Education Pioneer Walter N. Ridley Persisted in Pursuing Knowledge


Anne Bromley

Ridley, the first Black student to graduate from UVA in 1953 – just part of his illustrious career in higher education – garnered the respect of the University community, from deans to janitors.

Walter N. Ridley would not have been a typical University of Virginia student in any year. He was 40 years old and married with two children. He held bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Howard University, and was on the faculty of Virginia State College.

But the year was 1950. Despite his academic successes, UVA would not admit him to pursue a doctorate because he was African American.

After repeated attempts, he was finally accepted in 1951. Two years later, he earned his Ed.D. from UVA’s Curry Department of Education (before it became a school) – becoming the first Black student to graduate from UVA, as well as the first African American to earn a doctorate at any major white public university in the South.

Five years later, Ridley became president of Elizabeth City State Teachers College in North Carolina, making changes that included admitting its first white student and transforming the school into Elizabeth City State College (now University).

Last month, the UVA Board of Visitors voted to rename one of the education buildings in honor of him, changing Ruffner Hall to Ridley Hall.

Ridley’s granddaughter, Alyssa, and step-grandsons Carl and Mark Scheunemann said in a joint statement on behalf of Ridley’s descendants that they were “honored and excited” about the renaming: “Dr. and Mrs. Ridley would have been delighted, as would their daughter, Yolanda Ridley Scheunemann, and their son, Don Ridley.”

“Walter Ridley was an extraordinary educator and leader,” said Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education and Human Development. “His life and career demonstrate the values, conviction and commitment to action and equality that serve as models for the work we do as a school of education and human development. Recognizing his legacy and making visible his contributions and courage are just one way that we can carry his work forward.”

This is an excerpt from a feature story published on UVA Today.