Magazine Feature / People

College desegregation champion John Blackburn dies

John Blackburn, a prominent civic leader who worked at the University of Denver during the 1970s, died July 3 in Tuscaloosa, Ala. He was 84.

Blackburn was instrumental in the desegregation of the University of Alabama. As a top-level administrator there, he was credited with helping assure the enrollment of Vivian Malone and James Hood on June 11, 1963, even when then-Alabama governor George Wallace — backed by state troopers — stood in the doorway of the all-white university’s Foster Auditorium, blocking the black students from entering.

Blackburn’s family friend and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (BA ’74, PhD ’81) told the University of Alabama that Blackburn was “a giant in the lives of many to include my own.”

“He was one of my father’s closest friends and mentors,” Rice says. Rice’s father was John Rice, an assistant dean at DU.

“Known as a man with conviction, [Dr.] Blackburn was constantly trying to make the communities he lived in, and the college campuses he worked on, better, more fair and ethical places.”

His vision and commitment to education opened “countless doors and created limitless opportunities” for many students, Rice says.

In 1969, Blackburn became the vice chancellor for student affairs at the University of Denver and in 1974 was named vice chancellor for university resources.

Chemistry professor and former chancellor Dwight Smith calls Blackburn “a man who cared deeply about the whole student experience, from classroom to playing field.”

“He was responsible for initiating the Denver Design, one of our early fundraising campaigns,” Smith says. “It is safe to say that John Blackburn played an important role in the growth of the University in the years he was with us.”

In a letter announcing his resignation from DU in 1978, Blackburn called his nine years with the University “truly rewarding.”

He said his greatest achievements at DU were stabilizing the enrollment at a “very critical time and the improvement in the quality of students,” a capital campaign and increase in gifts to the University, and “the improvement in the affirmative action profile … particularly the increase in women and minorities in administrative and management positions.”

After leaving DU, he returned to the University of Alabama as vice president for educational development, leading the school’s fundraising and alumni activities until his retirement in 1990.

Blackburn was born Dec. 21, 1924, in Malta Bend, Miss. He served with the Army in Indo-China. After leaving the service, he earned a bachelor’s degree from Missouri Valley College, a master’s in education from the University of Colorado and a doctorate in higher education administration from Florida State University.

The University of Alabama established the Blackburn Institute in his honor in 1995. The leadership development program links state leaders in business and public service with outstanding students and Blackburn fellows. “While he will be greatly missed, we are pleased that his legacy will live on through the Blackburn Institute,” Mills says.

He was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Alabama in 1996.

Blackburn is survived by his wife, Gloria; his daughter and son-in-law, Holly and Harry Piper; and two grandsons.

Memorial gifts may be made to the Blackburn Institute, First Presbyterian Church of Tuscaloosa, or Hospice of West Alabama.

[Editor’s note: This article was updated at 5 p.m. July 9]

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