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Virginia State University (1882 - )

Virginia State University First Class, 1886
Virginia State University First Class, 1886
Image Ownership: Public Domain

Virginia State University is a public, historically black college located in Petersburg, Virginia.  The university is the first fully supported, four year institution for African Americans in the United States and is one of two land-grant colleges in the State of Virginia.

The university was founded on March 6, 1882 as the Virginia Normal and College Institute after the state legislature passed a bill sponsored by Delegate Alfred W. Harris, a black attorney, which chartered the university.  The state established the university to serve the needs of a population that was at the time excluded from other public institutions in Virginia.  Virginia Normal and College Institute opened as a teacher training college for both male and female black students but it also included a modest liberal arts curriculum. 

The campus opened on October 1, 1883 with 126 students and seven faculty members, all of whom were black, on an operating budget of $20,000. In 1885, John Mercer Langston, a leading African American figure of the time and soon to be the first African American elected to Congress from Virginia, was named the university's first president.

The school changed its name to Virginia Normal and Industrial Institute in 1902 after the state legislature revised the charter and curtailed the liberal arts program. In 1920, the state moved its land-grant program for blacks from private Hampton Institute, where it had been since 1872, to Virginia Normal and Industrial College.  The college program was restored in 1923 and the school was renamed the Virginia State College for Negroes in 1930. 

The college opened up a branch campus in Norfolk in 1944, which would later gain its independence and become Norfolk State College.  In 1946, the school was renamed Virginia State College and finally, in 1979, the state legislature passed a law that renamed the institution Virginia State University.

Virginia State University is now a comprehensive university with a student body of over 5,000 students, including 500 graduate students, and over 250 faculty members.  Virginia State University has degree granting programs in four undergraduate schools and college and a School of Graduate Studies, Research and Outreach.  Its most prominent alumni include Reginald Lewis, former owner of TLC Beatrice International, William H. Lewis, first African American Assistant Attorney General, James Avery, actor, Billy Taylor, jazz musician, and Dr. Mary Hatwood Futrell,  former president of the National Education Association.


Virginia State University History,; (Official site); Trudy Harrington Becker, "Broadening Access to a Classical Education: State Universities in Virginia in the Nineteenth Century," Classical Journal, 96:3 (March 2001).


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