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Civil Rights Oral History Project On Display At SVHEC

“When most people think of the Civil Rights Movement they think of Birmingham and Selma, but there was actually a great deal going on locally,” said Sandra Conner, Teaching American History Grant coordinator at the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center (SVHEC).

Danville was one locality that was a hotbed of Civil Rights activity, particularly in the summer of 1963, though many students today fail to realize the significance the city played in the national Civil Rights Movement. To help tell the story of the Civil Rights Movement in southern Virginia, Halifax County native Emma Edmunds has undertaken an oral history project, “Mapping Local Knowledge: Danville, VA., 1945-1975.”

An exhibit based on Edmunds’ work is currently on display at the SVHEC and may be viewed by the general public through March 13.

Photos taken by Charlottesville photographer Tom Cogill, and compelling excerpts from the oral histories of 10 individuals who experienced the Civil Rights Movement in Danville are on display on the second floor of the SVHEC.

Full transcriptions of the oral histories on display are also available for review.

According to the Mapping Local Knowledge Web site, “those pictured provide local context for the national civil rights movement that often appears in history books and dominates our collective memory.”

A journalist by training, Edmunds was initially drawn to the project because she felt personal stories were a wonderful way to convey history and reach a broad audience.

“I was interested in Danville because I grew up in Halifax County, graduated from Halifax County High School in 1963—yet I knew nothing of the 1963 civil rights demonstrations, the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, the violence, and the protracted legal struggle that occurred there—until I learned about these events at an Atlanta History Center display,” Edmunds said. “I felt my ignorance was emblematic of the ignorance many whites have of African-American history and culture especially in their own backyard. I also felt that the civil rights history of Virginia is an untold story; we think of Alabama, Mississippi civil rights stories, not Virginia accounts.  So I resolved to do what I can to address these issues,” she continued.

Over the course of the past 10 years Edmunds has collected more than 30 oral histories. Her work has been funded by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the Elizabeth Stuart James Grant Trust of Danville. She has also worked with the Virginia Center for Digital History to create an online exhibit that may be viewed at

“I am grateful to have received the support and resources to continue the project over so many years,” said Edmunds who is currently the director of Editorial and Design in the Office of Development and Public Affairs at the University of Virginia.

On Feb. 20, Edmunds presented her work on the oral history project to the Teaching American History Grant Fellows at the SVHEC. The Teaching American History Grant is a three-year grant that brings together selected teachers from Halifax, Charlotte, and Pittsylvania Counties, and the City of Danville to study American history through the lens of local history.


This year’s fellows are focusing on 20th Century History with emphasis on the Civil Rights Movement. Hearing from Edmunds gave the fellows an opportunity to understand the power of oral histories and to study how they can be used effectively in the classroom.

“If you can make the national Civil Rights Movement relevant to the local scene, it makes it much more memorable,” Conner said.

This summer, the 23 Teaching American History Grant Fellows will have an opportunity to travel to several local and national sites with significance to the Civil Rights Movement.

Scheduled site visits include the Mary M. Bethune High School in Halifax, the Robert Russa Moton Museum in Farmville, and the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.

The public is invited to the SVHEC to view Edmund’s work, “Mapping Local Knowledge: Danville, VA., 1945-1975,” through March 13. An online exhibit of the oral history project may be viewed at

For more information about the SVHEC visit, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. , or call 572-5440 and toll free (800) 283-0098.