The Creation of Political Survival Strategies by Black Woman Students on Virginia’s Predominantly White Campuses

By Maya Jenkins

Faculty Mentor: Rosalyn Cooperman


The University of Mary Washington is a liberal arts institution founded in 1908 as an all-women’s normal school (Our History – About UMW, 2015). Because of its small size, Mary Washington has historically been known as Virginia’s “undiscovered gem” (Boyer, 2011). Mary Washington is described as a place that is built to support the “innovative, passionate, intellectual, and genuine” (Boyer, 2011). However, in 2020, the deaths of Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade, and a racial protest that took place near the college’s campus caused many Black collegiate women at Mary Washington to question if their university was built to support them, or exclusively the white women who were first welcomed there. Historically Black women in predominantly white places have had to protect themselves when their institutions abandoned them. Black women at Mary Washington have had to create spaces for themselves in an environment that was never meant to facilitate their survival. This practice continues to this day. Guided by Jatia Wrighten’s heavy lifter theory, and the Black woman students before me, I examine some of survival strategies that Black women create at predominantly white institutions, and how these strategies can be translated into policy solutions. To bind my research, I focus on the University of Mary Washington and the University of Virginia. Through historical analysis, literature review, and data collection from social media accounts, I found that Black woman students develop innovative and complex survival strategies to affirm that identity and make space for Black people and other marginalized groups on campus. These survival strategies inherently embody harm reduction and the liberationist policy making that serves not just the collegiate space, but the world.


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