Unseen interviews from “Eyes on the Prize” now available via the libraries’ Digital Gateway

As the Eyes on the Prize Digitization and Reassembly Project made possible by a National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) Grant nears completion, we’d like to highlight some of the previously unseen, unique materials and primary sources housed in the libraries Department of Special Collections, Film & Media Archive that will now be available to the public as part of Washington University Libraries’ Digital Gateway.

One of the unique aspects of the Henry Hampton Collection housed at the libraries’ Film & Media Archive is that the scope of the collection shows not only the finished series and films, but that the collection contains all material gathered for the production of one of the most acclaimed series on the civil right movement. This includes grant proposals, correspondence, producers’ notes and plans, b-roll, and outtakes from interviews.

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Slate from the interview conducted with Eliza and Harry Briggs, Sr. for “Eyes on the Prize.”

When producing a film, many more materials are generated or gathered than can ever make it into the final version, and viewers of this digital resource will see that reflected in the interviews conducted for Eyes on the Prize. Viewers will now be able to see what was left out of the film as well as what made it in. Visitors to Special Collections can access producers’ notes and correspondence detailing why they made the decisions they did. This behind-the-scenes look at one of the largest African-American owned film companies of its time can provide material for important questions. How do we tell our history? Who gets to tell the story of our past? What is left out, and why?

In some cases Hampton and his team would research a story and conduct multiple interviews before changing direction and following a different aspect of the story. The story of the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 was a major turning point in America’s history, and would be a crucial story to tell in Eyes on the Prize.

On May 17, 1954 the Supreme Court handed down a unanimous ruling in Brown v. Board of Education case that state-sanctioned segregation of public schools was unconstitutional. While the decision officially ended segregation it took much longer for the ruling to be enforced in certain areas of the country. The road to the Brown decision was long and circuitous but the resistance that teachers and students faced in trying to comply with the new laws was surprising even to people who lived in highly segregated areas.

Three cases, Briggs et al. v. Elliott et al., Davis et al. v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Virginia, et al., and Brown v. Board of Education were filed in May and June of 1951. These cases started a flurry of other cases and in October of 1952, the Supreme Court agreed to bundle all the cases under the Brown case, in essence acknowledging that this was a national issue.

Harry Briggs, Jr. in an interview for "Eyes on the Prize."

Harry Briggs, Jr. in an interview for “Eyes on the Prize.”

During the production of Eyes on the Prize, creator and executive producer Henry Hampton did extensive research and Blackside conducted interviews with participants of school segregation cases including  Eliza and Harry Briggs, Sr., their son, Harry Briggs, Jr. ( Briggs et al. v. Elliott et al.), Linda Brown Smith, the young girl whose name became synonymous with the landmark case, Dr. Kenneth Clark, a psychologist who testified about the negative effects of segregation on young African American children through his study known as the Doll Test, a public school teacher in Farmville, Virginia,  Vanessa Venable, and James Bash, principal of Farmville High in 1954. In Prince Edward County, Virginia, the local establishment’s reaction to the Brown v. Board of Education was one of the most extreme in the country. The school board elected to close down all public schools rather than integrate them. Blackside interviewed both James Bash and Vanessa Venable about the effect this had on their community and families.

Vanessa Venable in an interview conducted during the production of "Eyes on the Prize."

Vanessa Venable in an interview conducted during the production of “Eyes on the Prize.”

“Yes, most of our families were definitely broken up because of the situation. Our children had to go elsewhere to seek an education. The Friends Society out of New York came down and accepted a number of our girls and boys and carried them back to New York and put them into school. Others went to live with families. Some moved across the county line into Cumberland and their children went to school there. Some went into Buckingham County and so forth. But quite a few of them found a place to attend school, however, there were hundreds of them who had no schooling whatsoever for four years.” 

Interview with Vanessa Venable, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on May 6, 1986, for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.

While Dr. Kenneth Clark’s interview appeared in the final series, the others named above did not. Hampton chose to focus on the story of nine African-American students who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. The violent and dramatic confrontations captured by the national media outside the school eventually led to the students, known as the Little Rock Nine, to be granted federal protection by the 327th Airborne Battle Group, 101st Airborne Division. Hampton and the producers may have opted to tell the story of the battle to integrate schools through the lens of the Little Rock episode which was visual and dramatic as opposed to the legal side of the issue which covered many years, multiple defendants, and cases. Even though, Hampton elected to focus on the Little Rock Nine case rather than the lead-up to landmark case, the interviews Blackside conducted are an invaluable primary source for researchers.

Digitized and reassembled interviews from Eyes on the Prize are now available online via the Washington University Libraries’ Digital Gateway and give a deeper look into the fight to desegregate public schools.

 

About the author

Reference and Outreach Supervisor in Special Collections.