Researching Black History

Black History Month is an opportunity to honor past generations of Black Americans and learn more about their pursuit of equity and justice. There are many online resources for researching Black history—from digital collections maintained by the Library of Congress and National Archives to the numerous African American Studies databases available through UVA. This post focuses on three types of resources that may be especially interesting to UVA Law students: (1) Collections relating to UVA and the Law School, (2) oral histories that preserve personal accounts of the past; and (3) databases with a legal-historical focus. 

UVA and Charlottesville 

The resources below provide information about Black history at the Law School, at UVA, and in the broader Charlottesville community. They also document ways in which local institutions, including the Law School, participated in historical injustices. 

An article featured on the Fifty Years of BLSA website. Courtesy University Journal, early 1980s.
  • Black Fire at UVA: This is a multimedia initiative sponsored by the provost’s office and spearheaded by Professors Claudrena Harold and Kevin Jerome Everson. The website collects sources such as alumni interviews, historical audio files, and files of the Black Student Alliance. Its goal is to document “the struggle for social justice and racial equality at the University of Virginia.”  
  • Fifty Years of BLSA: To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of UVA BLSA, Law Special Collections partnered with BLSA to create this online exhibit. Learn more about BLSA’s history, read reflections from members and alumni, and view a gallery of images. 
  • Slavery and the UVA School of Law. On this website created by Law Special Collections, you can read about people and places involved in the Law School’s connections to slavery, view antebellum student notebooks documenting the teaching of slavery, and learn about the historical landscape of North Grounds.
  • Monticello – Getting Word: The Getting Word Oral History Project at Monticello preserves the histories of the African American families at Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia plantation.
  • No Playbook: Using athletics as an entry point, this project collects the oral histories of former students who experienced desegregation and Massive Resistance in Charlottesville and Albemarle County.
  • The Holsinger Studio Portrait Project: The Small Special Collections Library assembled this remarkable collection of portraits commissioned by Black residents of Central Virginia. As the project website explains, these portraits “expressed the individuality of the women and men who commissioned them and silently yet powerfully asserted the Black community’s claims to rights and equality.” The website also provides information about the lives of the portrait sitters. 

Oral Histories 

Oral histories capture compelling personal accounts that may not be reflected in official sources like government archives. They also provide an opportunity to consider historical events from a more individualized perspective.

Screen capture from an oral history provided by Elaine Jones ’70. Courtesy HistoryMakers, 2006.
  • The History Makers: A large collection of oral history interviews with Black luminaries in various fields. The speakers include politicians, religious leaders, athletes, musicians, civil rights activists, soldiers, and more. A few UVA Law alumni have contributed interviews, including Elaine Jones ’70, UVA Law’s first Black alumna. 
  • Behind the Veil: A project of Duke University that includes interviews, photographs, and oral history project files. The oral histories were collected in 1993-95 to preserve the memories of Black Southerners who lived through the period of legal segregation (from the 1890s to the 1950s). 
  • African American Communities: A collection documenting Black communities through pamphlets, newspapers and periodicals, correspondence, official records, reports, and in-depth oral histories. It focuses primarily on Atlanta, Chicago, New York, and towns and cities in North Carolina. 
  • Elwood Civil Rights Lawyers Project: A repository highlighting the stories of prominent civil rights lawyers and others. To create this collection, UVA Library restored and digitized 273 tapes that had been recorded by Professor William Elwood and his students while creating the documentary film, “The Road to Brown: The Untold Story of the Man Who Killed Jim Crow.” 

Legal-Historical Databases 

If you plan to write a paper touching on Black history, consider these databases. They contain historical records relating to civil rights litigation, legal actions by free Black individuals during the antebellum period, and more.

Handwritten notes from an arguments file for Brown v. Moore, from the archives of the law firm of Blacksher, Menefee, and Stein. Courtesy Gale Primary sources.
  • NAACP Papers: A digital collection from the years 1909-1972 that includes internal memos, legal briefings, and direct-action summaries from offices throughout the United States. Use this database to find primary sources relating to school desegregation, the criminal justice system, employment, housing, and other topics. Legal Department files cover Brown v. Board of Education and other important cases.  
  • ACLU Papers: A large collection of papers dating from 1912-1990, which document the organization’s work on civil rights and civil liberties. The database includes records relating to efforts by the ACLU’s Southern Regional Office to enforce the Civil Rights Act. 
  • Legal Battle for Civil Rights in Alabama: Vernon Z. Crawford Records, 1958-1978 Civil Rights Cases and Selections from the Blacksher, Menefee & Stein Records: Selected records of attorney Vernon Z. Crawford, a prominent civil rights lawyer, as well as the Mobile, Alabama-based law firm of Blacksher, Menefee & Stein. 
  • Black Freedom Struggle in the 20th Century: Federal Government Records: A database focusing on efforts by civil rights groups to obtain legislation, as well as interactions between Black Americans and the federal government. It includes FBI files on Martin Luther King Jr.; FBI files from Montgomery, Albany, St. Augustine, Selma, and Memphis; and records from the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations. 
  • Slavery and the Law: Petitions relating to race, slavery, and free Blacks that were submitted to state legislatures and county courthouses between 1775 and 1867. (The documents were collected by UNC-Greensboro Professor Loren Schweninger.) Also included is the State Slavery Statutes collection, a collection of laws from the years 1789-1865.
  • Virginia Untold: The African American Narrative: A Library of Virginia site providing access to digitized county court records related to the lives of Black individuals in Virginia.

We hope you’ll enjoy exploring these records. If we can be of any assistance in your research, please contact us at 

Written by

Kate Boudouris

Kate Boudouris

Kate is the Research, Instruction & Outreach Librarian at Arthur J. Morris Law Library.

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