Walter Nathaniel Ridley was the first African-American to receive an academic doctoral degree from a traditional Southern white college or university. Dr. Walter Ridley earned the doctorate of education degree from the University of Virginia in 1953. He graduated with high honors and was a member of Kappa Delta Pi Honor Society at U.Va. Dr. Ridley began his career teaching psychology at Virginia State College. He wanted to earn a doctorate, but the only institution in the state of Virginia that granted such degrees was U.Va. He sought admission more than once and was denied despite his protestations that, “My father has paid taxes in this state since before I was born and I am entitled to study here.” In fact, the state of Virginia paid him a subsidy to leave the state and study in the North. He went to the University of Minnesota. His dissertation research focused on the question of whether audio-visual materials used in schools contained content that would be deleterious to black students. The research entailed viewing countless hours of movies, which caused a hemorrhage in his eye. He was advised by doctors to discontinue the research, which he did. He returned to Virginia.
The Journey to the University of Virginia
In 1950, Dean Stiles of the Curry School visited Virginia State College. He met Mr. Ridley, who expressed his wish to complete his studies at U.Va. It was a fateful meeting because by that time the University of Virginia had decided to seek black students “who were highly likely to be successful.” Mr. Ridley applied immediately and was quickly accepted. In an article written some years later about him, the Curry School News said that he “opened new territory for future generations, and with courage and dignity set an example for others to follow.”
The Early Years
Dr. Ridley, one of eight children, was born April 1, 1910, to John Hoskins Ridley and Mary Haywood Ridley in Newport News, Virginia. His father, the son of an emancipated slave, worked in the Newport News Ship Building and Dry Dock Company and rose from laborer to chief steward. He was one of the founding officers of Crown Savings Bank. His mother was a musician who taught piano. Dr. Ridley was educated in the public schools of Newport News and earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees cum laude from Howard University. A member of Alpha Kappa Mu Honor Society, he subsequently served as its national president for several years.
Career in Education
Dr. Ridley had a distinguished career in higher education. He was awarded the Distinguished Curry School Alumnus Award in 1988. At the time of his death, he was the oldest living past president of the National Education Association. Prior to 1966, the national professional organizations of college and university educators were segregated. Between 1941 and 1966, he served as president, treasurer, and trustee of the American Teachers Association (ATA) and the National Association of Black Educators in Colleges and Universities. He served on the commission that forged the merger of ATA and NEA, and at the time of the merger in 1966, he was given the Meritorious Service Award for 25 years as a national officer of ATA. He was the speaker at the historic Merger Dinner. After serving as an administrator and professor at Virginia State University for 21 years, Dr. Ridley became academic dean at Saint Paul’s College in Lawrenceville, Virginia. In 1958 he became the president of Elizabeth City State College in North Carolina. Under his administrative leadership the institution expanded between 1959 and 1963 from only one elementary education major to 12 additional academic majors, and the credentials of faculty were raised markedly. There was a significant expansion of landholdings and construction of new buildings, and an expansion of enrollment from 400 in 1958 to 1,013 in 1965. This vigorous expansion in all phases of Elizabeth City State College’s operations laid the groundwork for the institution becoming a university in 1969. During Dr. Ridley’s administration, the first white student was admitted to this traditionally black Southern college, an event which was documented by Walter Cronkite and Mike Wallace when the college was showcased in a CBS TV documentary, “Integration in Reverse.” He was named president emeritus of Elizabeth City State University in 1988. After resigning the presidency of Elizabeth City State in 1968, Dr. Ridley returned to the classroom as professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, where he served until his retirement. He was designated professor emeritus at West Chester. On September 26, 1996, Dr. Ridley died in West Chester, Pennsylvania, at the age of 86. At the time of his death, he was survived by his wife, Henrietta (nee Bonaparte); a daughter, Yolanda Scheunemann (Mrs. Henry R.) of Chicago; a son, Don Leroy of West Chester, Pennsylvania; three grandchildren, Alyssa, Mark, and Carl Scheunemann; along with a host of nieces, nephews, cousins, and several godchildren. A beloved grandson, David Everett Scheunemann, predeceased him.