Clothing Optional: VCU’s Free University

Dale Brumfield
Contributing Writer

In late 1967, a new experiment in learning called “Free University” began appearing in various cities both as free-standing institutions and extensions of existing urban universities.

The first Free University, on the University of Southern California-Berkeley campus, grew out of 1964’s free speech movement. The concept spread first to other West Coast, midwest and northern state campuses before heading east. At the peak in 1970 there were 110 free universities across the U.S.

Without a secured location for classes, students at Free University would sometimes crowd rooms and study on the floors.

Free universities offered subjects that were based solely on student interest and not part of any formal university curriculum. They had no accreditation, gave no grades, charged minimal or no fees and had no formal faculty members.

In September 1969, just after RPI became VCU, the Students for Liberal Government received a $2,275 grant from the VCU Student Government contingency fund to form their own Free University, organized by Russ Clem with headquarters at 725 W. Broad St. in Richmond (today the Empire). The scheduled courses listed in the first fall bulletin included Hypnosis, Creativity, Blues Guitar Workshop, Emotional Hangups, Poetry, Theater, Print Shop and Photography. All classes started at 7 p.m. so as not to interfere with day classes.

Any Richmond resident could take any F.U. class for $2, or purchase a “red card” for $20 that included registration to as many classes as desired. It also included twelve admissions to the Friday and Saturday night performances at the Performing Arts Center at 313 N. Laurel St., and admission to five of the 12 F.U.-sponsored films, which included the John Lennon film “How I Won the War” and Norman McLaren’s indie film “McLaren’s Wild Objects,” among others.

Although many Free University curricula were leftist politically, Richmond’s F.U. remained politically neutral, offering courses that focused on craft, skill or interpersonal awareness. Classes met wherever there was space. The class “Emotional Hangups” was featured in an undated Richmond Times-Dispatch clipping, showing a handful of students in a spartan room seated on makeshift benches and even on the floor. A lit cigarette can be seen in teacher Reid Cornwell’s hand.

Richmond poet Rik Davis taught a poetry class at F.U. while he was a VCU sophomore English major, and Richmond African-American journalist Barry Barkan taught a hypnosis class that at least once was “clothing optional.” Former activist Bruce Smith said he clearly recalls walking past the room to see a handful of nude students inside.

By March 1970, Free University ceased operations, citing a standing debt of about $2,200 and a general lack of interest. The main reason for the debt, according to the March 4, 1970 issue of the Commonwealth Times, was the Free University’s own tabloid news magazine, the Richmond Chronicle. The Chronicle absorbed $1,400 of the original $2,275 grant, leaving little money to fund classroom space and make necessary infrastructural improvements to the buildings and classrooms. The Chronicle continued to publish biweekly in the same building for about five months after F.U. closed.

Later that year, a rummage sale and a benefit concert with a band called Steel Mill (featuring a long-haired guitarist named Bruce Springsteen) secured enough funds to pay off the university’s debt.


  1. Are you talking about the Empire theatre? That was not at 725 W. Broad. The Free University that I remember was upstairs on the Southeast corner of Laurel and Broad, also the sight of many nightclub/Music venues, including the String Factory and Laurel & Broady. 725 W. Broad Is probably the correct address, but the Empire Theatre was on the other (north/even) side of Broad, a block or two East.

  2. YO! I take it that you are enrolled at VCU and are intelligent enough to make the grade to get into at least one university. So my man, how can you F*CK something like University of Southern California (aka USC) and University of California-Berkeley (aka Cal, aka Berkeley). Dude do your research…which school was it?


  3. Michael McAdam, both upstairs and downstairs were FU territory. The downstairs location was partitioned off into classrooms. The picture Dale Brumfield posted was in the downstairs location.

  4. I took a Play Production class at the Free University, located downstairs at the String Factory. The instructor was also teaching Play Production at John Tyler Community College, and he let me attend the F.U. class instead of having to drive all the way to Chester. I also played music upstairs, at the String Factory, several times in our Natural Wildlife band. We played there, and rehearsed there frequently. Tom Maeder produced several shows there, from Old Coach Productions agency. Steel Mill played there several times, too. I invited Bruce Springsteen to my house for dinner, around March of 1970, and I had to pick him up because he didn't have a car. We played another concert together,at Randolph Macon College, and the entire light show scaffolding fell over while it was being moved back in the gymnasium, since it was too close to the screen where
    the slides and other light effects were being projected. Bruce just sat on the bleachers, talking to my wife, playing his acoustic guitar, which he labeled "A GUITAR" with orange tape. I still play his song "Sweet Melinda" in our RV*Ava group and with the Barracudas. I also photographed the Allman Brothers on the String Factory stage during their concert there. Color slides with Duane Allman and Barry Oakley. If anyone wants to purchase those slides, contact me at with your offer. Mike.

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