VCU launches oral history project on Massive Resistance

24 October 2011

By: Kristen Green | Media General News Service
Published: October 05, 2011
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FARMVILLE — Virginia Commonwealth University is launching an oral-history project on Massive Resistance that will record the stories of hundreds of schoolchildren denied an education by the closure of the state’s public schools in defiance of the Supreme Court’s order to desegregate.

The university is teaming up with the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission, which oversaw Virginia’s observance of the 50th anniversary of the public school closings, to track down former students from five localities that closed their schools and capture the students’ oral histories on video. The oral histories, which will preserve the history of Massive Resistance, will later be posted on VCU Libraries’ website.

The project also intends to help former students, many of whom are now in their 60s, to get closure on that part of their lives, said Shawn O. Utsey, chairman of the Department of African American Studies at VCU.

“We don’t want to just get the story and leave,” he said. “We want to begin to facilitate some healing.”

Starting this spring, the university will offer a class that teaches students how to record these oral histories in a way that provides some cathartic value to the former schoolchildren.

“We hope it will be part of our department’s ongoing work,” Utsey said. “This will be how we connect our students with civil rights history.”

The state-supported Massive Resistance policies — initiated in the late 1950s by U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr., D-Va. — urged localities not to integrate their schools, as mandated by the 1954 Brown v. Board decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. Public schools of Arlington County, Charlottesville, Norfolk, Prince Edward County and Warren County closed as a result of the policy. In some localities, white leaders founded academies for white children. Some black children moved to live with family members out of state so they could attend school, but many stopped their education altogether.

In Prince Edward, public schools were closed for five years, from 1959 to 1964, shutting more than 1,500 black children out of an education.

Brenda H. Edwards, who oversees the King commission’s Brown v. Board of Education Scholarship program, said many of the state’s Massive Resistance records have been lost or destroyed. “This is the best opportunity we have to preserve that portion of Virginia’s history,” she said.

Edwards and Utsey are among the seven people from VCU and the commission traveling to South Africa in December to be trained in how to conduct the oral-history interviews. They will be teaming up with Sinomlando Centre for Oral History and Memory Work at University of KwaZulu-Natal, which has worked since 1994 to create an indigenous oral history.

Sinomlando, which means “we have a history” in Zulu, works to bring out the silenced memories of South Africa’s Christian communities, particularly those that suffered during apartheid.

State Sen. Henry L. Marsh III, D-Richmond, a former civil rights attorney who represented schoolchildren in the integration of Norfolk’s public schools and has referred to Massive Resistance as “a tragedy that tore Virginia apart,” is part of the group. He is chairman of the King commission.

“We need to create a cadre of people who can help us preserve that history, and this is an outstanding way to do it,” Marsh said. “If we don’t learn from our history, we’re doomed to repeat our mistakes.”

The project is funded with $48,000 from VCU. A reception will be held in Richmond on Nov. 20 to formally announce the project.

Green reports for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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