Helen Mundy Witt ’67, ’78 MEd, the first African-American to graduate from University of Lynchburg, spoke at LC’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebration Jan. 21 in Snidow Chapel.
Witt was joined by Tim Grant, a 2003 LC graduate, and the pair discussed, “Where we were. Where we are.” They reflected on civil rights 50 years after the historic march on Washington, D.C., and both received standing ovations from the record crowd.
The annual MLK celebration also featured Dee Brown’02 and Moriah Felder ’16 performing Spoken Word, the LC STEP team “Steppers in Motion,” and songs performed by Nigel Word ’14 and Shameka Ferrell ’14.
In 2007, Witt received the J. Edward Petty Outstanding Alumni Award established by the LC School of Education and Human Development to recognize a former graduate student for distinguished professional work.
Witt was already a mother of five young children when she entered University of Lynchburg in 1965. She had earned credits at the Lynchburg branch of the University of Virginia, as well as Florida A&M College where she had gone on a full tennis scholarship.
Witt was asked to join the first tennis team at Lynchburg’s all-black Dunbar High School and was coached by Dr. Walter Johnson, who also coached tennis greats Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe. At the age of 16, Witt went to Florida A&M with Gibson. Witt’s scholarship was arranged by Dr. Johnson with the president of the college. After a year, the president was replaced and without written proof of her scholarship, Witt had to abandon the school, despite the fact that she had won two girls national tennis championships.
She came home and soon met and married the late Leroy Witt, who was her husband of 55 years. A teacher in Nelson County, Leroy promised Helen that she would go back to school after their house was built. By then, their oldest daughter was heading to college so Helen wanted to finish her degree first, but with five children it was a struggle. “I did most of my papers at 4 o’clock in the morning,” she said.
Witt said her experience at LC was wonderful. She received her bachelor’s in education just as the Lynchburg City Schools were being integrated. She thinks she was the first or second African-American student teacher at Bass Elementary, and the first African-American teacher at Forest Hill Elementary, where all her students were white. “At Forest Hill, the only African-Americans were me and the janitor,” she said.
Witt returned to LC a decade later to work on her master’s in early childhood education. She said she kept putting it off because she was terrified of the oral exams. Once there was an option to take two extra classes, she secured her degree. Witt taught kindergarten at Linkhorne Elementary for nearly three decades, retiring in 1994.
Tim Grant graduated with a B.A. in communications in 2003. He is a small business analyst at Deloitte & Touché and is a youth pastor mentor at New Life Open Bible Church in Springfield, Va., where he serves as a leader within the communications department, vice president of the men’s department, and is a marriage counselor.
Grant said that if King were alive today he would still be fighting poverty, an unfair criminal justice system, war, and voter suppression. “We’ve moved forward, but we can’t stop now,” Grant said.