History in their own words

December 4, 2018
Growing up in Civil Rights Richmond

During Valerie Perkins’ first year at George Wythe High School on Richmond’s South Side in 1970, every day was a fight, as white and black students adjusted to sharing space after having previously been segregated. “I'd never been exposed to that, so it was traumatic for me,” she said. “I was focused on getting from one class to another—just getting through the day and not being anywhere around any kind of disturbance or arguments. It was disruptive. Even now, when I talk about it, I feel the fear that I felt back then, that first year.” 

The next year Perkins joined the integrated cheerleading squad, which wound up being a driving force in her life. “It provided me with an opportunity to get to know different people from different backgrounds; we were open with each other about culture and diversity,” she said. “It gave me my first steps towards leadership to become the person that I am today.”

Perkins’ account of living in Richmond during the Civil Rights era is now being told, along with those of 29 others in the new exhibition, “Growing Up in Civil Rights Richmond: A Community Remembers.” Curated by independent curator Ashley Kistler, the exhibition is based on oral histories collected by UR English and American Studies professor Laura Browder paired with photographs taken by local photojournalist Brian Palmer. Each person’s story is told in their own words, and accompanied by a photograph of them in a Richmond location that is meaningful to them. 

The exhibition stemmed from a class Browder and her UR colleague theatre professor Patricia Herrera were teaching on documenting civil rights and education in Richmond. “In our second year, we focused on Wythe High school during the period of busing which was 1970-72,” Browder said. “We hosted an event with 20 Wythe alums, half black, half white, some of whom hadn’t seen each other in 40 years. The memories they were sharing persuaded me that there were amazing stories to be told about what it was like growing up in the midst of the Civil Rights movement in Richmond, and being active in that movement.”

Browder began by interviewing Wythe alums, who connected her with other Richmonders with compelling experiences. She heard stories of Klan crosses being burned on lawns and bullets shot through home windows. Leonard Edloe shared his memory of paying the poll tax with his father, and Zenoria Abdus-Salaam described her first experience joining a protest march when she was supposed to be paying her grandmother’s Thalheimer’s bill. “The thing that struck me the most was how many people talked about how slavery continued to reverberate in their lives and in the life of the city,” said Browder. “They could look at documents and see their ancestors’ names listed as servants. That’s powerful.”

Browder said that the people she interviewed “… were people who had lived through this terrible system of apartheid in our country and who had faced incredible obstacles and moments when it seemed like things were really hopeless, but they kept going. That gives me hope for today.”

Browder acknowledges that this project by no means presents a complete story. “My greatest hope is that the exhibition will prompt visitors to ask the people in their own lives, who were growing up at that time, about their stories,” Browder said. “I hope this will open up new conversations that we need to have.”

Growing Up in Civil Rights Richmond: A Community Remembers is on view at the Joel and Lila Harnett Gallery January 17-May 10, 2019.