Wednesday, June 11, 2014
Jacqueline Webb was watching the evening news in her Glen Allen home recently when she caught a glimpse of herself at age 12 in a black-and-white photograph of a civil rights protest in Farmville, Va., in 1963.
"It was on the 6 o'clock news and I saw myself in the picture. I recognized my sister Vonita and that got my attention, and then I saw myself," Webb said. "My husband and I went on the website and started looking at the pictures and remembering."
The photo was part of a Virginia Commonwealth University exhibit of 277 photographs taken during nonviolent civil rights protests in Farmville at the height of the civil rights movement in the summer of 1963.
In April, VCU Libraries posted the images to the photo-sharing website Flickr to launch the Freedom Now Project, a group of 13 photo sets that offer a close-up look at the protests held in downtown Farmville, which were fueled in large part by Prince Edward County's move to close its public school system from 1959 to 1964 to avoid integration.
As part of the project, VCU Libraries invited members of the public to participate in the exhibit by sharing information they may have about people and locations and contributing personal remembrances about these historic events. The goal was to provide insight into the experience of nonviolent civil dissent, and the response of a Virginia town to these demonstrations.
The photographs, which were shot by a photographer hired by the Farmville Police Department for possible use as evidence in the case of arrests, are the largest collection of the Farmville protests ever made publicly available online.
Webb and her husband, John, contacted VCU Libraries and identified themselves in the photos, as well as Jacqueline's sister Vonita White Foster and late sister Darwyn Dix, as well as John's brother Roy Webb.
At the time of the protests, Jacqueline was 12 and John was 14. Both had been affected by the school system shutdown. Jacqueline was sent to live with a family member in Baltimore for three years while John's parents drove him to a school in adjoining Lunenburg County.
"We missed one year when they first closed the schools but after that I guess my parents said well this is not going away anytime soon so they made arrangements for us to go to the next county," he said.
The Webbs decided to contribute to the Freedom Now Project because they do not want the story of Prince Edward County to be forgotten.
"It's time this story should be told," Jacqueline Webb said. "There's so many people out there who still don't believe or realize that this happened, but so many people didn't get an opportunity to go to school and get an education. A lot of people's lives were ruined because they did not want to integrate schools in Prince Edward County."
"Even today, we talk to people who have lived in Virginia all their lives and we ask them, 'Have you ever heard of Prince Edward County and what happened back in 1959?' And they've never heard of it," John Webb added. "It's still surprising that people who are our own age and live right here in Virginia but never heard of Prince Edward County."
So far, roughly 60 people – primarily protesters, but also several police officers – shown in the photographs have been identified, thanks to contributors like the Webbs, said Alice Campbell, a VCU Libraries digital initiatives archivist who is overseeing the project.
Campbell and others with VCU Libraries have also been able to map out locations of where each protest took place, a task that required a bit of detective work because most of the businesses in the photographs no longer exist.
"I believe the Freedom Now Project has been a great success," Campbell said. "While we didn't fully anticipate how much of the work would be carried out in person instead of online, we have made significant progress to recording the names of the people who took part."
Catherine Scott, who took part in the protests at the age of 17, identified herself and others in the photographs.
"I had forgotten how I looked 50 years ago," she said. "I had never seen any of the pictures."
Scott, who teaches Spanish at a high school in the Bronx, New York, said she will use the photos in the classroom to "show students of today the contributions we made to society."
"During the time of the protests, we did not have a public school system in Prince Edward County," she said. "We were dedicated to the cause of equal opportunity and forcing the local officials to open the schools so black students could get an education."
Edward Thornton, a Richmond accountant who grew up in Farmville, also helped identify several protesters, including Edward Robinson and Gregory Hicks.
"At the time, I was a little bit younger than the protesters but I did recognize a few of them," he said.
Thornton knew Hicks even though he was a few years older, he said, as they eventually became classmates once they began attending school again.
"I was 12 years old when the Free School started," Thornton said. "I was in the 6th grade. And then in January, they put me in the 7th grade. And in June they put me in the 9th grade. They skipped me, so I ended up being classmates with older people."
Thornton is a co-founder of the Lest We Forget Foundation, which is comprised of former Farmville students who were denied a public education during Massive Resistance and which provides college scholarship funds to a Prince Edward County senior.
He wanted to participate in the Freedom Now Project, he said, so people better appreciate the struggles his generation faced.
"There's no question that these pictures tell a story that should be out there," Thornton said. "And maybe these pictures can inspire some of the school-age people today, to show them some of the struggles that people back then went through to obtain an education."
The Farmville protests were held in the middle of an important year for the civil rights movement in Virginia and the rest of the country. In April, Martin Luther King Jr., wrote “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.
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.
Having interviewed a number of people who have come forward to identify people in the photos and to share their stories, Campbell said she has found that the story of Prince Edward County is richer and more complicated than she'd realized.
"I didn't realize how young many of the Farmville protesters were until I studied these photographs," she said. "Now I see these young people – so determined and full of promise – and I can't imagine how anyone could take away their chance to go to school."
Identifying people is important to the study of history, and especially in those instances where there has been dehumanization and suffering, Campbell said.
"How often have you heard, 'Their names are lost to history?'" she said. "We don't want the integration of public schools in Virginia – a mere 50 years ago – to become one of those stories … Searching for and recording the names of the Prince Edward County civil rights protesters affirms the role of the individual in history and helps the rest of us understand and empathize with those who experienced injustice."
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