Three VCU-owned images are featured in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington D.C., which opened Saturday.
The museum seeks to commemorate African-American history while revealing both its harrowed past and honorable plight. The VCU-owned images, two photos and one postcard are in digitized form, unpack a portion of the powerful history of the Virginia’s capital city.
“The slavery question in Richmond is just now getting attention during the past 10 years,” said Senior Research Associate of VCU Libraries Collections Ray Bonis. “It wasn’t until people started looking into how Richmond was the center for selling slaves.”
One photograph is of the former Robert R. Moton High School for African-Americans in Prince Edward County.
The photo captures the effects of the landmark case, 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which integrated public schools. After it was ruled that schools should be integrated, Prince Edward County chose to close down it’s altogether school instead.
In the midst of this battle, VCU professor emeritus Edward Peeples took photos of the closed schools. After black students protested and boycotted the school, Peeples did a study of black and white schools, finding out that the county was putting more money towards white schools.
Despite the legislation of “separate but equal,” the school’s conditions and disparities proved once more the plight of African-Americans. An activist who was involved in the civil rights movement since the 1960s, Peebles decided to donate his work to VCU decades later.
John Kneebone, head of the History department, believes the museum is long overdue. The incorporation of the VCU images is a testament to the school’s original roots in the mid 1960s.
“VCU came into be during the civil rights movement. It came into be during the moment when in order for African-American students to be included, the curriculum had to change,” Kneebone said.
VCU has it’s origins in April 1969, with sit ins by African-American students in the Provost office, to expand the curriculum, Kneebone said. To make the university not just the non HBCU school with the largest black population of students but truly welcoming not just accommodating.
Kneebone, who has been in Richmond since 1986 and teaching at VCU since 2003, said he believes racism has been the reason for it.
The second photograph features an original snapshot of The Sixth Mount Zion Church, one of the oldest black churches in America’s history, located in the historic Jackson Ward area.
Founded in 1867 by John Jasper, who had been a slave, the church has served as a place of spiritual enlightenment during social injustices and post-slavery obstacles in the city.
Renowned for his signature preaching style, Jasper was able to uplift the city during its most trying times despite being a former slave himself. The photo shows how the church used to look before the 95-Interstate tore through Jackson Ward and uprooted the church.
“I bet if you asked the mayor of Richmond 20 years ago, how much was the city involved in the slave trade, they’d say minor but now we know it was much more than what it was,” Bonis said.
Bonis, who first came to VCU as a student in 1982, said he believes he’s seen some changes as it pertains to the honest teaching of the city’s history, however there’s a long way to go.
Bonis said he’s proud of the opening of the new museum — believing it’s a step in the right direction to telling of African-American history and experience.
The third image is a postcard of the church, showing its evolution from a wooden shack with a single room in 1867, to large brick-and-mortar church in 1925.
Despite being the capital city, Richmond’s painful past has been hidden in an effort to preserve its image. Richmond had the largest slave trading industry outside of New Orleans between 1830 and the Civil War, with thousands of slaves bought and sold through Lumpkins Jail in the Shockoe area.
“Fundamentally, these were white institutions and racism blinded them to seeing that African-Americans were truly a part of Virginia,” Kneebone said. “Richmond city has a record of really messing up on race. We’re doing better.”
With the rise of social media and entities like the Black Lives Matter movement, Kneebone said he hopes the narrative will change.
“VCU is engaged with the city of Richmond. I would like for VCU students to be more engaged with the city,” Kneebone said. “The museums have done exemplary work in trying to connect the city’s history past and present. Our Richmond story has been recognized as telling the larger American story.”
Muktaru is a graduate student working on a Master’s of Teaching after earning an undergraduate degree in English and Political Science. In addition to writing for the CT, he also co-founds his own music and arts site, STROKES N RHYMES. Topic areas Muktaru enjoys covering include music, sports and pop culture.