 1954, the law faculty pressed its case, presenting a memorandum to the Board the following semester, which was passed over without action. At the next Board meeting, Branscomb read yet another letter from Dean John Wade, who had succeeded Dean Forrester in 1952, reminding the Chancellor that the issue of integration had been pending for some time and asking his advice as to how the school should respond "in the event we receive an application for admission from a qualified Negro student."8 A memorandum, attached to the letter, clearly and eloquently laid out grounds for the response that a unanimous faculty hoped they would receive:

[W]e have come to the mature and considered opinion that the wisest course would be to permit the admission of a qualified Negro applicant in accordance with the normal selective admission policies of the Law School....We feel that the recent Supreme Court decision should have particular significance for a law school. While the precise holding applies only to state-supported schools and not to a private university like Vanderbilt, we believe that a school which seeks to instill a feeling of respect and reverence for the law and legal institutions, must demonstrate a concern not only with the strict letter of the law but with its true spirit, involving its underlying purpose and objective. The principle of legal equality of education in the Constitution as now declared by the Supreme Court in the Segregation Cases, is quite clear and unmistakable.9

The memorandum also referred to the results of a student referendum which showed a majority of law students in favor of integration, with two-thirds of the student body stating that they personally would have no objection to integration.

Following a long discussion, Board member Cecil Sims, a 1914 Founder's Medal graduate of Vanderbilt Law School and a founding member of the Nashville-based firm of Bass Berry & Sims, offered a motion at the May 6, 1955, Board meeting that was adopted with no dissenting vote cast: "That the Chancellor be authorized to advise the faculty of the School of Law that it is the sense of this Board that they should not decline to admit a student otherwise in their opinion considered qualified solely because of race, creed, or color."10 The Board would later characterize this action as merely applying a policy that had been established in 1953, when an African-American student, Joseph A. Johnson Jr., had been admitted to the Divinity School because there was no institution of a similar type in Nashville. In the law school's case, the Board relied on the fact that there was not another school in the city that was accredited by the American Bar Association.11 Wade credited the ease with which Sims' motion passed to a peculiar set of circumstances at Vanderbilt: "There was never any regulation of our Board of Trust in connection with the admission of Negroes. The school had always depended upon the statutes of Tennessee which prohibited them. Since the statutes are now unconstitutional, the Board of Trust was able without taking any action at all to say that the matter was within our own discretion."12

In October 1955, Wade informed the AALS Special Committee on Racial Discrimination that its report could publicly identify Vanderbilt as being prepared to admit African-American students voluntarily.13 Branscomb concurred in this public announcement, making Vanderbilt the only one of the 16 AALS segregated schools that was prepared to integrate voluntarily. Wade contacted the president of Tennessee State University, and Branscomb (the chancellor from Alabama) and Wade (the dean from Mississippi) visited the president of Fisk University, asking them to encourage their best students to take the law school admissions test and to apply to Vanderbilt.14 (Vanderbilt strongly encouraged, to the point of requiring, these African-American applicants to take the test, and the school reimbursed them for the cost. The law school would begin requiring the test of all applicants the following year.) On September 19, 1956, Vanderbilt Law School was integrated.

On campus, the enrollment of Work and Porter was almost a non-event. "Not a ripple of concern was visible in the student body, either in the school of law or elsewhere."15 No students protested to the Dean or Chancellor; none withdrew over the issue. Initially, Work and Porter experienced their classmates as not particularly friendly, as they found themselves the subjects of stares and whispered conversations. They were asked to limit their activities to the law school. They could not live on campus (they did not want to). They were not to eat in the dining halls at Vanderbilt or participate in campus student organizations. But the atmosphere improved quickly, and they noticed no open hostility after the first few days. When school opened, one student complained to Wade that he could not study sitting next to Porter. Wade's response was that he should try again, and if he still couldn't, perhaps he should find another law school. Porter and the hostile student later became good friends.

