Eye witnesses: Danville civil rights stories told through portraits and memories

The Reverend Thurman O. Echols Jr. (far right) was arrested as a student protest leader in Danville in 1963. He is currently the pastor of Moral Hill Missionary Baptist Church, in Axton. Photo: Library of Virginia The Reverend Thurman O. Echols Jr. (far right) was arrested as a student protest leader in Danville in 1963. He is currently the pastor of Moral Hill Missionary Baptist Church, in Axton. Photo: Library of Virginia

According to the Virginia Historical Society, “The most violent episode of the civil rights movement in Virginia occurred in Danville during the summer of 1963.” Demonstrators were beaten back by police in the streets, and legal battles for equal rights simmered.

In July of the same year, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was motivated to speak in the city, hoping to curb the police brutality that accompanied local efforts at desegregation. Close on the heels of the Birmingham, Alabama, demonstrations that made headlines that spring, the Danville protests garnered the support of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, along with national media coverage. When all was said and done, however, Danville did not integrate public schools until 1970, and some of those legal battles raged beyond that year.

An exhibition opening on Saturday at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center seeks to provide personal depth to those events through oral histories and portraits of some of the people who participated. Titled “The 1963 Danville Civil Rights Movement: The Protests, the People, the Stories,” it’s a collaboration between journalist Emma Edmunds and photographer Tom Cogill.

The collection is an outgrowth of Edmunds’ earlier project, “Mapping Local Knowledge: Danville, Virginia, 1945–75,” which was first on display at the University of Virginia’s Carter G. Woodson Institute in 2005. This extension of the work began in earnest when Cogill got involved. “He said he was interested, and might like to take photographs of some of the people I was interviewing, and photograph some of the sites,” says Edmunds. “His portraits bring these individuals alive, allow a viewer to meet the person and convey each person’s dignity.”

The 50th anniversary of the Danville protests took place in 2013, which prompted Edmunds and Cogill to focus on these events in the development of a new exhibition, and place the community at its center.

“We went to a Sunday morning service at Loyal Baptist Church in Danville to stand in front of the congregation and introduce ourselves and to invite them to come back in two weeks to be interviewed and photographed and to bring documents to be scanned,” recalls Cogill. “Two weeks later, the response was much greater than we had imagined: many people, many stories, very many documents to scan.”

Edmunds estimates she has collected more than 40 oral histories from Danville residents, though not all of the people were photographed and some have since passed away. Together, these personal perspectives helped Edmunds recreate the historical events of 1963 through an experiential lens.

One of the collected accounts in the show is from Nannie Louise Pinchback, who participated in a July 20, 1963, protest in Danville. “After seeing so many of the children who participated in the movement and seeing those who had been brutally beaten…,” says Pinchback, “I became convinced that I had to stand up and protest the evils of segregation, even if it meant going to jail. So that is what I did.”

Even though Edmunds, a Virginia native, grew up 30 miles from Danville, she was unaware of the civil rights movement there. “[Dr.] King was making Danville the focus of his fall 1963 campaign…I was 17, a graduating high school student, living less than an hour from Danville. Yet I knew nothing of these events.”

Many years later, when Edmunds first learned of the town’s important role in the civil rights movement, it was almost by accident. She was working as a journalist when she attended an exhibition at the Atlanta History Center and stumbled upon a story she’d never imagined, igniting a desire to research the protests.

“I wanted to learn more about what happened in Danville [but] could find little written about it,” she recounts. “So, I left my job and returned to Virginia [in 1998], with a Virginia Foundation for the Humanities fellowship, to find out more about the Danville civil rights movement and to start research [on] my family’s racial history. And I’ve been working on both ever since.”

Edmunds is quick to acknowledge that the project is larger than her own efforts or even her collaboration with Cogill. “Most of all, credit goes to all the people who opened their homes, trusted me, shared their photos and documents and told me their stories. It has been such a privilege to do this work, and none of it would have been possible without these partnerships, institutional and individual, and without this support,” says Edmunds.

An opening reception for “The 1963 Danville Civil Rights Movement: The Protests, the People, the Stories” will be held on January 23 with remarks at 7pm. The exhibition will remain on display through April. Later this year, the exhibition will return to Danville, where Edmunds hopes it might become a “permanent civil rights display for residents, educators, the public and visitors.”

Do you have local history stories to share? Tell us in the comments below.

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