About the Project

This online exhibit examines the responses of ten Danville residents to the civil rights struggle that occurred in their hometown. Text by Emma C. Edmunds, principal researcher for the Mapping Local Knowledge, Danville, Va., 1945-75 oral history project, is accompanied by the work of Charlottesville photographer, Tom Cogill, who took portraits of individuals who shared their stories. Funding was provided by the Elizabeth Stuart James Grant Trust of Danville and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

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The Danville Civil Rights Movement

One year after the conclusion of World War II, Charles Kenneth Coleman, a grocer and head of the Danville National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Danville Voters League, put his name in the ring for Danville City Council, the first African American to seek elective office in that city since Reconstruction.

Coleman lost the election, but his bid marked the start of the modern civil rights movement in Danville, a Virginia textile and tobacco town of about 30,000, located five miles north of the North Carolina border. Other African Americans followed, taking action locally to secure their citizenship in the city, the state, and the nation.

In communities nationwide, civil rights advocates began campaigning more vigorously for integration. At the federal level, the NAACP petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down the controversial Plessy v. Ferguson decision, and the Court ruled in 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education, that segregation in public schools was unequal and unconstitutional.

But each movement forward was often met with a new roadblock . In Virginia, Governor John S. Battle (1950—54) began the decade by continuing to support school segregation. In years to follow, his successors would shut down public educational facilities rather than allow black and white children to attend school together.

As civil rights direct-action protests got under way nationwide in 1963, Danville activists also took to the streets with demonstrations. They were met with billy clubs and fire hoses, with injunctions and ordinances, severely limiting protests. A black policeman was hired in the fall of 1963, a black city councilman elected in 1966. But the public schools would not fully integrate until 1970, and civil rights lawsuits would not be settled until 1972.

Almost a half century later, some Danville residents still say the wounds from that turbulent time have not healed.

For further information, see “Danville Civil Rights Demonstrations of 1963,” here, an article contributed by Emma C. Edmunds to Encyclopedia Virginia, an online publication of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

For related video, see Virginia Center for Digital History: Television News of the Civil Rights Era: 1950–70.