In fact, Work and Porter reported16 developing several "good friendships" with "superb colleagues" by the start of their second year. Porter had a previous experience with integration, as he was serving in an all-black outfit at Fort Dix when President Truman ordered the desegregation of the armed services. He soon found himself with no inhibitions about visiting the bookstore or the dining hall—not because any restrictions had been formally lifted but because Wade had told him not to let those barriers stop him from doing what he wanted to do. Work, too, found the environment to be increasingly cordial, and he was elected Presiding Moot Court Judge in this third year. A low-profile approach, on both sides, may have contributed to an incident-free transition. As Porter would later write to Wade, "[M]any times problems which confronted me at Vanderbilt were never revealed because I tried to do my best to keep from bringing them up."17

A different story unfolded off campus. When the registrations became publicized there was a flood of negative mail, and three official alumni clubs passed statements censuring the Chancellor and the Board.18 A new Independent Association of Alumni and Friends was formed, dedicated "to guiding Vanderbilt University in the direction of conservative principles as opposed to socialistic and communistic principles and that as a part of this program we would oppose the admission of negroes to any department of the University."19 The coincidence of the first volume of the Race Relations Law Reporter being published in the year that Vanderbilt admitted its first two African-American students "gave rise to the report that the Ford Foundation's promise to grant funding for the Reporter had been used to bribe Vanderbilt to become the first private university law school in the South to desegregate its student body."20

The matter came to a head at the Board of Trust meeting that fall. Branscomb and Board President Harold S. Vanderbilt left the October 20th session of the Board meeting to meet with the directors of the Alumni Association. At that meeting, a motion to disapprove of the Board's action died for lack of a second. Later that day, the law school's alumni association met to consider a resolution "to deplore the admission of Negroes and to request that no more be admitted." The president of the association was certain that the motion would pass and urged Wade not to speak at the meeting, for fear of having a stronger resolution introduced. Wade insisted on making a report on the matter, and following his presentation the resolution was tabled by a vote of 56-12. Eddie Morgan offered his own commentary on Wade's appearance before the group: "His frankness and sincerity were impressive. On the whole, it was one of the most artistic performances I have ever seen....The result was a complete triumph for the Dean."21

Wade was continually looking for ways to push against racial boundaries. John Boult tells this story from his law student days:

One of the new black law students was a former basketball All-American at Fisk University in Nashville, who had later played a couple of seasons with the Harlem Globetrotters. That winter, Vanderbilt's basketball team was leading the Southeastern Conference and had a crucial home game against Kentucky, the conference's perennial powerhouse. A few days before the game the dean of the law school called me and another senior law student to his office. He told us he had three tickets to the Kentucky game and that he would like for us to go to the game along with Fred Work, the black law student who wanted very much to see the game. Elmore Holmes, of Memphis, and I escorted our fellow law student to the game and when we took our seats, I think Elmore and I were both a little dismayed to suddenly realize that the very tall black fellow seated between us was the only black person in the arena. Before that moment, the all white hue of the crowd at Vanderbilt's Memorial Coliseum, the finest college basketball venue in the south in those days, had never truly registered with either of us. From that time I could never again fail to notice public gatherings of all white people.22

John W. Work wrote to Wade, after his son's graduation, to express his gratitude for Wade's efforts on his son's behalf, recalling: "Frederick tells of your attending an interdepartmental basketball game in which he participated. I have the feeling that your attendance at that game was not entirely due to your love of basketball."23 Work's white classmates insisted that he play in the game, which was the result of a challenge to the law students by Vanderbilt's medical students. Wade, whom Work thought was nervous about what might happen, attended practices as well as the game.

Work and Porter continued to be trailblazers after leaving Vanderbilt, Porter going to Oklahoma City, Work to Gary, Indiana, each to practice law. Porter had accepted a job in Chicago during his third year. One evening a busload of students from Oklahoma came into Deborah's Place, a prominent black restaurant where he was working as night manager. They were returning from an NAACP meeting in New York City, brimming with enthusiasm in the wake of that event, and they persuaded Porter to return to Oklahoma and become involved in the Civil Rights movement there. Porter was elected president of the Oklahoma City chapter of the NAACP in 1961, less than two years after graduating. He remained active in the Civil Rights movement, later serving as Vice-President of the Oklahoma State Conference of NAACP Branches. He was elected as the first African-American member of the Oklahoma state senate, serving for 22 years from 1964 to 1986.

Work was accepted into the LL.M. program at Yale, but he deferred enrollment because he could not support his wife, and soon a child, on the fellowship that had been offered. Disappointed that he seemed to be the only member of his graduating class without a job, despite making good grades, he read about the bustling economy in Gary, Indiana. And thus, this Nashvillian who had just navigated one foreign culture experienced another culture shock as he started his career in that Midwestern steel mill town. Acclimating to the new environment, he was elected judge of the municipal court seven years after arriving. He was the city's first African-American judge and he held the position for 10 years. In 1968, Work became the first African-American to win nomination to a state-wide office in Indiana, when he was chosen at the Democratic state convention for the position of judge in the Second District Appellate Court. He would also serve as the president of the Lake County Election Board, and was honored with by the Gary chapter of the NAACP with its Benjamin Hooks Award.

