Jack Hodge made history in 1954 when became the first African American to earn an undergraduate degree from West Virginia University, a B.S. in Journalism from the P. I. Reed School of Journalism.
Segregation in public schools and universities was common before the United States Supreme Court voted unanimously in favor of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.
But Hodge was breaking down barriers years before this landmark decision. When he arrived on WVU’s campus in September of 1950, there were only a handful of black graduate students who were allowed to enroll because of a 1938 Supreme Court decision to open segregated white colleges to African American graduate students. Hodge became the first at the undergraduate level.
A native of McDowell County, West Virginia, Hodge wanted to enroll at WVU as a freshman, but was originally refused admission because West Virginia State—a historically black public university—offered journalism courses. But he was persistent, studying at Bluefield State College and West Virginia State prior to finally being accepted to WVU.
Hodge found a home at the School of Journalism, now the Reed College of Media, and was eventually elected sports editor for the Daily Athenaeum, covering football and basketball games.
His first journalism class was taught by dean and founder Perley Isaac Reed. Hodge, who passed away in 1991, wrote about his experience at WVU in a Baltimore News-American article celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Brown v. Board decision.
“Dr. Reed….presented his first lecture with an introduction: ‘Class, this is Mr. Hodge. He’s going to like some of you. Some of you are going to like him. Some of you may dislike him, and he may dislike some of you. Hopefully not.’ In those few words, Dr. Reed….taught a mini-course in human relations. I knew everything was going to be all right,” Hodge wrote.
For Hodge, the College of Media was a place of support and learning, with an instructor or fellow student always there to turn to. But, he acknowledged that many other African Americans across the U.S. didn’t receive the same positive experience. He wrote, “I had never given too much thought to the precedent I was setting until May 17, 1954…..Knowing what I had been through in isolated incidents, I shudder to think what would have happened in less tolerant states than what we West Virginians like to think is ‘God’s country.’ It’s almost heaven.”
After graduation, Hodge worked as a copyreader at the Baltimore Afro-American and was a news editor at the Baltimore News-American for 25 years. He also taught journalism at Howard University until his retirement in 1991.
Seventeen years after Hodge became the first African American male to graduate from WVU,
Carolyn Bailey Lewis became the first black female graduate of the School of Journalism, earning her bachelor’s degree in 1971 and then a M.S. in Journalism in 1987.
Before enrolling at WVU, Lewis attended all black schools in her hometown of Bluefield, West Virginia, where she was raised by her great aunt, Thelma . This was well into the Civil Rights Movement and more than 10 years after Brown v. Board. But when she transferred to WVU, a predominantly white university, she still struggled to find her place.
“It was 1966 when I started. I was one of nine black women and 30 black men out of around 15,000 undergraduates,” said Lewis. “Adjusting to the environment and always being the only black in class was different. It was scary at times because there were so few of us on campus.”
After graduation, Lewis looked for ways to give back to her alma mater and be a role model for other African American students, so she taught at the College as an adjunct instructor from 1990-1997. In 1995, she was awarded the P.I. Reed Achievement Award, the most prestigious award bestowed by the College, in recognition of her accomplishments and dedication.
Lewis has come to realize that she was a pioneer. “I didn’t know it then, but now that I look back on it, I opened a lot of doors for other people and made it easier for others to follow,” she said. “I knew I was representing Bluefield, I was representing my Great Aunt Thelma, I was representing a lot of people.”
Lewis worked as a public broadcasting and media professional for over 38 years, including working for West Virginia Public Broadcasting, where she became the first African American woman to be named a general manager of a full-service public television station in the United States. She went on to earn her doctorate in communication studies from the Scripps College of Communication at Ohio University, where she later became a member of the faculty.
“West Virginia is just a special place. It never leaves you. It stays in your blood because of the people you met and the things you did,” said Lewis. “The Perley I. Reed School of Journalism helped shape me into the professional and teacher I became over the years.”