Virginia Commonwealth University is hoping for the public’s help in shedding new light on a pivotal moment in the civil rights struggle in Virginia with a new exhibit of 277 photographs taken during nonviolent civil rights protests in Farmville, Va., in the summer of 1963.
VCU Libraries has posted these images to the photo sharing site Flickr to create the Freedom Now Project, a group of 13 photo sets that provides a close-up look at the protests held in downtown Farmville.
The project’s aim is to provide insight into the experience of nonviolent civil dissent, and the response of a Virginia town to these demonstrations. As part of the project, the public is being invited to participate in the exhibit by sharing information they may have about people and locations and contributing personal remembrances about these historic events.
“The photographs in the Freedom Now Project make a significant contribution to our understanding of a very important event in the history of Virginia and the nation,” said Alice Campbell, a VCU Libraries digital initiatives archivist who is overseeing the project. “By sharing them on Flickr, we hope to reach a broad audience – which could be anyone from primary school students to researchers, citizens of Farmville, the commonwealth of Virginia, or anywhere in the world.”
The photographs, which were shot by a photographer hired by the Farmville Police Department for use as evidence in the case of any arrests, are the largest collection of the Farmville protests ever made publicly available online.
“We hope that, by opening the collection up to comments, we can learn more about the people and events depicted, thereby increasing the collection’s value for future research, and preserving a record of Americans whose persistence and bravery helped move the nation closer to the promise of justice for all,” Campbell said.
The Farmville protests were held in the middle of a defining year for the civil rights movement in Virginia and the rest of the country. In April, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote the Letter from Birmingham Jail; in June, peaceful protests in Danville, Va., were met with violent opposition; the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom took place on Aug. 28; and the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., was bombed in September.
“In terms of marches, picketing and nonviolent direct action, the summer of 1963 represents the zenith of the civil rights movement in Virginia,” said Brian Daugherity, Ph.D., a VCU history professor and expert on the civil rights movement. “Inspired by protests in Birmingham, Ala., that spring and summer, African-Americans throughout Virginia took to the streets to press for the desegregation of public spaces, job opportunities and school integration.”
The Freedom Now Project could provide a better understanding of a key moment in the civil rights struggle, Daugherity said.
“VCU’s effort to identify the participants, to expand our understanding of the context of the protests, and to revive and preserve the memories of those involved is an important, cutting-edge exercise in historic preservation that will benefit a wide variety of researchers and individuals interested in this era,” he said.
The photos show a variety of protests, led by The Rev. L Francis Griffin, pastor of First Baptist Church, that were part of a “Program of Action” undertaken by the African-American community to decry the discriminatory practices at local businesses and churches and Prince Edward County’s four-year closure of public schools in defiance of court-ordered desegregation.
Protesters attempted sit-ins at several lunch counters, but were not always seated. On one occasion protesters were seated at the J.J. Newberry’s counter and served coffee – which they discovered was filled with salt.
In another set of the photos, the protesters demonstrate outside of the whites-only State Theater. Under a marquee advertising movies such as “The Young Racers,” “Call Me Bwana” and “King Kong vs. Godzilla,” a circle of African-American protesters would approach the window, one by one, ask to buy a ticket, be refused, and then the next person would try. They would repeat the cycle over and over again.
In the State Theater photos, several protesters can be seen wearing white buttons advertising the March on Washington that would be held in less than two weeks on Aug. 28, 1963.
A number of photos show a protest outside of Farmville’s Safeway and Grants department store, as the businesses would not hire African-Americans.
“It wasn’t that African-Americans couldn’t go in, it was that they couldn’t work there. And so all the money that the community earned was spent at stores where they couldn’t work,” Campbell said. “At the department stores, if you were African-American, you couldn’t try on clothes before you bought them – and you couldn’t return them if they didn’t fit. And so they had at least one event where they had a ‘try-in,’ in which they went inside and tried on clothes.”
In many of the photos, the protesters are picketing outside the Prince Edward County courthouse. In several others, the protesters are lined up outside the College Shoppe lunch counter after being refused entry.
“They’re seated outside, and if you look, you can see all the people inside looking out [at the protesters],” Campbell said.
Little is known about the people or the protest depicted in one series of photographs, Campbell said, though she is hoping the public can provide details.
Each image in the Freedom Now Project is accompanied by a brief description. Many have links to supplemental materials that will enrich viewers’ experience, such as newspaper articles and documents from 1963, videos of freedom songs and even an image of the button worn by protesters at the State Theater. Visitors to the website will also find links to Google Street View so they can compare Farmville then and now.
The Freedom Now Project not only tells an important story of the civil rights movement, Campbell said, it also conveys what it feels like to stand up against authority in the face of injustice.
“As we move through the photographs we see the events unfolding in time, but the real story – to my eye anyway – is about the people and relationships that are captured by the camera: the relationships among the demonstrators; their relationships with onlookers and shoppers, business owners and employees; and above all, protesters’ relationship to the camera,” she said.
Because of their documentary nature, the photos “uniquely illustrate the emotional and psychological tension present during this period,” Campbell said.
“As with any exhibit, it’s a window into a different time and place, and an opportunity to glimpse the importance of other lives,” she said. “And if we’re fortunate, it may also become an opportunity for gathering information and sharing remembrances of the summer of ’63 in Farmville, Va.”
University Librarian John E. Ulmschneider said the Freedom Now Project is part of VCU Libraries’ focus on building collections of materials dealing with the history of 20th-century activists and minority communities.
“We’ve been trying to collect and document the history of those communities so that we have a better sense of what happened and of what’s happening now with their efforts to advance civil rights and minority rights in Virginia,” he said. “We’ve worked hard to build connections with our community to bring wonderful collections to us that document those institutions. One of them is this fantastic collection of the Farmville photographs.”
Ulmschneider encouraged the public to provide input about the photographs, thereby enriching scholars’ understanding of the history.
“We hope that we can use these photographs of a seminally important time in this nation’s history to grow our knowledge for future scholars,” he said. “These are things that we will keep forever. We are building this not just for ourselves, but for scholars 100, 150 years from now.”