In the middle of the 20th century, Vanderbilt was moving from regional aspirations to the national stage. Although there were many aspects to this change, if one event, if one day, were to be highlighted as symbolic of this transformation, for Chancellor Harvie Branscomb, it was October 20, 1956, the day that the University affirmed the admission of African-American students to the Law School. Reflecting on the day that he, Dean Wade and Board President Vanderbilt addressed the school's alumni, Branscomb wrote: "On the whole, I think it was an historic day for Vanderbilt. While one must yield to the temptation to dramatize events, I suspect that on Saturday last this institution decided to be a university national in its interests and thinking, rather than a regional institution."24


  1. 1 Rodriguez graduated in 1935; Acevedo began in 1916 as a first-year student from Panama; Christ registered as a special student in 1922/23, and as a summer student the following summer.
  2. 2 Board of Trust minutes, XXXII, June 20, 1949, p. 291.
  3. 3 Harvie Branscomb, Purely Academic: An Autobiography (Nashville: Vanderbilt University, 1978), p. 154.
  4. 4 Faculty Meeting Minutes, December 4, 1951.
  5. 5 Branscomb memorandum to Forrester, December 6, 1951.
  6. 6 Branscomb, Purely Academic, p. 154.
  7. 7 Board of Trust minutes, XXXVI, October 10, 1952, p. 93.
  8. 8 Wade letter to Branscomb, May 4, 1955.
  9. 9 Memorandum attached to Wade letter to Branscomb, May 4, 1955.
  10. 10 Board of Trust minutes, XXXVIII, May 6, 1955, p. 227. Sims went on the road to speak in favor of desegregation at the Southeast Regional Conference of State Boards of Education, the Annual Convention of the Tennessee School Boards Association, and as the third speaker (along with novelist William Faulkner and Morehouse College President Benjamin E. Mayes) at the 1956 annual meeting of the Southern Historical Association. In May, 1959, he testified against a proposed constitutional amendment to overturn Brown v. Board of Education before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments.
  11. 11 Board of Trust minutes, XL, September 26, 1956, p. 99. Z. Alexander Looby had operated the Kent College of Law out of his law office beginning in 1932. Kent was the only law school for African-American students in the Confederate South when Shafroth and Horack conducted their survey in 1937. ABA records contain no enrollment figures for the school after 1939, and it was dropped from the association's listings in 1947. Laska, History of Legal Education in Tennessee, p. 702.

    In February, 1955, the Tennessee Evening Law School was organized for African-American students in reaction to the Y.M.C.A. Night School's refusal to integrate. The school closed after four years when the Y.M.C.A. school decided to admit African-Americans. Ibid., p. 709.
  12. 12 John W. Wade to Clayton E. Williams (Dean, Washington & Lee University School of Law), August 5, 1955.
  13. 13 David F. Cavers to John W. Wade, October 13, 1955; John W. Wade to David F. Cavers, October 18, 1955.
  14. 14 "Dean Wade Interview," (videotape) October 13, 1989 (on file in Massey Law Library, Vanderbilt Law School).
  15. 15 Robert McGaw, "A Policy the University Can Defend," Vanderbilt Alumnus, Nov./Dec. 1956, p. 13.
  16. 16 Interviews with Frederick T. Work and E. Melvin Porter, December 6, 2006.
  17. 17 E. Melvin Porter to John W. Wade, March 23, 1960.
  18. 18 The resolution adopted by the Memphis Vanderbilt Commodore Club was representative, expressing its alarm and disapproval. The resolution addresses Vanderbilt's responsibility to the South, "to maintain the separation of the races and the kindred practices and principles traditional to the South." Unaware of the Board's action in allowing the admission of Work and Porter, the club expressed its hope that the Board "will regain its rightful control...will reprimand the administrative officials responsible...and will chart for the University a course consistent with the traditions and those of the South." Resolution adopted by the Memphis Vanderbilt Commodore Club, September 25, 1956.
  19. 19 Letter to the Alumni Association, Vanderbilt University, October 7, 1956.
  20. 20 Theodore A. Smedley, "The Old Order Changeth," 31 Vanderbilt Law Review 779-782, at 781 (1978).
  21. 21 Morgan letter to Branscomb, October 22, 1956.
  22. 22 John W. Boult, Sheltered Places, pp. 135-36. He adds that they encountered no trouble whatsoever at the basketball game.
  23. 23 John W. Work to John W. Wade, June 9, 1959.
  24. 24 Branscomb letter to Prof. E.M. Morgan, October 26, 1956.