The Lonely Only

The lonely only…

I’ve been reflecting lately on what it means to the be “only.”  The Lonely Only.

Irving Peddrew

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing, as part of #VTUnfinished, Irving Peddrew, the first black student to enroll at Virginia Tech in 1953.  You can see the interview (premiering on December 9, 2020) and article here:

He was the only Black student in the midst of 3322 students in 1953. Let me repeat: One of 3322 White students in 1953. In 1953. When segregation was in its heyday, with White and Colored signs, with legalized separation of the races.

A little bit about Mr. Peddrew is below:

Irving Linwood Peddrew III of Hampton was the first African American student to attend Virginia Tech and the first to attend any historically all-white four-year public institution in the 11 former states of the Confederacy.

On advice from the Virginia attorney general, the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors approved his admission. This was a year before Brown vs. the Board Education decision striking down separate and unequal segregated public education.

Peddrew graduated in 1953 from Hampton’s all-black George P. Phenix High School. At Virginia Tech he majored in electrical engineering and was a member of the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets. Among 3,322 students, he was not permitted to live on campus or eat in the cafeteria. He eventually left the school before graduating. In 2003, during the 50th anniversary celebration of the first black student to enter Virginia Tech, the school named the Peddrew-Yates Residence Hall after him. It also honored Charlie Yates, the first black graduate at Virginia Tech. In 2016, Peddrew was awarded an honorary bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering during the university’s commencement.

Because he couldn’t live on campus, he was housed by a Black family, William and Janie Hoge. We learn more about Mr. Peddrew’s experience, and other first Black students (in 1954, 3 other students joined Mr. Peddrew) below:

It’s unclear exactly how the Hoges began boarding students. Peddrew said he didn’t know of them, nor that he would be living on Clay Street, until he arrived in Blacksburg.

“I thought I would be a part of the student body all around. I didn’t know about all the restrictions,” he said. “But since I was there, I said, ‘Well, let’s make the best of it.’”

Peddrew said it makes sense, however, that the university would have known about and made arrangements with the Hoges, given their ties to university employees and the lack of housing opportunities for black Americans in that era.

“Mostly when you hit an area like Blacksburg, a small rural town, you’d have to rely on someone you knew who could direct you to some place to stay,” Peddrew said. “It was quite a pain just to find a place to lay your body up for the night.”

Not allowed to eat or use other nonacademic university facilities, such as the students’ center, the students would trek through Blacksburg to and from the Hoges’ for lunch. They weren’t allowed to take part in campus traditions or social activities, such as the Ring Dance, and in the Town of Blacksburg, they weren’t allowed in any restaurants, drug stores or barber shops, and they were restricted to the balcony if they wanted to see a movie at the Lyric Theatre.

The Hoges didn’t live to see the legacy they helped start. They never saw the full impact of James Leslie Whitehurst ’63 breaking color barriers by both living on campus and attending the Ring Dance, nor the six black female students admitted and allowed to live on campus in 1966.

But in the decades following the Hoges’ deaths, it would become clear that their efforts to welcome Virginia Tech’s first black students into their house helped pave the way for others to call the university home.

This summer, Virginia Tech renamed a residential hall in honor of the Hoge family. In my post below, I reflect on this monumental moment:

The Hoge family represented the Lonely Only. The only home available for the first Black students. This family, an elderly Black man and woman, had to courageously house “strangers” so students and others could have a place to “lay [their] body up for the night.” A couple who could not even complete their own education: William completed school through the third grade and Janie through the seventh. 

Janie Hoge

The personal fortitude that it takes to be the Lonely Only cannot be understimated.

This summer, I wrote about my brother, Awadagin, and shared the podcast in which he talks about portions of his life around race, false arrests, police stops, and being the “one and only Black friend.”

A reflection on race, relations, and music

He, too, is often, the only. He has also been the first. At the Peabody Conservatory of Music, he became the first student in the school’s history to receive diplomas in three performance areas – piano, violin and conducting. He was the first African-American to win the prestigious Naumburg International Piano Competition. An article profiling his competition win, the article references his distinctiveness:

Unlike the other contestants in yesterday’s final, who were attired in tuxedos or dark suits, Mr. Pratt wore a black shirt, black pants, and a gold and black tie. His dreadlocked hair was knotted in a ponytail.There is a lot of tradition built into concerts and concert-going that could benefit from being changed,” Mr. Pratt said. “There is too much formality.”

