U.Va. Library's New Streaming Oral History Project Tells the Legal Story of the Civil Rights Struggle

William Elwood headshot

William Elwood(Photo: Archival photo)

In March 1985, civil rights leader and former Howard University president James M. Nabrit did an extended interview for an oral history project led by then-University of Virginia English professor William Elwood.

Cigar in hand, Nabrit – a former NAACP lawyer who worked with Thurgood Marshall and others to fight segregation – recalled the series of legal challenges both before and after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954.

"We tried cases all over the country. Everywhere: north and south and east and west," he said. "And we won some and we lost some. But the people – our people – never deserted us."

That 114-minute discussion, originally shot on U-matic videotape, is one of 86 interviews with prominent civil rights lawyers and others that are now restored and streaming online, thanks to the recent completion of a nearly decade-long project by the U.Va. Library.

The William Elwood Civil Rights Lawyers Project tells the legal history of the civil rights struggle. The online interviews, which filled 273 tapes left to the library, are available through the library's Virgo service. "It's primary source material that students, scholars and even documentarians can use," said Leigh Rockey, a preservation reformatting specialist in the library. "These are firsthand accounts of this important history."

Elwood, a former College of Arts & Sciences administrator who died in 2002, worked with students through the 1980s to capture the interviews for a documentary film, "The Road to Brown: The Untold Story of the Man Who Killed Jim Crow," which aired on public television in 1990.

The film told the story of Charles Houston, a black Harvard University-trained lawyer regarded as the architect of the legal strategy that led to Brown v. Board of Education. Elwood later turned his interview tapes over to the University's Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, said Judith Thomas, the library's director of arts and media services. Thomas said she first became aware of the tapes through a chance meeting with Elwood's widow, Mary Ann Wilder Elwood.

"She was very interested in having these tapes be more widely known, and for us to figure out ways to provide access to them," Thomas said.

The interviews were on 158 Betacam tapes and 115 U-Matic tapes, and weren't in the best condition when the library decided to restore them in the early 2000s. Some of the videos suffered from "sticky shed syndrome," which results from deterioration of the binder, a glue-like substance that holds the recording layer to the plastic base, Rockey said.

In 2005, the library sent the tapes to restoration specialists capable of repairing damage done by sticky shed syndrome. "They literally put some of the tapes in an oven and baked them. That's a technique that's strictly for professionals," Rockey said.

When the restoration work was completed, the library had the actual restored tapes as well as DVDs and digital versions of the footage. Using streaming video technology recently licensed to the University through SHANTI, the library began the arduous process of putting the videos online in a searchable database.

Rockey, who watched all 86 interviews to index them and write descriptions, said they contain a wealth of information that ranges from in-depth legal strategy to deeply personal accounts of the injustices perpetuated under Jim Crow.

For example, she learned of an important sit-in in Alexandria, in which civil rights organizers staged a peaceful protest with the aim of receiving library cards. It happened in 1939.

"I had no idea this was happening so early," Rockey said. "I had always associated sit-ins with the '50s or '60s."

Unfortunately, Mary Ann Elwood passed away in September, before the completed video project could be unveiled, Thomas said. However the project stands as a testament to the breadth of her husband's work documenting this important period, she said.

This type of project also shows the ways in which library resources can be used to preserve and digitize primary source material – especially audio-visual material – gathered by scholars and researchers, she said.

"This is part of the larger picture of how we're gathering and providing access to primary source material in motion media," Thomas said.

The videos went live Feb. 1, just in time for the start of Black History Month.

– By Rob Seal

Media Contact

Rob Seal

School of Continuing and Professional Studies