The Early Days at Virginia State University
A warm welcome to new Virginia State University students! And welcome back to returning students! It is sure to be a great year for the Trojans.
As a student at Virginia State University, have you ever wondered what it was like for students in the early years of the school? It cannot have been exactly the same as it is now. In fact, it was quite different.
Six years after VSU opened as the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute it had a total of 326 students. State-supported universities in Virginia were not co-ed at the time; because VSU educated both male and female students, it was unique in the state. All courses were taught by African-American faculty, a rarity in schools for African-American students at the time. The college had two programs—the Collegiate program, a 4-year program “designed to give a higher and broader culture to those… who are able to remain longer in school or desire to pursue the professions” and the Normal Course, which prepared students to become teachers in 3 years.
The school was not only concerned with the academic advancement and preparation of its students, but their physical health and advancement as well. Social regulations were much stricter than they are today. “Home Training” was an important part of life at VSU. Rooms were inspected for order and cleanliness regularly, and demerits issued if they were found not up to standards. There was particular attention to dress and etiquette, with especially strict rules for the young ladies. The 1888 catalogue notes that “the girls are under constant care of the matron and… not allowed to leave school grounds unless accompanied by some teacher. All are taught that expensive wearing apparel is not only unnecessary, but that the institution wants nothing but good plain clothing.” The school found it important to teach economy in thrift as tools that would serve the young ladies well when running households of their own. In addition to their academic courses, the female students were taught how to run a household, and as part of their training were required learn all aspects of needle-craft, from fine sewing to darning and patching. They were also required to do their own laundry, while male students paid to have that chore done for them. However, male students didn’t get off scot-free: they were required to drill and exercise in order to teach them “compliance and manly deportment.”
In the early days, the entire school—dorms, classrooms, dining hall, offices, and library, were housed in the original Virginia Hall. It was much bigger than the Virginia Hall that stands today, encompassing the space occupied by Lindsay- Montague, Virginia, and Colson Halls today. There was no co-ed housing; men and women were housed in opposite wings of the building. Fraternizing between the men and women students was not allowed; rule 49 in the 1896 catalog read “No student shall correspond, walk, play, or converse with the opposite sex on the grounds, nor on their visits to and from church.” And some students say the co-ed visiting rules are strict now!
Compared to the rules in place during the school’s early years, the rules students have to follow today do not seem nearly as bad. Sure, students still have to adhere to visiting hours, but at least the university does not determine who students may or may not visit with at all times any more. Students have a little more leeway with their dress and room décor, as well as their social activities on and off campus.