William Thomas / History

My Mead Endowment “dream idea” is to work with undergraduate students to create a documentary film on the civil rights era in Virginia to air on public television here and across the nation. The goal would be to create a team of producers, writers, historians,
and researchers among the students and provide technical and academic resources for them to unleash their considerable creative energies. The final product of their work would be available for future classes both at the University and beyond. It would also provide these students with a major accomplishment for their careers.

The Goals:
My dream is enable the students to take the creative lead in an interpretation of the Civil Rights Era and to provide the opportunity for students to learn as much as possible from one another and from the experience. Their views on this period of intense change in American history will shape the work, and their contributions as authors, co-producers, and editors will be recognized. The film will be a tangible and meaningful piece of work for others as well. Our goal would be that the documentary is of such quality and interest that it would not only air on public television but earn wide recognition. My faith in the University’s students and my experience teaching them leads me to believe that they can accomplish remarkable work. My goal is to enable a talented group of students to come together in study, fellowship, and purpose to make this effort the most meaningful and long-lasting educational experience they have at the University.

The Sources:
Over the last two years I have been collecting and digitizing 1950s and 60s news footage from two Virginia stations, WDBJ and WSLS, in an effort to preserve and provide access to these lost films for research, teaching, and public education. With support from the
Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, over 300 films are now digitized and indexed. These films include footage of John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon giving stump speeches in 1960, Martin Luther King, Jr., addressing Danville civil rights demonstrators, media interviews with a host of black and white Virginia leaders, and remarkable images of American life in the 1950s and 60s. All that is needed is the vision and talent to develop a story of the transformation that took place in these years. My dream is that the students would bring these sources to a wider audience and help develop a visual account of the 1950s and 60s from them.

The Class:
My dream idea is to run a seminar or independent study course in the spring of 2005 for a select group of students to create a documentary film. Some of these students might be drawn from my upcoming fall thesis seminar on Civil Rights Era in Virginia. The class would be an HIUS 403 titled “Documenting the Civil Rights Era” and would be highly selective–a team of 5-7 students would be selected from those who applied. The course would be modeled on the highly successful HIUS 403 that Ed Ayers and I co-taught in
1997-98. It would be team-oriented, aimed at immersing students in the practice of history and in the medium of documentary filmmaking. Bill Reifenberger, who teaches documentary film courses in Media Studies, has agreed to run his course in collaboration
with mine and to combine our efforts for this project. We will review our work with Academy Award-winning filmmakers in Charlottesville, historians, and other students, as we develop the project together. We will also consult with a senior producer for
Commonwealth Public Broadcasting Corporation to ensure the project’s overall success and viability for broadcast. In the course we would examine leading documentaries such as Ken Burn’s The Civil War, as well as Eyes on the Prize, Wallace, Standing in the Shadows of Motown, and other award-winning documentary films.

The Resources:
My dream would be to harness the considerable resources available at the University’s Robertson Media Center to allow students to create a documentary. The RMC has the latest digital editing equipment, the computing power, and the expert staff to guide the
students in the technical aspects of this project. They have agreed to serve as the production center for this project. The final step after digital editing, script writing, interview shoots, and sound work will be to compile a master copy. The master copy will
be available in all of the standard formats for airing on public broadcasting stations and in VHS for schools and classrooms.

Commonwealth Public Broadcasting Corporation (WCVE and WHTJ) has agreed to air the film provided that it meets broadcast quality
standards. size the editing of the documentary.
Supplies $500
(Beta tapes, DVD storage, copying, and printing supplies)
Travel $500
(5 trips to Richmond to meet Commonwealth Public Broadcasting Corporation senior
producer and to archives for research materials and possible oral history interviews)
Stipends $1,000
(2 undergraduate students x approx. 20 hours x 3 weeks x $9/hr.)
Total $2,000