By Jess Dankenbring, '17
As an active member of the Terms of Racial Justice program, which seeks to address issues related to contemporary race and racism, Victoria Charles, ’16, found herself having conversations with fellow students and faculty members about the racial history of the University of Richmond. The group wanted to bring their discussions about race and racial justice into a more public arena at the University — and that’s where the idea for a racial history project began to take shape.
Charles’s curiosity was piqued. She began to wonder what it must have been like to be among the first black students studying at Richmond in the late 1960s, and whether the black student experience has changed over the years.
With the help of a UR Summer Fellowship, Charles spent the summer after her junior year designing and working on a racial history project that focuses on the entrance of black students into predominantly white institutions, and specifically looks at the University of Richmond’s history.
Her American Studies and political science double major gave her two interesting angles from which to look at the topic. “In terms of American Studies, it’s looking at narratives, understanding who is left out of them and why, and going back to reconstruct them,” Charles says. “In terms of political science, it’s the idea of revolution, looking at what that means throughout time and being able to apply it to a real life situation.”
“A lot of times, when people think about the University of Richmond, they don’t think about protests, or revolution, or radicalism. But [in the late 1960s] the presence of black students on campus was revolutionary and their choice to be here was radical,” Charles says. “And not only being here, but carving out a place for themselves, creating organizations, and then being a part of mainstream student life.”
She began her project at the Virginia Baptist Historical Society, where she looked through yearbooks and other materials to develop a comprehensive list of alumni whom she could contact and learn about their experiences. Her research also led her to Tina Cade in the Office of Multicultural Affairs, who recommended other alumni and source materials.
Charles continued her research this fall as a member of the inaugural class of Undergraduate Humanities Fellows. She spent the semester focused on conducting interviews with alumni, getting their stories so that she could construct a narrative, and forming the idea of revolution and what that looked like on campus.
She’ll continue her work this spring with an independent study project. “I’m thinking about turning the interviews with alums into excerpts of a podcast that also includes my own commentary, presenting my research in a different format,” she says.
By developing a narrative of the past and documenting the black student experience, Charles hopes her work can have an impact on the present student life at the University.
“I’ve thought about my research as an addition to the rich history that the University of Richmond has,” Charles says. “I would hope that people are able to look at the history more proudly and have a deeper understanding of what it means to be a University of Richmond student and how it has evolved throughout the years and how it continues to evolve.”