As February winds down, it brings Black History Month to a close. Jeff White, director of news content for VirginiaSports.com, spoke to a collection of former African-American student-athletes about their experiences at the University. That group included Ted Jeffries (men’s basketball), Jordan Lavender (track and field), Breyana Mason (women’s basketball), Akil Mitchell (men’s basketball), Shawn Moore (football) and Morgan Stith (women’s soccer). For more background on these former UVA standouts, see the bottom of the article. Here is part one, featuring some of their responses. Part two will appear Thursday afternoon.
Question: What does Black History Month mean to you?
For me, it’s been different, because I’ve been in the education field twice now, having worked at St. Christopher’s [in Richmond] and at St. Albans [in Washington, D.C.]. We’re talking about two independent schools, so it’s very different than public school. From an administrative perspective, being on those campuses, I’ve taken it to another level, just trying to educate the non-black kids about the history of African-Americans.
I grew up understanding both the importance of it and just what it means to my development as a whole. Black History Month is celebrating all the accomplishments that people before me have achieved, and so understanding their sacrifices, and what they had to go through, just to get people like me to where we are today. [It’s also about] how much farther we need to go. It’s celebrating those accomplishments and then making sure that we’re still continuing and making those sacrifices of people who came before me, so that we can continue to foster that for future generations.
For a lot of African-Americans, it is a time to reflect on the successes, the trials and tribulations of African-Americans, the progress that we’ve made since civil rights, even before, going all the way back to slavery. I think it’s also a realization that there’s still a long way to go. We draw from the hard work of our ancestors and try to emulate their work ethic and their dedication towards making improvements for people like myself. Our generation, we are reaping the benefits of the hard work that they put in. We need to pay it forward for future generations. So, it’s an examination of the past, to pay it forward for future generations.
Black History Month is a time to celebrate and reflect on the contributions of black people throughout history and present day. I also think that it is a period that lends itself well to discovering stories about black people who have had a significant impact on society, but whose stories have not had the level of prominence as popular figures such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr.
Black History Month is a time for America to recognize and celebrate the history of a disenfranchised people. It’s a time in which we should all have difficult conversations about the atrocities that have taken place, from the arrival of the first slave ship until present day. I, however, also believe it’s equally important to celebrate all of the triumphs that black men and women have accomplished in spite of severe political, social, and economic oppression.
Question: Who were your role models, and why?
My role models definitely were my mom and my dad. I saw how hard they worked and I saw how they carried themselves, and it was exactly how I wanted to carry myself. They were confident in everything they did, but at the same time they were very humble. They understood where they came from, but they also understood where they wanted to go. My parents told me they always wanted me to be better than what they were. They always set the bar very high for me, and that’s what I loved. It was awesome.
[Former UVA quarterback] Kevin Ferguson was my hero. Ferg was one of the reasons I went to Virginia. I saw him playing quarterback in 1984, the year they went to the Peach Bowl, and then get benched. I’m sure he went through a bunch of stuff. He was a big influence on me. [Former NFL quarterback] Doug Williams kind of set the tone. That’s one of the reasons I wore number 12, because of Doug Williams. A lot of people probably don’t know that. Back when I was growing up, 12 was the number [for quarterbacks]. That was because Roger Staubach, Terry Bradshaw, and then Doug Williams wore 12, and I’m like, ‘Doug Williams has got 12, then it’s got to be a big deal.’ So I had 12 forever. It was my number. He was obviously one who inspired me to play the position. And I had an uncle who played quarterback in 1974 back in Martinsville n[at Laurel Park High School]. For my uncle to play that position back then was very different. He encouraged me to play quarterback. It’s not something I wanted to do. I didn’t want to bring any attention to myself.
My dad was my role model. He was one of 10 children [in his family in Jarratt, Va.] They didn’t have a lot of money growing up, but they had a lot of love. My dad basically put himself through undergrad [at Hampton University]. Then he went to Harvard Business School and has had a really successful career in banking. For me, knowing where my family has come from and seeing where they are today and how much they sacrificed to get me to where I am today, that means a lot to me. In my future career I plan to work just as hard, if not harder, because I’ve had that good example growing up.
