On February 18, 1969, hundreds of students at the University of Virginia (UVA) gathered on the steps of the historic Rotunda in a moving display of political solidarity and self-determination. Spirited yet peaceful, their assembly marked the culmination of a three-day campaign protesting the University’s “Racist Atmosphere.” Over the course of the 90-minute rally, student leaders demanded that the University’s president, Edgar Shannon, eliminate application fees for low-income students, increase the wages of non-academic employees, and establish a Black Studies program by the fall of 1970.
Over the next few years, the University of Virginia remained an important site of political protest as young women and men rallied around such issues as U.S. military action in Southeast Asia, racial apartheid in South Africa, and the future of Black Studies within and beyond UVA. Thanks in large part to the efforts of the Black Students for Freedom, the Black Student Alliance, and African American faculty members like Joseph R. Washington and Houston A. Baker, the University also plugged into the creative energy of the Black Arts Movement. In 1970, the Black Students for Freedom inaugurated the annual series, “Black Culture Week,” which featured forums, lectures, poetry readings, and musical performances from a wide range of artists. In its first year, the series featured a presentation by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, lectures by James Brewer of North Carolina Central and Howard Fuller (Owusu Sadaukai) of Malcolm X University, and a history exhibit by a local activist. In 1971, Black Culture Week featured Georgia Legislator Julian Bond, Harold Cruse, author of the influential, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, Bryce-LaPorte, Arna Bontemps, and Elizabeth Koontz.
The intellectual and political vibrancy of this important era will be captured in “BLACK FIRE,” a multimedia initiative that documents the struggle for social justice and racial equality at the University of Virginia (UVA) between 1969 and 1985. Through documentary film, photography, public lectures, and an online resource center, this multidisciplinary project will broaden our existing knowledge of the varied ways in which student activism has and continues to transform higher education in the U.S. South.
This multimedia initiative is sponsored by UVA’s Office of the Vice Provost of the Arts and organized by Professors Kevin Jerome Everson of the Department of Art and Claudrena N. Harold of the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies and the Corcoran Department of History.