BALSA and Legal Aid

UVA Law’s Black American Law Students Association (BALSA, now BLSA) formed in October 1971. Alongside the organization’s main goals of increasing student and faculty diversity, BALSA’s founding members forged their community of action through legal aid. During the 1971-1972 academic year, BALSA members took on pro bono work to provide legal counsel to underserved communities, particularly through collaborations with local legal aid groups like the CharlottesvilleAlbemarle Legal Aid Society (now the Legal Aid Justice Center, founded in 1967 by a group of Charlottesville attorneys and UVA Law students) and the Law School’s Legal Assistance Society. 

This Black History Month marks the one-year anniversary of 50 Years of BLSA, a collaborative project between Law Special Collections and the Black Law Students Association to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the organization. Read more about the project here. One year after the project, we continue to learn about BLSA through archival research and oral history interviews with alumni/ae. Shortly after the project’s debut, then-BLSA President Allison Burns ’22 heard from Bobby Vassar ’72 about the importance of legal aid work to BALSA’s founding members.

COMMUNITY SERVICE THROUGH THE LEGAL ASSISTANCE SOCIETY

Bobby Vassar ’72, James Ghee ’72, and Gwendolyn Jones Jackson ’72 were among the founding BALSA members who participated in the Law School’s Legal Assistance Society, particularly the Society’s Welfare Rights Project. The Project partnered with the Virginia Welfare Rights Organization to assist Virginia residents who requested welfare assistance, were denied, and then exercised their right to a fair hearing to reverse their verdict. Law students conducted legal investigations and advocated for their welfare candidates before a panel of local welfare officials and a hearing officer appointed by the Virginia State Board of Welfare. Project members represented Virginia residents from Albemarle, Buckingham, Cumberland, Fauquier, and Greene counties, as well as residents from the cities of Charlottesville and Lynchburg. Bobby Vassar recalled that these welfare hearings were the first of their kind in at least one of the counties they represented.

“There were very few Blacks on the [welfare] rolls in these counties because Black women with children were expected to be maids and cooks in White homes or to do other menial labor jobs, so only a few of the most disabled women with children were considered worthy of receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC, now TANF). In several instances, all or some of the local Social Services Board members attended the hearings. Things got testy in some the hearings with one Board Chairman telling Jim Ghee “I think you done said about enough there, boy”, which prompted the State hearing officer to warn him he would clear the room if there were any further such outbursts. We were able to win benefits for almost all of the families we represented as a result of favorable hearing decisions, and that encouraged other eligible Black families to apply and receive benefits. 

Bobby Vassar ’72, personal correspondence with Allison Burns ’22, 11 February 2021. 

Ghee served as the project’s director from 1971-1972, even traveling to Las Vegas, Nevada in February 1971 to assist the National Welfare Rights Organization in reversing Nevada’s cut-off of a portion of the state’s welfare payments. 

Newspaper article with headline "Ghee Joins Effort Appealing Nevada Welfare Cutoffs"
“Ghee Joins Effort Appealing Nevada Welfare Cutoffs,” Virginia Law Weekly, 19 February 1971. Click the image to read the full article on HeinOnline (Netbadge login required).

“We knew there were risks and we were willing to take them.”

Outside the Legal Assistance Society, Vassar recalled working with then-ACLU attorney John C. Lowe ’67 and fellow BALSA members James Winstead ’72, S. DeLacy Stith ’72, and William “Joe” Bass ’72 to research juror discrimination in Central Virginia. Dean Monrad Paulsen provided the law students with a letter to show local clerks of court explaining that they were part of a UVA Law-sanctioned research project. The letter allowed them access to jury rolls in six surrounding counties. 

“We would use the letters to gain access to the jury rolls to write down the names and then go meet with a pre-arranged group of local Black residents to go over the names to identify whether any of them were Black. The clerk in one county (Nottoway) became suspicious of our group of 4 Blacks and one White after seeing us writing down the names of jurors and actually called the Dean, but was not satisfied with the Dean’s explanation, so closed the office, kicked us out and called the sheriff, town police and state police. We were at the pre-arranged home going over the names we were able to write down so they were not able to find us at first, but once we got back on the highway headed home, one of the officers spotted us, called the others, stopped us and surrounded us with 3 cars of officers who got out with hands on guns to ask us what we were doing. They made us get out of the car and not accepting our “research” story, they took the White student aside and quizzed him on what he was doing with these “colored boys” and how he was making himself look bad and could get in big trouble doing such things. He held to our story and they finally let us go with a warning to us not to return. It was plenty scary, but we knew there were risks and were willing to take them.” 

Bobby Vassar ’72, personal correspondence with Allison Burns ’22, 11 February 2021. 

Vassar recalls that as a result of their research, Lowe was able to file a settlement with the six counties involved to desegregate their jury rolls. 

Vassar’s recollections and this history now appear on the Service page of our online exhibit. We encourage you to explore 50 Years of BLSA to learn more about Black history at UVA Law.

Featured image: Members of the Black American Law Students Association, Barrister 1972. Front Row: Gloria Bouldin ’73, Jean Roane ’72; Second Row: Raymond Jackson ’73, Gwendolyn Jones ’72, Arthur McFarland ’73, John Scott ’73; Third Row: Charles Walker ’73, Adolphus Williams ’72, William “Joe” Bass ’72; Fourth Row: Bobby Vassar ’72, James Winstead ’72, Jack Gravely ’72, Charles Chambliss ’73.

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Addie Patrick

Addie Patrick

Addie Patrick is the Library Coordinator at the UVA Law Library.

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Randi Flaherty

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