Social Movement 

The Freedom Now Project offers an interactive history of the pivotal Farmville civil rights demonstrations.

click to enlarge Jacqueline White and her sister, Vonita, say they were shocked but happy to see an image resurface of their participation in a protest from 1963.

VCU Libraries

Jacqueline White and her sister, Vonita, say they were shocked but happy to see an image resurface of their participation in a protest from 1963.

The image on the screen sent Jacqueline Webb back in time.

Broadcast on the 6 o'clock news, the black and white photograph showed a 1963 civil rights protest in Farmville. In the photo were Webb and her sister, Vonita Foster.

"We were really shocked to see it," says Webb, who lives in Glen Allen. "But we were really pleased."

Webb and her husband found that photo and 265 others posted online as part of Virginia Commonwealth University's Freedom Now Project, which invites former protestors to identify themselves and share information about the demonstrations.

Taken in the summer of 1963 — a pivotal year for the civil rights movement — the original intent of the photos was as evidence by law enforcement.

Farmville played a significant role in the civil rights movement, with Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County being one of the five lawsuits combined into the landmark 1954 desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education.

Despite the Supreme Court ruling, the county board refused to comply, shutting down the public schools. For four years, Webb and others were forced to go elsewhere for an education.

"When I look back, I get angry," Webb says. "One day we were playing with our white neighbors, and the next day we weren't allowed to."

After the schools closed, Webb and her four siblings attended school separately in Baltimore, returning to Farmville for holidays when her family could afford it. Her parents eventually rented an empty house in Cumberland County, using the address to send their children to school closer by.

In the summers, Webb took part in civil rights protests for education, and boycotted stores that wouldn't hire blacks. Unlike the terribly violent protests of Danville that year, the Farmville protests were peaceful.

"Everyone always complains that history is just a bunch of boring wars, but this is history on the streets," says Alice Campbell, digital initiatives archivist and manager of the Freedom Now Project. "People still don't understand why Farmville matters."

Hired in October, Campbell has been charged with putting portions of the university's special collections and archives online. The library asked her to post this collection of privately owned photos on the image-hosting site Flickr as a crowd-sourcing project.

"Crowd sourcing is a wonderful opportunity to bring our collections in contact with people who are genuinely interested and genuinely knowledgeable," says Campbell, who started working on the project earlier this year.

Using Google's street view, Campbell was able to identify where the photos were taken. "It took some detective work," she says. "The places where the protests took place aren't there anymore. The businesses are gone."
One of the first large-scale crowd-sourcing projects of this nature was conducted by the Library of Congress in 2008, asking for help identifying photographs. In a nod to what was then a novelty, its Flickr page still reads: "Yes. We really are THE Library of Congress." Now other institutions are conducting similar projects with Flickr, and using crowd sourcing to translate documents in other languages and transcribe old letters so they can be more readily searched.

"I'm glad these pictures are getting out, and people are seeing what we went through just to get an education," says Webb's husband, John, who grew up in Prince George County. "I bet we sat there for the next couple of hours thinking back to what happened 50 years ago."

John Webb attended a two-room school before it was closed, where students had to bring their own lunches and build a fire in the winter. On the way, he had to pass by the much better-equipped whites-only school.

"It was a tough time," he says. He missed one year of school before attending in nearby Lunenburg County. "We were just so excited that the federal government came and reopened the schools."

Compared with other students who missed five years of school, the Webbs feel fortunate. After graduating from high school, John majored in electronics at Virginia State College — now Virginia State University — and worked for Xerox until retirement a few years ago. Jacqueline received her bachelor's degree at Virginia State and a master's at Virginia Tech. She worked in special education in Hanover County until she retired.

"Meeting these people has been incredible," Campbell says. "It's real people making history. It's an individual taking a stand against something they think is wrong."

Campbell hopes to find a way to document the protests more permanently, but for now, the collection exists as an online exhibit.

"It's time for our voices to be heard, and for people to know that something like this could happen," Jacqueline Webb says. "If it happened once, it could happen again." S

To see photos from about the Freedom Now project, visit its Flickr page at flickr.com/photos/freedom_now_project/sets. To learn about the project and how to contribute, visit the VCU Freedom Now site at go.vcu.edu/freedomnow.



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