By Nora Pehrson
Virginia Humanities grant recipient and former fellow Laura Browder is working to share the history of Richmond’s civil rights movement with public audiences. Funded in part by a grant from Virginia Humanities, her exhibition Growing Up in Civil Rights Richmond combines oral history and portrait photography by Brian Palmer to convey the individual stories of thirty Richmond residents who participated in the movement as children. Formerly on display at the Joel and Lila Harnett Museum of Art, Growing Up is now available as a portable teaching resource, or a “museum in a box.”
The museum in a box (essentially a smaller version of the original exhibition) will include portraits from the exhibition along with civil rights teaching materials and suggested lesson plans. It can be reserved for up to two weeks at a time, and will be available to K-12 classrooms, libraries, civic groups, churches, and other community organizations.
We recently caught up with Browder to talk about the museum in a box, the original exhibit, and why Richmond residents should know the local history of the Civil Rights Era.
What should people know about Richmond’s civil rights history?
Richmond is a city with a rich civil rights history—beginning with the slave uprising led by Gabriel Prosser and continuing through the streetcar boycott of 1904, the founding of the Southern Negro Youth Congress in 1935, and the landmark desegregation cases argued before the Supreme Court by Oliver Hill, Spottiswood Robinson, and Henry Marsh. Yet this history remains largely invisible, while Monument Avenue, with its giant bronze statues of Confederate generals, continues to draw tourists to Richmond.
The local heroes of the civil rights struggle, both sung and unsung, are often undiscussed, and the sites where they picketed, were arrested, fought their legal battles, and desegregated schools remain unmarked. I want to make this history visible.
How did you get involved in this work?
It all started with a grant from Virginia Humanities, which funded my first oral-history documentary drama about Carver, a historic black neighborhood being squeezed out by the university where I then taught, Virginia Commonwealth University.
Since then, I have increasingly moved into the public humanities. I started by working in documentary film and drama, and much of my focus is now on creating collaborative oral history and photography exhibitions.
How is your project making a difference?
Most of all, I am interested in how the exhibition is fostering new conversations about challenging topics. I’ve been overwhelmed by the effect of these stories and portraits on my students, who were largely unaware of this history—and who found themselves inspired by the people profiled in the exhibition. For example, after viewing Growing Up, a group of visiting students from Henrico High School created an oral history exhibition about their own school during the busing period.
Now that Growing Up has moved to Richmond City Hall (where it will be on view until November 22), it will be accessible to a whole new audience.
What drew you to Virginia Humanities? Why did you apply here?
I first became aware of Virginia Humanities in 1997, as a residential fellow. That first experience has profoundly shaped my career; subsequent grants from Virginia Humanities have made it possible for me to explore many facets of public humanities. Virginia Humanities is a vital resource for the state of Virginia and beyond, and its vision continues to inspire me.