VCU unveils rare collection of Va. civil rights protest photos

Freedom Now Project asks for the public's help in learning details about people, protests

4/8/2014, 1:13 p.m.
The project's aim is to provide insight into the experience of nonviolent civil dissent.

Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) 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, 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.