Dr. Eloise Severinson

In 1963, the United States Civil Rights Commission published a report that classified George Mason College as an all-white segregated public school in Virginia. John Finley, the Director of GMC at the time, responded to this claim with a brief answer:  "It is true we have never had a negro student but no negro has ever applied for admission."  He also stated that there was no institutional rule barring any student from applying to his school.  What Finley did not acknowledge was that GMC was simply not recruiting Black high school graduates[1].

Finley's reply got the attention of the Virginia State Advisory Committee to the United States Civil Rights Commission and a division of the Department of Health Education and Welfare that employed Dr. Eloise Severinson.  She proceeded to conduct an investigation of George Mason College in 1971.  The basis of her critical inquiry were notifications, filed in 1969 and 1970, stating that the college was not in compliance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. These notifications stemmed from a civil rights investigation of University of Virginia campuses[1].

One of the first allegations against George Mason College involved the athletic department using a nearby segregated Country Club to conduct sports practices. Black students were not allowed to enter that property. Another allegation related to GMC's apparent misallocation of scholarship funds, which it earmarked for “Christian white girls." The Civil Rights Commission determined that the college was not recruiting minority students in a way that was comparable to white students. Dr. Severinson presented one stark fact to Director Finley: less than 1% of the campus population was Black and there was just a handful of Black faculty members.[2]

On April 12, 1971, Louis Aebischer, GMC Director of Admissions, responded with denials and asserted that GMC was in fact making a conscious effort to recruit minority students to apply to the school.  Aebischer told Dr. Severinson that the college looked the way it did because Northern Virginia was made up of white people; these residents sent their children to the school, he reminded her [3].

The Washington Post appeared to get wind of this controversy.  The newspaper published an article that quoted Chancellor Lorin Thompson saying he and his colleagues in the administration “need[ed] time in developing a college for all rather than spending time answering complaints.” He did not mention Dr. Severinson by name but she was likely on his mind when he assured that Black students would eventually come to GMC and it would one day “recruit [Black] faculty that are qualified.”[4]

Dr. Severinson was not the first or last person to point out racial injustices at George Mason College.  She was a strong and highly professional person who wanted results. She also knew that her opponents, including Chancellor Thompson, did not like her and were vocal about taking a stand against her recommendations. [5]  Dr. Severinson did not blink.

[1] Letter J.N.G. Finley to Howard Rogerson, 4 December 1963, GMU Presidential Papers, Series 2: Early History, 1949-1967, Box 2, Folder 19, George Mason University University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center.  In the twentieth century the University of Virginia had a history of institutional segregation and resistance to desegregation:  Alexander Leidholdt, "Showdown on Mr. Jefferson's Lawn: Contesting Jim Crow during the University of Virginia's Protodesegregation," The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 122, no. 3 (2014), 230-71; Peter Wallenstein, "Black Southerners and Nonblack Universities: The Process of Desegregation Southern Higher Education, 1935-1965," in Peter Wallenstein, ed. Higher Education and the Civil Rights Movement: White Supremacy, Black Southerners, and College Campuses (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2008), 17-58.

[2] Letter Eloise Severinson to Lorin Thompson, 26 March 1971, GMU Presidential Papers, Series 3: Lorin A. Thompson, 1964-1981 (Boxes 5-22), Box 13, Folder 6, George Mason University University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center.

[3] Report Louis Aebischer on HEW Allegations, 12 April 1971, GMU Presidential Papers, Series 3: Lorin A. Thompson, 1964-1981 (Boxes 5-22), Box 14, Folder 11, George Mason University University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center.

[4] Kenneth Bredemeier, "HEW Charges Bias at College in Fairfax: HEW Claims Bias at Mason College," The Washington Post, April 10, 1971.

[5] Northern Virginia Sun, 12 October 1970 (Virginia Chronicle: Digital Newspaper Archive.” Accessed August 2, 2021. https://virginiachronicle.com/?a=d&d=NVS19701012.1.1&e=------197-en-20--161-byDA-txt-txIN-%22george+mason+college%22-------).

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