Once in a while, when someone receives an honor, I’m thrilled that such a deserving person has been noticed and commended. At the graduation ceremonies for Washington and Lee University last week, an honorary doctorate was awarded to Theodore Carter DeLaney Jr. I’ve never paid much attention to honorary doctorates, but in this case, I did, as did, I believe, the entire audience.
Born and raised in the segregated South, Delaney lived in Lexington, VA during the Jim Crow era and endured the many indignities of that time. He attended Lexington’s all-black public school. After high school he studied for a year in a Franciscan monastery. He then got a job at Washington and Lee as a custodian. Professors in the Biology Department quickly recognized his potential and hired him as their lab technician. For the next two decades he was an integral member of the campus community, indispensable to faculty and staff and admired by students.
Encouraged by members of the faculty, he took advantage of the university’s benefit that permitted him to take a free class each term and began working on a bachelor’s degree. Eventually, he quit his job to become a full-time student at the age of forty. In 1985, he graduated cum laude with a major in history.
DeLaney taught at the Asheville School for several years, before earning his Ph.D. in American history from the College of William and Mary. In 1955, he returned to Washington and Lee as an assistant professor of history where he taught for 24 years, devoting countless hours to counseling, advising, and encouraging students. He introduced new courses in the histories of the disadvantaged, disenfranchised and oppressed. His courses ranged from ones that traced the route of the Freedom Riders to a course on gay and lesbian history. He co-founded the Africana Studies Program, served as head of the History Department, and held the Redenbaugh Term Professorship. His research into John Chavis, the first African American known to receive a college education in the United States was instrumental in bringing this remarkable story to the fore at Washington and Lee.
I say, a well-deserved honorary doctorate!