Professor Ted DeLaney’s swan song

The history professor’s legacy touches campus and community


Professor Ted DeLaney outside his office in Newcomb Hall. Photo by Hannah Denham, ’20.

Hannah Denham

Ted DeLaney is known for his bow ties, for chasing students down until they say hello, for the number of books on the shelves of his office and for the story of his trajectory at Washington and Lee.

 The history professor is retiring this year, but students and faculty say his legacy isn’t going anywhere.

 “Everyone has their own role in society, but Ted has an over-sized one here, at this institution and in this Lexington [and] Rockbridge community,” said Mohamed Kamara, chair of the Africana Studies program and French professor. “No one can replace Ted.”

 DeLaney was diagnosed in the fall of last year with cancer in his pancreas and liver.

 “I didn’t think I was going to make it until September,” he said. “The thought of doing a memoir became very, very dubious because I thought my days were extremely limited and had no idea that I’d still be around here.”

 But he’s since been declared cancer-free, he said, giving credit to prayer and chemotherapy. And he has plans for his future, including research and adjunct teaching.

 “There are a lot of projects out there that need to be written,” he said. “One of the things I need to do in my retirement is try and get some of this stuff written.”

 The story of DeLaney’s trajectory at Washington and Lee is well-covered, from the university’s communications office to NPR. When the Lexington native graduated from Lylburn-Downing in 1961, attending Washington and Lee University wasn’t an option for him as a black man. But two years later, he started working in facilities and maintenance, and then as a lab assistant with the biology department. He took one class each term, a benefit for university employees, toward the end of his 19 years working for the university. He became a full-time student at the age of 40.

 After graduating in 1985, DeLaney taught at a high school in Asheville, North Carolina, earned his Ph.D. at William and Mary and finished his dissertation while teaching at the State University of New York. In 1995, he was called to return to the university as a professor.

 “It didn’t take me five minutes to say I’d love to come back,” he said.

 He said his favorite class he’s taught is Harlem Renaissance in the Jazz Age. DeLaney is currently wrapping up that course for this term, in addition to African Americans since 1887 and an advanced seminar on slavery in the Americas.

 “These intellectuals, these artists, these writers, these musicians somehow thought that what they were doing in the 1920s was going to alleviate racial difficulties in the United States,” he said. “Talk about idealism, huh?”

 That was the first class that George Frank, ’19, took with DeLaney. Frank is an American history major and an Africana studies minor, and DeLaney has been his academic adviser for all four years.

 “He kind of inspired my entire trajectory here,” he said. “It’s weird to see him go, because I think he defines this campus in a lot of ways.”

 DeLaney wrote Frank’s letter of recommendation for law school while he was going through chemotherapy. Frank said that’s just one example of how he always makes time for his students. 

DeLaney said he’s been overwhelmed by letters he’s received this year from former students.

 “I’ve had so many former students reach out to me who have heard about my illness, and some of the letters have been absolutely unbelievable,” he said. “I even had a message from a male student that it ended in a way that I was so astonished by. …There, at the bottom of what he had written, was ‘I love you.’”

 Kamara said DeLaney had what Langston Hughes called “the memory of an elephant” when it comes to an institutional knowledge of students and faculty that have been part of Washington and Lee’s history.

 Mary Beth Pittman, ’22, took DeLaney’s first-year seminar last fall on the history of Washington and Lee.

 “His commitment is unparalleled, even when he was sick last semester,” she said. “He’s a very perseverant guy. I respect his faith a lot.”

 She said his class influenced her to be an American history major and wishes he were here long enough to be her academic advisor.

 “He always has time to give,” she said. “I’ve stayed in his office hours to just go over a paper, which turns into a conversation, and then I’m there for three hours. He’s very present.”

 Molly Michelmore, the head of the history department, said DeLaney is one of the most influential people in the department and was instrumental in her immersion when she first joined.

 “He was my lifeline. He was my mentor,” she said. “He was the guy I turned to when I had questions about teaching, living in Lexington, students and colleagues. He was the person I turned to when I needed advice.”

 DeLaney has what Michelmore referred to as a “Guinness Book of World Records bow tie collection.” She said she was standing with DeLaney in Newcomb Hall when a student walked by and complimented the bow tie he was wearing. He first asked the student if he knew how to tie one, and then took it off and gave it to him.

 “I will miss his denim jacket,” she said. “I will miss his counsel. I will miss having him down the hall, down the stairs from me.”

