Mark Feldstein had just started Walker Junior High in 1968 when his father, a new math professor at UVa, came home one day from the barbershop. Mark looked at his father’s hair and noticed something wasn’t quite right.
"My dad’s hair looked weird. Half of it was cut, half of it wasn’t,” said Feldstein.
He asked his father, Alan, what happened to his hair.
Mark Feldstein remembers that his father told him that he had been sitting in a barber’s chair getting a haircut. A barber complained to the barber cutting Alan Feldstein’s hair that a Black man had come by earlier in the day asking for a haircut. Barbershops in the city were segregated at that time.
“My dad asked, ‘So if a Black man wanted a haircut, you wouldn’t cut his hair? The barber replied, ‘No, I can’t cut that kinky stuff,’” Mark Feldstein remembered his father recounting the conversation.
“And my dad stood up, took the apron he was wearing off, threw it down on the floor and stormed out. He wasn’t going to be a part of that kind of treatment,” Mark Feldstein said in a recent interview.
The elder Feldstein’s commitment to integration of the city’s barbershops led to more than just the misshapen haircut, Feldstein and his family long believed. The professor’s contract was not renewed in 1970. For years afterward, Feldstein referred to Charlottesville as "Bigotsville," his son said.
The family sees the decision to not renew Feldstein’s contract as retaliation for speaking out against racial discrimination. The pain lingered in Feldstein for years, until his death in January at age 88, his son said. Alan Feldstein died Jan. 29, 2022 from complications from Alzheimer’s disease. And now that Feldstein’s life is over, the family wants to make sure that his story is not lost to history.
“I mean, this was barely talked about at the time. There was no news article about how my dad was driven out of town. Today, if something like that happened, it would be illegal. You would sue,” Mark Feldstein said in a recent interview.
Mark Feldstein reached out to The Daily Progress after his father’s death to share the story of the role his father played — and the price his family thinks he paid — to help integrate Charlottesville’s barbershops in 1968. He also wants to make sure that the story doesn’t die with his father.
That story was laid bare in Daily Progress and Cavalier Daily archives, letters and Feldstein’s personal notes, which were reviewed by Progress staff.
Alan Feldstein was born in Pittsburgh in 1933. His family said he was an independent thinker with a love of scholarship, graduating from Arizona State University prior to serving in the Army for two years, including in Salzburg, Austria.
"He was something of a character," Mark Feldstein said. When he saw an opportunity to take a stand, he grabbed it.
That even included plans for his wedding.
Feldstein married Felice Jacobs in 1955 in the German town of Berchtesgaden, at Eagle’s Nest, the name Allied Forces gave to Adolf Hitler’s mountain retreat for visiting diplomats.
According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, which covered the wedding, it was the first Orthodox Jewish wedding known to be held there. It took place only a decade after the end of World War II.
A traditional chuppah, a canopy used in Jewish weddings, was erected for the wedding in Nazi field marshal Hermann Göring’s former hunting lodge.
According to his family, Feldstein worked on classified projects at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico in the late 1950s. He later worked as a research consultant on classified projects for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C.
Feldstein earned a doctorate in mathematics from UCLA in 1964. He taught there and at Brown University. In 1968, the University of Virginia came calling.
A move with mixed feelings
Felice had reservations. She said in a recent interview she was hesitant about the move because of segregation in the South. In Virginia, from 1926 to 1967 segregation of businesses and social events was codified in state law. It was a misdemeanor for a business to serve both Black and white people. When the U.S. Supreme Court issued its Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 that struck down segregation in public schools, Virginia was one of the Southern states that defiantly fought the ruling, with its "Massive Resistance" efforts to keep Black school children of out white schools
With the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, such discrimination was illegal. But change came slowly, with Southern states defying the federal law and finding ways to flout it.
In 1968, Charlottesville’s public schools integrated. Triggered by student protests at the city’s Lane High School, the city created a race relations committee in September 1968.
Alan Feldstein thought the position of associate professor at the University of Virginia was appealing. To allay Felice’s concerns about racism, he showed her a letter published in The Daily Progress that was signed by hundreds of local residents in support of racial integration and the Civil Rights movement.
“That appeased me. I was happy. There are always pockets of liberalism in places and especially in college towns,” Felice Feldstein said in a recent interview.
Feldstein took the job, and the family moved in the summer of 1968.
Segregation up close
Mark Feldstein remembers his father telling him that the barber cutting his hair that September day in 1968 told Feldstein that many members of UVa’s faculty, including Dean Lawrence R. Quarles, were customers of his.
Alan Feldstein told Mark that he was so horrified that he approached Quarles, hoping for support in doing something about the discrimination against Black customers. But according to Feldstein’s personal notes from the time, Quarles was apathetic about segregation. Feldstein wrote in notes that Quarles said: “That’s the trouble with you outsiders coming here and telling us what to do."
A colleague at the time remembers friction between the two.
“Quarles was a man of the 1950s and was rooted in the beliefs of that time. He and Alan weren’t each other’s favorite people. Alan was a liberal, Jewish man, and that rubbed Quarles the wrong way. I have a vague recollection that he called Alan a troublemaker,” Feldstein’s former colleague Bob Stepleman told The Daily Progress in May. Stepleman was a mathematics professor at UVa at the same time as Feldstein.
Feldstein persisted. He called around and found that there were no integrated barbershops or hair salons in Charlottesville. Feldstein contacted The Daily Progress and The Cavalier Daily, asking them to write about this. He also surveyed his classes and found the majority of his students believed the barbershops should be integrated. He submitted a letter to the editor of The Cavalier Daily presenting his findings.
