In Spring of 2022, students at MECC had the opportunity to take The Civil Rights Movement: The Research Process, an interdisciplinary course on history of the Civil Rights Movement through engagement with archival materials held by WashU libraries. Students in the course combed through primary source material and developed an understanding of how broader historical narratives come to exist out of these materials—a learning experience that is difficult to produce for incarcerated learners who lack access to library catalogs, special collections, and even digitized versions of primary materials that are publicly available on the internet. A culminating project for the course was for the class to together develop a series of interview questions for Judy Richardson, a SNCC veteran whose career in activism eventually made her a crucial member of the editorial team for Eyes on the Prize, the quintessential documentary of the Movement (itself a product of WashU alum Henry Hampton, whose papers are held by WashU libraries).

Richardson was able to visit the class in person at MECC, and the students conducted their interview over two days. One of these students, Cory Pride, became very interested in what Richardson had to say about two under-examined organizational components. The first was the WATS line, a series of SNCC protocols for taking advantage of wide area telephone services flat-rate long-distance fees in order to disseminate information widely across SNCC’s networks. The second was the Residential Freedom School, an educational program that convened students first in Chicago and then in Georgia to learn Black history in tandem with developing an understanding of the stakes and tactics of the burgeoning Movement. Both of these histories intrigued Pride, who quickly found that few books or articles have really covered these topics.

Cory Pride, pictured with Judy Richardson.

Out of this interest, Pride worked on an independent research project, securing access to SNCC papers that enabled him to tell the stories of these two important communication and educational components that gave life to the more visible aspects of SNCC’s organizing. His reflection on the independent study experience is featured below.

– Dr. Meredith Kelling, Professor for The Civil Rights Movement: The Research Process and Cory Pride’s independent research project advisor

During the spring semester of 2022, I had the pleasure of taking a course called “The Research Process: The Civil Rights Movement.” This class was designed to help students understand the ethics of research and how to plan and develop capstone projects. Archivists from the Special Collections Department of Olin Library and our instructors facilitated our access to archival materials from the Jack Willis Collection and the Henry Hampton archives housed at Washington University libraries. Both archives contain many interviews, transcripts, and documents gathered for the production of documentaries about the Civil Rights Movement. The film by Willis was never finished, while Hampton produced the Academy Award winning documentary series Eyes on the Prize. Our class was also introduced to sociological accounts by John Dittmer and Charles Payne to help us understand the importance of looking at movement histories through the lens of the socially invisible. The materials of these archives were from the Movement, but the different vantage points revealed the intricacies of localized struggle. These stories were quite different from histories and of heroes and heroines popularized by mainstream media. With these fascinating and barely viewed archival documents and a new perspective on the movement, we learned how to look at and sift through raw and unformatted information to find untold or overlooked stories.

The school even arranged the opportunity for our class to interview Movement legend Judy Richardson, an early researcher, series associate producer, and content advisor for Eyes on the Prize. I decided that from all the information that we would get from this interview, I would do my final assignment for the class, a capstone prospectus, on Richardson. Something that I had not read in any of the resources that I had about her and that she only discussed briefly in the book Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, was information about her role in the Residential Freedom School, an ambitious educational program she developed while working for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; and the WATS line, a wide area telephone service operation SNCC used to connect and inform activists to everyday people in the struggle, and to the wider world beyond. I decided that I was going to ask about them when we interviewed her. I was apprehensive about adding last minute questions to our interview plan, but when the time came, I asked her about the WATS line. She shared so much detail with us about the purpose of the line, specifics about calls, and even told us about the research team that used the call logs to compile reports about the history of violence in Mississippi. She even passed around an original copy of this report for each of us to see.

Due to time constraints, I was unable to ask Ms. Richardson about the Residential Freedom school. This sent me on a personal quest to learn as much as possible about the topics and my capstone prospectus evolved into a full research project. During my pursuit of information I quickly learned that not many books existed on these subjects. Fortunately, I had learned of university archival sources in our class, and was privileged to have professors that were willing and able to facilitate my access to the Judy Richardson papers housed at Duke University and the Mary King papers at University of Wisconsin.

From those archives, I read through hundreds of call reports from the WATS line and struggled to decipher ambiguous or undated documents about the Residential Freedom School. Many of these documents were time-worn with faded pages of barely legible handwriting or typescript. Sometimes documents were partial or incomplete which often required unteachable problem solving skills to comprehend. All this was necessary in order to compile the little information that I put in my research paper about the RFS and the WATS line.

Through this process, I realized that the Movement is such a broad topic and organizing components like the Residential Freedom School and the WATS line can easily slip through the cracks of all those details. With much work to be done to fill these historical gaps, I am able to truly understand the significance of archival data. I appreciate the efforts of archivists like Andy Uhrich, WashU’s Curator of Film and Media Studies, who go to great lengths to order and make archival information accessible. It is their work that makes our efforts to help build on to existing historical accounts so much easier.

– Cory Pride, December 2022