VCU Libraries’ Freedom Now Project to air on PBS history program

More than 250 photographs from VCU’s collection document civil rights protests in Farmville, Virginia, and how people responded to the protesters.

A group of protestors outside a grocery store. [View Image] Protesters at Safeway in Farmville, August 1963. (Freedom Now Project)

VCU Libraries’ Freedom Now Project will be featured Monday, Feb. 24, when the second season of “The Future of America’s Past” premieres on VPM PBS (formerly WCVE-TV). The episode, “School Interrupted,” will air at 10 p.m. and will also stream and take questions on Facebook and Twitter. Beginning in early March, the show will air nationally on PBS affiliates. 

The Freedom Now Project helps illustrate the struggle to desegregate public schools in Prince Edward County, Virginia. The project displays images from VCU Libraries’ Digital Collections documenting civil rights protests in Farmville, Virginia, during the summer of 1963. More than 250 images reveal how events unfolded in reaction to Massive Resistance, and how townspeople and the news media responded to the protesters.  

Throughout “School Interrupted,” host Edward Ayers, Ph.D., explores the importance of early student civil rights protests such as the 1951 Moton School strike and the 1963 protests of public school closings that sought to block implementation of Brown v. Board of Education.

Ayers is a humanities professor and president emeritus at the University of Richmond. A nationally known scholar of the history of the South, Ayers was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. He is the founding co-host of the podcast “BackStory.” He was awarded a National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama for his “commitment to making our history as widely available and accessible as possible.”

For “The Future of America’s Past,” Ayers travels to places across the United States where difficult chapters of the nation’s history unfolded. At the site where history was made, he talks with public historians, museum educators, librarians, poets, artists and others who offer perspectives and observations.

Crowd and police near First Baptist Church in Farmville, August 1963. (Freedom Now Project) [View Image]
Click to view slideshow. Crowd and police near First Baptist Church in Farmville, August 1963. (Freedom Now Project)

The second season includes segments filmed in Illinois, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Utah and Virginia. Topics include the meaning of the American Revolution to everyday people of the time; the echoes of 1919 race riots in Chicago; the completion of the transcontinental railroad; and the movement for school desegregation.

The tone of the program is relaxed and conversational. “It’s the story of people who made history,” said Alice W. Campbell, digital outreach and special projects librarian at VCU who manages the Freedom Now Project. Ayers interviewed Campbell, who appears in the program. “How did it happen? What did it feel like to be there? What did you learn?”

“The Freedom Now Project has always focused on the people who took a stand in 1963,” Campbell said. “We wanted to know their names and acknowledge the work that they did to bring about change in Virginia.”

Through her outreach to the Farmville community and beyond, VCU Libraries has been able to identify nearly 90 people featured in the protest photographs, Campbell said.

“We’ve learned a lot about these photographs, but there are still a number of people we can’t identify. With this additional exposure of the project on television, it’s possible we’ll be able to fill in some more gaps in our knowledge and give an even fuller accounting of the Farmville protests.”

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