Gordon Williams Blackwell, son of a Baptist minister, was born on April 27, 1911 in Timmonsville, South Carolina, but grew up in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He graduated from Furman University in 1932 and went on to receive a master's degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1933 and a master's and doctorate from Harvard University. From 1937 to 1941, he was head of the Department of Sociology at Furman University and a member of the Greenville County Council for Community Development. In 1941, he moved to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a professor of sociology and research associate at the Institute for Research in Social Science. In 1942, he became research professor and director of the institute. Blackwell continued in these positions until he was appointed chancellor of Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina (now The University of North Carolina at Greensboro) in 1957.
During Blackwell's three-year tenure at Woman's College, the state and the national governments had begun to place more demands upon colleges and universities. Increases in college enrollment, the expanded American role in world affairs, and the challenge of Russian science and technology forced a reassessment of the role of higher education and a sustained effort to provide quality education for greater numbers. Even more important for the Woman's College, the increased opportunities for women after World War II and the postwar commitment to improved community services made it especially urgent to expand and improve programs at the college. Blackwell devoted most of his time to finding the means and methods for fulfilling this expanded mission for a Southern woman's college during a period of limited resources, both financial and professional.