From a sports standpoint, I looked at Hank Aaron and Jackie Robinson for their trailblazing, and Arthur Ashe, for being the think tank, the very cerebral kind of guy. I just liked his approach to life, and some of the things that he talked about, what he stood for. We all stand and look at Martin Luther King Jr. At 25 years old, he was tapped to be the voice and the leader of the movement. That’s an incredible undertaking at such a young age. I can’t imagine doing anything remotely close to that at 25 years old. But he took that charge and ran with it.
My parents were my biggest role models growing up. As a child, having two parents who were both active-duty members in the military was the coolest thing to me. Even though I could not fully understand or appreciate the sacrifices that they made, I always have admired and continue to admire their ability to be great parents yet still find a way to pursue their own goals.
Question: Did you consider yourself a role model for other African-Americans during your time at UVA?
I did consider myself to be a role model to young African-American girls and adolescents during my time at UVA, and it was something that I was intentionally cognizant of during my time as a student-athlete. I knew that my actions both on and off the court were not only a reflection of myself but the women’s basketball program and the University as a whole. No matter how great or small my impact, there was at least one person out there at a point in time who was paying attention to the way in which I carried myself.
I always tried to do the right thing, both on and off the field, and I think that that’s one of the reasons why I was elected captain. I would imagine that might have inspired other young African-Americans or other people of color that were playing sports as well. I remember Monica Wright. I knew that she was a great basketball player [at UVA], I knew that she was really successful, and even though I didn’t know her, just seeing how successful she could be in the right environment for me was really inspiring. I thought if I worked that hard in the classroom and on the field that I could be as successful as her as well.
While at UVA I don’t think I considered myself a role model for other African-Americans because I was a part of a community of other young black men and women who were equally as talented and driven. I had friends who were in the Comm School or the school of engineering who were starting their own businesses and who carved a way out of the same pool of opportunities as I had. I was blessed to be an athlete, but I considered people who found a way to empower themselves with their minds so much more compelling to follow.
Question: If you could change anything about your experience as a minority student at UVA, what would that be?
I think I would put more of that on myself, and I think I would try to be more involved in the Black Student Alliance and go to more of the events and functions that they had planned for all of us black students to get together and hang out and enjoy each other’s company. Just because track was the first thing on my mind, and school was on my mind as well, I never really put myself in that position.
If I could change anything about my experience as a minority at UVA, it would be to make a more concerted effort to associate with non-student-athletes. Looking back on my 4 years, I realize that I dedicated little time to exploring things or people outside of my proximal environment as a student-athlete. There’s more to life than the classroom, JPJ, and your dorm room/apartment.
I’ve been out of school 29 years, and I can go back to Charlottesville, and that same community that embraced me 29 years ago is the same community that continues to embrace me today. I had a wonderful experience, and I’ve always said, ‘If the opportunity presents itself, I’d like to come back to Charlottesville and retire and live there,’ because that community means that much to me.
Morgan Stith – Women’s Soccer
Stith, who grew up in Montclair, N.J., graduated from UVA in 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in foreign affairs. She spent about four-and-a-half years working in the investment industry for Brown Advisory. Stith is now in her first year in Duke’s Fuqua School of Business.
Shawn Moore – Football
Moore grew up in Martinsville and enrolled at UVA in 1986. He graduated in 1990 with a degree in psychology. Moore worked as an assistant football coach at UVA from 2010-12 and now works for a company that’s a licensee of Major League Baseball.
Breyana Mason _ Women’s Basketball
Mason has two degrees from UVA, a bachelor’s in American studies (2017) and a master’s from the Curry School of Education (2018). She is in her first season as the director of scouting & video services for UVA women’s basketball.
Ted Jeffries – Men’s Basketball
Jeffries, who grew up in the D.C. area and lives there now, graduated from UVA in 1993 with a bachelor’s in rhetoric and communication studies. He later worked for the Virginia Athletics Foundation and the UVA Alumni Association, where he raised money for minority scholarships at UVA.
Akil Mitchell – Men’s Basketball
Mitchell, who grew up in Charlotte, N.C., graduated from UVA in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology, with a minor in global culture and commerce. He is now playing professional basketball in France.
Jordan Lavender – Track & Field
Lavender, who is from Nashville, Tenn., graduated from UVA in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in media studies. Now based near Orlando, Fla., she’s pursuing a professional career in track & field.