This comment reflects the tension and reality of the “only.” You stand out in many ways. Skin color, dress, culture, hair. By virtue of your “onlyness,” you do not “fit in.” You don’t not match. And that standing “outness,” consciously or unconsciously, influences every day experiences.

For more about Awadagin (food, music, and fun), see Menah’s Matinee, Episode 3.

I have continued to reflect on this Lonely Only experience.

In my interview with Mr. Peddrew, I started to just imagine the trauma and pain, the loneliness, the confusion, the thoughts that must have flooded his mind every day as he walked the half a mile, four times a day from his adopted home on Clay Street to Virginia Tech. Why? Why me?  Why only me?  We have to imagine the stares from those in the community; the stares from those in classes; the stares from classmates. And I’m sure there were most than stares. Much goes unsaid when you are the Lonely Only. Sometimes, there is simply too much pain to relive and relieve. You are just surviving, with every ounce of courage and determination that you can muster daily.

Those words are really insufficient to capture the magnitude of personal fortitude and resilience on a daily basis that was required to persist under traumatic conditions. In 1953, Irving Peddrew was just an 18 year-old boy, who had gone to an all-Black high school and lived in an all Black community. Not knowing that he wouldn’t live on campus, not knowing that he was going to be part of the Corps of Cadets military experience, not knowing that he couldn’t participate in the daily routine of college life, he stayed. Those of us who have never walked in his shoes will never know what he endured and the toil of that journey. Even now for him at the age of 84, almost 65 years later, the reflections are difficult.

What I think about is how many of us – as people of color, as Black men and women, are still the only.  Those who are the “lonely only” are carrying a heavier burden, a societal and cultural responsibity as a cross bearer, forging a path, for others.  My children, I know, have often been the Only. My son was the only Black student in most of his painting classes at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. My daugther is the only person of color in her company. I still hear Black students at Virginia Tech reference being the only: the only Black student in a class; the only Black student in a residence hall. I hear LGBTQ students and alumni reference being the “Lonely Only.” I hear Native students and alumni and Latinx students and alumni reference being the Lonely Only.

And, every year when Virginia Tech hosts the Faculty Women of Color in the Academy, I see the Lonely Only in the over 400 women of color that participate.

I have always sensed the despair that enters the conference on the opening day: the exhaustion, the pressure of success, the cost of defying stereotypes, the cost of paving the way. In fact, in the video from the 2019 conference, Naomi Tutu, our keynote speakers, talks about entering the room as a “tired Black woman.”

We, I, enter so many rooms as a tired Black woman.

The conference, however, is special, because though many enter the room as tired and the lonely only, they quickly realize that they are not alone.  That though they may be alone at their institutions, the only one in their departments, the only one in their college, the only one in their universities, they are not alone in the academy.  At the conference, they experience community, and for those few days, moments, they are not the Lonely Only. (Discounted Early bird registration open for 2021 Virtual Conference).

This year, we started offering Healing Hours for women of color, as part of the conference’s efforts to support women of color throughout the year.

I know our institutions DO NOT fully understand or appreciate the “cost” of being the only, the first. 

I often reflect on how many times I was the only.  For me, it started in high school.  I was the only Black student in my graduating class out of 388.  I played professional tennis circuit for two years before going to college.  That was an all White world, and while occasionally, there might have been another Black tennis player, but in almost 99% of the tournaments, I was the only Black player. 

When I went to the University of Iowa as an undergraduate in the 1980s, in most of my classes, I was the only Black student.  In fact, I don’t even remember having a Black friend during my undergraduate years. I remember many White classmates that I thought were friends, but we did not stay in touch. 

My best friend, even to this day, was another Black woman that I met when I was in graduate school at Iowa. She was living in a neighboring apartment building and working on her PhD in pharmacology.  She was from Georgia and had gotten her undergraduate degree at Morris Brown, a HBCU still standing after so many trials.

Standing at the bus stop together one day, we started a conversation and haven’t stopped talking….almost 35 years later!  She too, was the “Lonely Only.”  The only Black woman in her PhD program.

When I started practicing law as a corporate lawyer in Nashville, I was the only Black woman lawyer and the only lawyer for most of my tenure there.  Even now, at Virginia Tech, I am the only woman of color vice president. In many meetings, I am sometimes the only woman, and often the only person of color, and even more consistently, the only woman of color. And so often, in my career, I have been and continue to be, the “Lonely Only.” Yes, still, often, lonely and alone, a status I’ve come to accept and embrace, as part of my calling in this social justice work.