This triggered an onslaught of letters to the editor by UVa students and faculty and published in the Cavalier Daily and The Daily Progress. Students and faculty at UVa, including Feldstein, pressured the businesses to integrate. They also boycotted the barbershops.
That October, UVa professor Frank M. Shepard recounted a similar experience to Feldstein’s where he witnessed a barber at the UVa Corner refuse to cut the hair of a 10-year-old Black boy. Shephard wrote about this in a letter to the editor, which prompted the Cavalier Daily editorial board to encourage a boycott.
“… what bitter irony it is that [this incident] occurred at the institution so cherished by the author [Thomas Jefferson] of those fundamental words ‘… and all men are created equal …’” the editorial board wrote.
UVa Student Council member Charles Murdock led an investigation into which local barbershops refused to serve Black patrons, according to an article published in the Oct. 16, 1968 edition of The Daily Progress.
Following Murdock’s findings, the UVa Student Council voted to endorse a boycott of all segregated barbershops in Charlottesville.
“If the council decisions are to be truly effective in breaking the structures of racism in this town, the student body has got to be willing actively to participate and activate its potential power,” wrote UVa student Ralph Pitman Jr.
Feldstein and several colleagues in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Computer Science wrote a letter to UVa’s president, Edgar Shannon, voicing support for the student boycott.
The letter led Quarles and other university officials to reprimand Feldstein because he wrote the letter on official university department letterhead.
His son said he believes the reprimand was about finding an infraction to hold against Feldstein.
“They weren’t concerned about the racism. They were concerned about trying to find some minor infraction,” Mark Feldstein said.
While the Cavalier Daily reported resistance to the boycott from barbershops, the students’ persistence paid off. The boycott proved successful, and several Charlottesville barbershops integrated that fall.
“I was very proud of him,” Felice Feldstein recalled.
The worst cut of all
Others did not share her feelings.
Feldstein and Quarles were frequently at odds. When Quarles wanted to host a department dinner at his country club, Feldstein discovered that the club was segregated and that a Black professor in the department could not attend.
The following year, Feldstein was informed his contract wasn’t being renewed.
"It was Robert H. Owens, the chair of UVa’s math department, who informed my dad that he was out of a job. ‘ Not renewing the contract’ was a euphemism: he was fired. No reason was given because it was perfectly obvious to everyone what happened: my dad was a ‘troublemaker’ in the eyes of Dean Quarles," Mark Feldstein said.
Getting out of town
Feldstein didn’t have tenure, but his family said he didn’t see a professional reason why his contract wasn’t being renewed. He asked to remain a few months past the end of his contract because Felice was pregnant. His request was denied.
Feldstein’s youngest daughter Sarah was born at Martha Jefferson Hospital on June 8, 1970.
"[My mother] and my dad had to start packing up and arranging movers while she was 9 months pregnant, and then they had to move that summer across the country with a newborn baby," Mark Feldstein said.
At the time, Mark was 13, his sister Rachel was 11, and his sister Suzie was 3.
“He was a prolific scholar. It wasn’t because of that, and everybody knew the reason why. It didn’t even need to be stated,” Mark Feldstein said. “It was quite a hardship on the family, and all of us suffered because of the retaliation against my father. They should have been thanking him and rewarding him for his commitment to social justice and instead, they were driving him out of town.”
Alan Feldstein had talked to colleagues who heard Quarles say he would never promote Feldstein or renew his contract because of the boycott. He also kept notes of statements made to him by Quarles, including an instance where he had been called a troublemaker.
“Quarles stated opinion that ‘Feldstein is a troublemaker’, that is, Feldstein presents a dissenting opinion. I have been denied equal opportunity,” Feldstein wrote.
A spokesman for the University of Virginia cannot confirm the details.
"Given the passage of time, we are unable to confirm the specific details of this individual case, With that being said, the University has devoted considerable resources and attention to understanding the role the institution played in our country’s history of racial segregation, as well as the many positive changes that have taken place here as time has passed, The University of Virginia strives to be a supportive community where all our students, faculty, staff, and alumni can thrive," Brian Coy wrote in a statement to The Daily Progress.
Felice Feldstein said the family witnessed other instances of racism in Charlottesville that upset them, including conversations where neighbors voiced concern that Black families would move into the neighborhood.
“It became clear this was not the place for us,” she said.
The family left the Charlottesville area as soon as Sarah was born. Feldstein took a job at Arizona State University, where he stayed for the rest of his life.
“Dad harbored a kind of hatred for Charlottesville after that. He called it Bigotsville,” Mark Feldstein said.
Quarles died in 1987. UVa has a professorship in the school’s chemical engineering department named in his honor.
While the Feldstein family wasn’t in Charlottesville for very long, what happened at UVa had a huge impact on Mark Feldstein, who was inspired by his father to get racist textbooks removed from Walker Junior High School, currently Walker Middle School, while he was attending there.
The events led to his decision to become an investigative TV reporter for CNN, ABC News and various local television stations. He is now the Richard Eaton Chair of Broadcast Journalism at the University of Maryland’s Phillip Merrill College of Journalism.
Felice Feldstein said she looks back at the family’s stay in Charlottesville as a dark time.
“Yes, I would like an apology, but it’s a little late for that. Alan is gone. He’s the one who needed the apology,” she said.
Mark Feldstein said he doesn’t want his father’s activism to be forgotten.
“There were real lives affected by this, lost to history, until now,” he said.