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The Fight for Knowledge

Virginia has a long history of segregation in public schools. In 1954 Senator Harry Byrd, Sr. opposed the Brown v. Board of Education decision to integrate schools and called for Massive Resistance to the court’s ruling. Virginia’s refusal to desegregate public schools after the Supreme Court’s decision continues to have a great impact on Richmond’s public schools, especially since it is clear that educational inequity continues to persist along racial and socio-economic lines. Public schools in Richmond continue to be largely segregated—only 7% of white parents in Richmond enroll their children in public schools. However, apart from occasional newspaper articles in the local press, the connection between segregationist laws lasting through the middle of the twentieth century, and the segregation that continues to exist in schools today is largely underexplored in public discourse. [1]

Since 2011 we (Laura Browder and Patricia Herrera) have been teaching a community-based course, “Civil Rights and Education in Richmond, VA: A Documentary Theater Project,” as a way to use theater to teach our students about the rich and complex history of Richmond's educational system, fraught by the legacy of segregation, desegregation, and resegregation. In Spring 2011 the course and the play produced focused more broadly on the history of massive resistance and desegregation in Richmond. The following year, we decided to focus on one location—George Wythe High School, which went from being an elite white school to an integrated school to a nearly all-black school. Most recently, we decided to focus on one particular year—1968, a pivotal year in American history. In what ways was it a watershed year for Richmond?

In the class, our students take on different roles—as playwrights, ethnographers, actors, archivists, researchers, oral historians, documentary makers, community advocates, and facilitators. The wealth of material they gather through archival research and interviews, in preparation for collaboratively writing and performing their play, has led us to create a digital archive that will live on and provide material for future courses, as well as for community members and other researchers.

What we have only slowly realized, in working on this digital archive—The Fight for Knowledge: Civil Rights and Education in Richmond, Virginia—is that the process of building the archive could help us reconceptualize the relationship between archive and theater—and help us enrich our thinking about both archive creation and documentary theater practices.

[1] “Urban Public Schools Push for More Students,” Associated Press, August 22, 2009; Michael Paul Williams, Richmond Times Dispatch, “Race in Richmond: Schools Aim for Social Diversity” (December 27, 2010) and “Schools Must Fix Funding Disparities” (May 31, 2011).