This social dynamic of being the only, or one of a few, is the reason why cultural and community centers, , faculty and staff caucuses (employee resource groups) are so important.  It is stressful, exhausting, frustrating, and at times, harrowing, to be the Lonely Only.

Many of those who are not the “Lonely Only,” cannot understand and appreciate the need for space to take off the mask, to relax, to be. This opportunity to “be” is essential for all marginalized identity groups, including the LGBTQ community, veteran’s, those with disabilities, religious communities, in addition to racial and ethnic minorities. The centers are spaces that mitigate the aloneness and isolation and difference.  While not all identities are homogenous, the points of identification and familiarity can facilitate and generate an energy that allows one to keep on pressing on, to keep moving forward, to continue on the difficult march.  

When I started at Virginia Tech, almost 5 years ago, there was only one Cultural Center – The BCC. The Black Cultural Center — a space for student organizations. There was an LGBTQ Resource Center, as well, that was primarily a library and student organization space. Neither space had a director or programming. A small group of incredible colleagues pushed aggressively that first year when I arrived for community space and directors for the centers for the Native American and Indigenous community (after all, we are on their land), the Latinx community, the Asian/Asian American community, the LGBTQ community, and the Black community. Learn more about the amazing centers and directors with our two Making the Chair Fit videos:

We need more centers and spaces for other communities that feel marginalized (religious and disability). We also need the majority communities to appreciate the amazing resource these centers provide to the White community, for White students, faculty, and staff, to learn about other cultures and backgrounds by participating in programing to build their cultural competency.

When Irving Peddrew was at Virginia Tech, the Hoge Family was all he had. It was his Living-Learning community. That’s why I’m thrilled to support and encourage others to provide financial support for the new Janie and William Hoge Memorial Scholarship to provide room and board to students living in Hoge Hall. To give, click below:

Lindsay Cherry in the class of 1954 has championed this effort.

Lindsay Cherry, part of the class of 1954,
2nd group of Black students to integrate Virginia Tech

It was such a pleasure to meet Mr. Cherry this summer and it is an honor to support his InclusiveVT Difference commitment.

Proceeds from the sale of this book also support the scholarship fund.

Because of the steps, literally and figuratively, that Irving Peddrew walked every day as the Lonely Only Black student at Virginia Tech, 8300 Black students have been able to walk in his shoes, and stand upon his courageous shoulders.

And, from an entering Black student enrollment of 1 in 1953, this year in 2020, 571 Black students, constituting 8 percent of the entering class enrolled at Virginia Tech. This shift, in part, is due the Black College Institute, introducing over 400 students each summer to Virginia Tech, who are interested in the African-American experience.

Much of the change at Virginia Tech can be attributed to President Tim Sands. In my interview with Mr. Peddrew, he references the impact that President Sands and his wife, Dr. Laura Sands, had on his impressions and perceptions of Virginia Tech, and making him feel part of Hokie Nation. President Sands was instrumental in leading the effort to award Mr. Peddrew an honorary degree in 2016.

Mr. Irving Peddrew, the first Black student and President Tim Sands

I have often talked about the extraordinary leadership and commitment of President Sands to diversity. Much of the change at Virginia Tech in the last five years around diversity must be attributed to his investment of time, resources, and trust.

This summer, President Sands and I sat down for two challenging conversations about race:

And, so, I am grateful for the opportunity to continue this work of diversity and inclusion at Virginia Tech, and to continue to pave the way for others, in the spirit of the first Black men Irving Peddrew, Lindsay Cherry, Charlie Yates, Floyd Wilson, Essex Finney, and Matt Winston, Sr.

and the first Black women:

“In addition, a different sort of progress was made when Tech admitted its first black female undergraduates in 1966: Adams, Jacquelyn Butler (sociology ’70), Linda Edmonds (clothing & textiles ’70, M.B.A. ’76, Ph.D. general business ’79), Freddie Hairston (who left Tech and went on to earn a doctorate at the University of Oregon), Marguerite Harper (history ’70), and Chiquita Hudson (who died from lupus following her freshman year). Eschewing racism and sexism alike, these six black women—among nearly 9,500 white men, 500 white women, and 20 black men—were instrumental in Tech’s move toward total inclusion.,’76%2C%20Ph.

I will always remain grateful to the Lonely Only, who often in quietness, aloneness, and solitude, pursues a calling and path, irregardless and irrespective of the cost, because they are aware of the invisible Others, upon whom the success of their Lonely Only journey depends.

Thank you.

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