New Digital archive brings Civil Rights
Era to life
Web-based project offers an archive for scholars, students, K-12 teachers and the general public
|The Web-based project, “Television News of the Civil Rights Era 1950-1970,” shows a whole range of participants and their views, said William G. Thomas, director of the Virginia Center for Digital History. The project is online at www.vcdh.virginia.edu/civilrightstv/.
By Jane Ford
The Civil Rights Era in Virginia was contentious, pitting black against white, neighbor against neighbor and communities against legislation — a microcosm of the years of social upheaval in communities across America. A new archive at the Virginia Center for Digital History brings to life that period of our national history through film footage of local civil rights events and the words and actions of citizen and national activists in Roanoke, Va.
The archive, which received support from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and is housed in U.Va.’s Alderman Library, contains film and scripts from two Roanoke TV stations: CBS affiliate WDBJ and NBC affiliate WSLS. The archival footage highlights local coverage of school desegregation, massive resistance, school meetings, civil rights debates, and interviews with key players and concerned citizens in the community, as well as speeches given by Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon and governors of Virginia.
“The films show a whole range of participants and their views,” said VCDH director William G. Thomas, an expert in U.S. history since 1865 and modern Virginia history. For years, Thomas has wanted to develop a collection of materials about the civil rights movement, and he realized that TV, which was coming into its own as a news medium at the time, would be a valuable tool for teaching and a primary source for American history research. After contacting every TV station in Virginia, he found that all but two Roanoke stations had cleaned house, and the footage of the events during this period had been destroyed.
Thomas explained that WSLS was about to throw theirs away when they decided to donate it to U.Va. Library’s Robertson Media Center, which actively collects and digitizes materials of historic and scholarly significance. “WDBJ had already thrown away original footage but had made digital video copies in the 1990s,” Thomas said.
WDBJ considered their station to be statewide in the 1950s and 1960s, often traveling outside the viewing area to cover civil rights stories, said Jim Kent, WDBJ news director.
“The station saw massive resistance and civil rights as a big story,” he said. “We’re lucky we had people who cared and saved the footage through the years.”
Virginia is not the only place where footage of that period is scarce. Nationwide, only a few other collections exist and they are not readily
accessible, Thomas said. None are online.
The goal of U.Va.’s “TV News of the Civil Rights Era” project is to preserve and make easily accessible the archive for scholars, students, K-12 teachers and the general public through streaming video format on the Web via broadband and regular Web access.
The Web archive was launched in February, and the material already is making an impact on Grounds and beyond. Thomas has successfully employed it in teaching his U.Va. classes and lectures around the country. The Web site includes an interpretative section, which features essays written by U.Va. history students in major thesis seminars during the 2004-2005 academic year.
The high school and university teachers who attended a workshop in November “loved this material,” Thomas said. The archive opens new ways of presenting information. At the high school level, teachers are no longer confined to focusing on Martin Luther King Jr. and Brown v. Board of Education.
“The archive shows teachers and students a much broader range of characters, activities, positions and views of the civil rights activities,” Thomas said.
Plans are already in the works to target K-12 teachers in Roanoke, Floyd and Salem counties and the city of Roanoke in an initial educational outreach initiative.
“It shows episodes that took place right outside their front door,” said Felicia Johnson, a Web designer with the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities working on the project.
With more than 230 films in the digital archive and thousands more well-preserved films yet to be digitized by the Robertson Media Center, the project already is attracting attention from documentary filmmakers.
Film segments from the WSLS collection were used in a traveling Virginia Historical Society exhibit “The Civil Rights Movement in Virginia.” Currently on view at the History Museum of Western Virginia in Roanoke, the exhibit will travel to Lynchburg, Portsmouth, Alexandria and finally Fredericksburg in 2006.
“As soon as we started this project, people were interested in using the footage,” Thomas said. Segments were used in a Martin Luther King Jr. Commission documentary production about Brown v. Board of Education by Tim Reid and his Millennium Studios in Petersburg, Va. Closer to home, U.Va. art professor Kevin Everson included footage from the archive in his film, “Spicebush,” which premiered at the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville in October 2004 and was recently shown at the Rotterdam International Film Festival.
Currently, two U.Va. fourth-year classes are mining the footage. Twenty students in a history class taught by Thomas, and a media studies class taught by Bill Reifenberger, are creating a one-hour documentary.
“The project gives undergraduates an opportunity to tell a new story about the Civil Rights Era, to make the story speak to a new generation of students,” Thomas said.
The student documentary project is funded by the Virginia Alumni Association’s Ernest C. Mead Endowment, which supports faculty-student
interaction. A rough-cut of the film will be ready for a public screening in May. Mead Endowment funds will support continued student work on the project over the summer and through the fall. The final documentary is scheduled to air on Richmond PBS station WCVE during Black History Month in February 2006.
The Virginia Center for Digital History is affiliated with U.Va.’s College of Arts & Sciences and is housed in the University’s Alderman Library. The center creates new forms of historical scholarship, provides public service and outreach and encourages the use of digital technologies for scholarship and teaching. The Television News of the Civil Rights Era project is supported by the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, the Virginia Department of Education, The University of Virginia Alumni Association’s Mead Endowment and the Clemons Library Robertson Media Center’s Digital Media Lab. The WSLS film footage was a gift to the library, and the Digital Media Lab is involved in cataloguing and transferring it to digital format.