Moving Time Capsule: Grant Will Help U.Va. Library Preserve Rare Civil Rights-Era TV Film

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Marian Anderfuren:

November 18, 2010 — A $254,600 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities is helping the University of Virginia Library preserve and digitize a unique collection of Civil Rights-era films from WSLS, a television station in Roanoke.

The NEH awarded the grant as part of its "We the People" initiative, "which seeks to encourage and enhance the study and understanding of American history, culture and democratic principles."

The WSLS-TV News Film Collection 1951-1971 is the only known original 16-millimeter news film archive from the Civil Rights era in Virginia. It contains nearly 12,500 news clips on film, along with an estimated 20,000 pages of scripts read by WSLS news anchors on nightly broadcasts. The collection presents a dynamic audiovisual record of life in mid-20th century Virginia, from moonshine raids and beauty pageants to polio vaccinations and civil rights demonstrations.

"Local television news is an audiovisual history of 20th-century America, yet much of it has been forgotten or discarded," said Kara McClurken, the library's head of preservation services. "The Library of Congress estimates that less than 10 percent of local news film from the 1950s through the 1970s survives, and we are thrilled to be able to save this unique historical resource and make it available to the world."

In one WSLS clip from 1960, the Rev. James Lawson, a protégé of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., explains what he hopes to achieve with lunch-counter demonstrations in Roanoke. In another clip from 1959, Gov. J. Lindsay Almond Jr. – the Charlottesville native and U.Va. alumnus who staunchly opposed racial integration – hurls defiant language at the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals after it dealt a blow to the commonwealth's Massive Resistance laws. And silent footage shot in September 1960 speaks volumes as black and white children enter schools together for the first time in Virginia.

"This collection was barely in the door before we had faculty asking to use it in their own research and teaching," said Judith Thomas, the U.Va. Library's director of arts and media services, who acquired the collection.  "Digitizing the collection will give scholars access to a wealth of new, previously inaccessible historical material and will afford the library the opportunity to develop new ways to incorporate video into the scholarly record."

The library acquired the collection in 2004 by lucky circumstance. A U.Va. graduate student was visiting WSLS to find historical footage for a project and realized that storage of the clips and scripts was becoming a problem for the station. That led to a conversation between WSLS and the library, and the material was donated to the library's collection.

The NEH grant, which runs through April 2012, makes it possible for the library to accelerate its preservation of the rare footage and efforts to make it available online. "While we did not pay WSLS for the materials, the library has dedicated resources to care for, store and steward this collection," Thomas said.

Media Contact

Marian Anderfuren

UVA Media Relations