Documenting a Historic Black High School: A Richmond Community Project

This fall, Armstrong High School—one of the oldest black high schools in the nation—is scheduled for demolition. In collaboration with Armstrong alumni, current Armstrong students (who attend school in a newer building), and the Valentine museum, we will be building our SSIR around creating and performing a documentary drama of the history of Armstrong High School, as well as helping the Valentine Museum create the Armstrong Archive—which will lead to an exhibition at the Valentine.

The Valentine and Drs. Browder and Herrera and our students collaborated in 2014, on a project, that resulted in a 2015 exhibition called Made In Church Hill, focused on gentrification in the community. We are currently working together on a project in Richmond’s Latino community to gather items and stories that will become part of an exhibition in Summer 2017. Since 2011, Drs. Browder and Herrera, and our University of Richmond students, have been engaged with the greater Richmond community on a project entitled Civil Rights and Education in Richmond, Virginia: A Documentary Theater Project. This project has led to the creation of a digital archive – The Fight for Knowledge: Civil Rights and Education in Richmond, Virginia – and a physical archive at Virginia Commonwealth University related to George Wythe High School.

During the 2015-2016 school year our SSIR students and students in the Armstrong High School Leadership Program worked together to research, write, and present “Church Hill: A Changing Neighborhood,” a docu-drama about gentrification in the neighborhood, followed by a community discussion which drew 300 community residents. One thing which came out of the performance was a strong desire on the part of Armstrong students, faculty, and alums to memorialize this storied school—which produced the nation’s first black governor, Douglas Wilder, as well as Richmond’s first black mayor, Roy West, among many other notables.

For the 2017-2018 SSIR class, we plan to focus on the history of Armstrong High School. The goal of this collaboration is to properly curate items provided by Armstrong alumni and to develop the history of the site and a mechanism for sharing that history with a broader audience. We hope that this collaboration will assist in developing and designing the of the old Armstrong High School on its site, and continue a powerful dialogue with Armstrong students and alums, as well as other community members about the role of this school in the city’s history.

In this course, we will be conducting interviews, doing archival research, and working together to create a community-based documentary drama that can engage people both inside and outside the Armstrong community.

Inside and Outside the Classroom

This course will focus on living history. That is, we will understand a historic moment by gathering information from a wide variety of sources and perspectives such as newspaper articles, archival photographs, yearbooks, and scholarly monographs. Most importantly, we will conduct interviews with members of the Armstrong community who have experienced the period of desegregation, massive resistance, integration, and resegregation.

Most of our work will take place outside the classroom, in the field—whether we are taking a field trip to Hampton University, where we will see the exhibition about Armstrong’s founder, facilitating the process of having members of the Armstrong community interview one another, visiting an Armstrong-themed restaurant in Southside Richmond, or visiting archives at the Valentine Museum and VCU Libraries Special Collections.

To understand how we can best create this documentary play, we will be taking two trips. First, we will travel to Syracuse University, to work with archivists and professors there who have developed exhibitions based on the extensive African-American history archives there—as well as scholars in charge of the public memory project that for over a decade has documented an African-American neighborhood in transition. Following that trip, we will visit New York City, where we will work with acclaimed theater director José Joaquín Garcia to acquire a toolbox of theatrical performance elements. We will also schedule several visits from Mr. Garcia to our class to work with us throughout the year to assist us with the writing and rehearsal process.

Research and Capstone Project

We will culminate by collectively writing, rehearsing and performing a documentary drama based on raw materials gathered during the fall semester. Creating a living work of theater, we hope, has the power not only to inform a new generation about a historic African-American school in Richmond—and will also provoke you, the participants, and audiences to think about the process of social and political change as it takes place through the lens of a historic black high school.

Because we want the work we do in this class to endure beyond the semester, we will be focusing our assignments on expanding the digital archive The Fight for Knowledge: Civil Rights and Education in Richmond to include an exhibition on the history of Armstrong High School.

By asking students to critically interrogate the history-making process, and to actively engage with people--and their documents and artifacts—this course requires students to both deconstruct and reconstruct history. It asks them to think actively not only about how previous generations have recorded history, but how individuals creatively reconstruct key events in their lives. Finally, it requires them to create a work of art that will communicate with individuals who may come from backgrounds very different from their own.

This course requires students to interview people about meaningful episode in their lives, to enter situations and places that may challenge their beliefs and preconceptions, and to collectively create and perform a documentary drama. It is our hope that this course will get students thinking about history, meaning-making, and art-making practices in new ways. Their encounters with a wide range of individuals—from theater practitioners to Richmonders from many walks of life—will, we hope, open their eyes to new career possibilities and get them excited about all that Richmond holds—both past and present.