Virginius Thornton

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Portrait photograph of Virginius Thornton. Reproduced from the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library.
Thornton as a student depicted during a sit down strike at a lunch counter. Reproduced from Howard Sochurek Art Reproductions & Prints.
Volunteer activists blowing smoke into the face of Thornton around 1960. Reproduced from Retronaut.
Thornton picketing in front of the University Theater in March of 1961. Reproduced from the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library.

Dr. Virginius Bray Thornton III (1934 - September 3, 2015) was the first Black student to matriculate into the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Virginia. He was an educator throughout his adult life and helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a principal channel of student commitment in the United States to the civil rights movement during the 1960s.


Early life in West Point

Thornton was born in 1934. He grew up in West Point, a small Virginian community located midway between Richmond and Williamsburg. His grandfather and father ran a popular seafood restaurant in the Black section of the town that served food to people of all racial identities.

Growing up in West Point, Thornton often found himself subject to racial discrimination. When he was six years old, he entered a drugstore in order to buy a coke but was forced to take the beverage in a paper cup to go instead of a glass, as he was not welcome at the lunch counter. As a child, he once dropped a white customer from his paper route due to the woman shouting racial slurs at him when he went to her door to collect his money.

At 11 years old, Thornton asked to check out Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America from his local library but was halted by the librarian, who first questioned whether Thornton was old enough to read the book and then denied him access to it altogether due to his status as a Black individual. Thornton returned to the library three weeks later and, upon being refused access a second time, traveled there once more with his sisters after a few weeks, with the trio continuing to visit the library on a regular basis to request to check out a book. It would not be until 1956 that Thornton's sister, who eventually became an attorney in Washington, D.C., became one of the first Black individuals to borrow a book from the library.

As a teenager, Thornton once persuaded both his sister and classmates to refuse a local government order to attend a county school 18 miles away after the West Point district had shut down the Black high school. Shortly after his graduation as valedictorian from Beverly Allen High School in the 1940's, Thornton's sister tried to enroll in the white school a few blocks away but was denied. Thornton thus resolved to lead a demonstration, stopping at the homes of each member of the school board and later helping teach Black students in a freedom school that had been set up by members of the community. The parents of the students, including Thornton's mother, were eventually taken to court and were each fined $200 as well as jailed for 30 days for violating the mandatory school attendance law. It would not be until five years later that the Supreme Court of Virginia reversed the prosecution.

Education and civil rights

Thornton attended Virginia Union College for his undergraduate degree, later attending Virginia State University for his graduate degree. In 1957, while he was a student, Thornton met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. while he was giving a lecture at the school. Thornton was very impressed with King as an individual working to further the civil rights movement, later saying of him

"We were all overwhelmed by him. He was a man of sincerity, a man who made us look again at Thoreau and to consider the notion of social justice, the social gospel, a man who was thoroughly committed to using his skills and talents to advanced the community. He wasn't a traditional sort of Black theologian. He integrated his message with philosophy, with awareness of the here and now and it wasn't just when I get over there. I guess that's what a lot of us youngsters wanted to hear."

In April of 1960, Thornton became one of the founding members of the SNCC, a student-led organization dedicated to coordinating and assisting direct-action challenges to the civic segregation and political exclusion of Black individuals across the country. He met with King alongside other SNCC members at a sit-in strategy meeting in Atlanta, Georgia. He also led 140 students in a sit-down strike at the segregated Petersburg Public Library.

On September 19, 1960 Thornton was shown in a photograph with King and was quoted in a story about the tactic of sit-ins in a Life Magazine issue from that day. "This is not a student struggle, it is a Negro struggle," he stated in the four-page article, which also included pictures of him leading a march and taking part in a practice session to prepare students to take tormenting without resorting to violence in Petersburg, Virginia. Thornton was widely-recognized as being more experienced than many of his fellow SNCC members during this time, as he had organized several protests himself both in high school and college.

In 1960, Thornton made history when he became the first Black student to gain admission to the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Virginia, enrolling in a doctoral program in history. He continued to fight Jim Crow laws there, leading a protest at UVA's University Theater in 1961 in response to the theater's manager selling tickets to the white students in Thornton's party but not himself and two other Black students (the manager, named John W. Kase, claimed that because the theater did not possess a balcony or other facilities for segregation, allowing any Black viewers inside would be breaking the law). While attending UVA, Thornton was also active in the Charlottesville Albemarle Virginia Council on Human Relations (which promoted interracial equality in the region), picketing local establishments such as Buddy's Restaurant and the Holiday Inn.[1]

In 1963, Thornton attended the March on Washington with his mother, sister, and nephew, where they stood about 20 rows from the stage at the Lincoln Memorial when King recited his famous "I Have A Dream" speech.

Later life and death

Although Thornton never finished his doctoral degree at UVA, he would go on to accumulate 10 honorary degrees and other awards from groups across the nation. He began a successful career as an educator, successively teaching at Hampton University (then known as the Hampton Institute), Bowie State University, Pennsylvania State University, and Bucknell University.

In 1986, Thornton joined the faculty at the Massachusetts Bay Community College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. He taught American, Black, and Women's history there for the next three decades, additionally serving locally as a Framingham Town Meeting member for four years during the 1990's. Among Thornton's passion projects that he pursued during this time were judging a Profile in Courage Essay Contest for high school students at the JFK Library and Museum and advocating for a commemorative stamp to honor his ancestor, James Armistead Lafayette (a slave who won his freedom in 1781 after assisting American revolutionaries in New Kent County by spying on British soldiers during the Revolutionary War).[2]

Thornton died on September 3, 2015 at the age of 81. He was survived by four sisters; Mary T. King of Saluda, Virginia, Alice T. Edwards of Shakes Heights, Ohio, and Lucy T. Edwards and Frances A. Thornton of West Point, Virginia. His funeral service was held on September 12 at Mt. Nebo Baptist Church in West Point, with arrangements being provided by the Forrest Funeral Home.[3]


  1. Web. Picketing and Petitioning: Desegregation at the University of Virginia and Charlottesville Virginia in the 1960’s, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collection Library, 02/25/2022
  2. Web. 'I have a dream', Milford Daily News, 01/17/2004
  3. Web. Virginius Thornton Obituary, Daily Press, 09/10/2015