 During spring term, DeLaney will teach a course entitled, “W&L History in the 20th Century,” which will rely on Washington and Lee University, 1930-2000: Tradition and Transformation by Blaine Brownell, ’65. First-year students read excerpts on integration and coeducation from the book in the fall, and DeLaney spoke on this during convocation.

 What he says is missing from much of the university’s catalogued history is the student perspective. He’s worked on various oral history projects to fill in those gaps, overseeing interviews with former students such as Dennis Heston, the first black undergraduate student to matriculate in 1966.

 “That’s the history that I think people at Washington and Lee had been wanting for a long time,” DeLaney said.

 When Kamara first moved to Lexington in 2001, he was one of few black faculty at the university. He said DeLaney was one of the first people who welcomed him his first week on campus.

 “It was important to me that someone like Ted DeLaney, who is an institution in his right, could reach out to me as a minority, black faculty,” Kamara said. “It made me feel a little more at ease here.”

 DeLaney, Kamara and Marc Conner, the university provost and English professor, worked together to create what’s now the Africana studies program.

 “He just defines collegiality,” Conner said. “He doesn’t get enough credit for being a great intellectual historian, particularly the subject matter of desegregation in Virginia.”

 DeLaney said he was approached by the development office in 2004 and asked to brainstorm ways to attract donations from progressive alumni.

 He then organized a symposium for the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education and brought in prominent scholars to discuss it.

 The next year, he organized an event in Lee Chapel for local community members to tell their own stories of experiencing desegregation in Lexington and Rockbridge County. Former Virginia governor and alum Linwood Holten, ’44, spoke at the event.

 After that event, he spent three summers overseeing oral history projects. He handed students tape recorders, who then went out into the local area to interview residents on their experiences with desegregation when they were students, parents, teachers and school administrators. The project covered four counties and more municipal jurisdictions: Rockbridge, Augusta, Botetourt and Roanoke Counties.

 He conducted interviews and scoured through school board minutes when those who had opposed desegregation wouldn’t speak on the record. He spent days in school offices and developed relationships with the administrative assistants who supported his research.

 “The thing that was really incredible to me is how wonderful I was treated by the administrative assistants in these school board offices,” he said. “These were blue collar, working white women who I didn’t know where they would fall with desegregation. They went to an extraordinary extent to provide me a good space to work in reading those minutes and they would have those books out ready to me. They would be interested in what I was finding.”

 At the time of the Brown decision, DeLaney was in sixth grade in Lexington. He graduated from Lylburn Downing, then an all-black high school.

 “Brown v. Board didn’t change that all,” he said. “It took a long time.”

 DeLaney said one aspect of the results of the oral history research is that many of the white community members who were interviewed didn’t remember school desegregation. But he found that the weight of desegregation fell on black students who, in Lexington, would often find themselves alone in predominantly white classrooms.

 “That didn’t change the lives or school experiences of white students at all,” DeLaney said. “The people that would dramatically remember those experiences were black kids. …The experience must have been sort of jarring in terms of memory and identity.”

 DeLaney explored civil rights history with his students through five years of road trips throughout the South during spring term, called the “Freedom Ride.” He took students to Atlanta, Montgomery, Selma, and New Orleans.

 “Traveling with W&L students was a delight,” he said. “The other thing that showing them part of the world was also a delight.”

 He also taught 20th century LGBTQ history in the United States. He said that many students told him they took his course because they had a sibling who identified as LGBTQ and they wanted to learn more.

 He recounted one story from the spring-term trip while visiting the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. One exhibit featured photographs of lesbian couples. He said he had one male student approach him and ask, “Why are these photos here?”

 “Well, it’s a civil rights issue too, isn’t it?” DeLaney responded.

 The next day, DeLaney said, they were visiting the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery. The same student, along with his other classmates, signed a mural that read something to the effect of, “I will stand up for human rights.”

 “It was one day that I stepped out of a careful, professorial role,” DeLaney said. He asked the student, “You just signed that wall and you’re going to Chick-fil-A?”

 DeLaney, chuckling, said he was the only one who didn’t eat lunch at Chick-fil-A that day.

 Kamara said DeLaney is the least judgmental person he knows.

 “He has his experiences growing up in Lexington and Rockbridge County, and we all know his trajectory,” he said. “But he has that uncanny ability to place everything in perspective, and this is what makes him not judgmental at all. He looks at things from a broader angle, so he’s not one to harbor any ill feelings about anybody.”

Kamara added that he’s grateful DeLaney will still be around next year.