Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Libraries Celebrate Black History Month

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The following information was compiled by several VCU staff members, February 2011.

Virginia Commonwealth University  is Virginia’s largest institution of higher education, enrolling over 33,000 students and employing over 18,000 faculty and staff.  Classified by Carnegie as Research University (Very High Research Activity), VCU offers 38 doctoral, 73 masters, 3 professional, and 63 baccalaureate degrees. Twenty-seven of VCU's graduate, professional programs are ranked by U.S. News & World Report as among the best in the nation, with 21 programs ranking in the top 25 and two programs — sculpture and nurse anesthesia — ranked number one in the country.  Sponsored research funding totalled over $240 million in 2009-10.

VCU was founded in 1968 from the merger of the Medical College of Virginia (MCV) and the Richmond Professional Institute (RPI).  MCV traces its origins to 1838, when it was founded by Hampden-Sydney College to provide medical education in Richmond. In 1854, MCV became independent, and it became State-affiliated six years later, in 1860.  RPI was founded in 1917 as the Richmond School of Social Work and Public Health.  The school became a branch of the College of William and Mary in 1925; was renamed Richmond Professional Institute in 1939; and became an independent, State-affiliated institution in 1962.

VCU Libraries serves VCU through Tompkins-McCaw Library for the Health Sciences on the MCV Campus; James Branch Cabell Library on the Monroe Park Campus (original home of RPI); and other library operations. A major research library system, VCU Libraries employs forty-seven professionals and seventy-three support staff with an annual budget exceeding $15 million. The VCU Libraries is a Resource Library in the National Network of Libraries of Medicine and a member of the Association of Southeastern Research Libraries, the Scholarly Publishing & Academic Resources Coalition, the Coalition for Networked Information, BioMed Central and the Virtual Library of Virginia (VIVA), a State-wide networking consortium for shared access to electronic and print resources.

VCU Libraries has over two million print volumes and 50,000 serial titles, along with an extensive collection of digital indexes, full-text digital periodicals and other digital materials, supporting the full range of academic disciplines in the VCU community. Special Collections and Archives at Cabell Library contains one of the country’s largest and most extensive collections of materials related to comic art, as well as renown collections of artists’ books, art exhibition catalogs, oral histories and papers from minority and activist communities in Virginia, and the official records and archives of VCU and its predecessor institutions.  Special Collections and Archives at Tompkins-McCaw Library for the Health Sciences houses one of the nation’s premiere collections of medical artifacts, as well as books, manuscripts, photographs, portraits and prints related to the history of health care in Virginia, and the archives of the Medical College of Virginia.

The VCU Libraries hosts and organizes and wide variety of educational and outreach events for the VCU and Central Virginia communities. Annual events sponsored by the VCU Friends of the Library include the VCU Cabell First Novelist Festival, in partnership with the VCU Department of English; the Black History Month Lecture; and the Brown-Lyons Lecture, co-sponsored by the VCU Department of Judaic Studies.

members of the Foster family with members of the VCU Friends of the Library Board from the 2009 eventThe VCU Libraries began its Black History Month Lecture Series in 2003 after Dr. Ed Peeples, VCU emeritus professor and civil-rights activist, donated to VCU Libraries his collection of photographs documenting Prince Edward Country public schools in the 1950s and 1960s, which were closed by the County after student strikes as part of the Massive Resistance campaign against integration of public schools. This generous donation made the VCU Libraries realize the need for creating not only a digital collection of these photographs that could be made available to researchers and all interested viewers throughout the world, but also programs to explore publically the issues surrounding race and the African-American community in Central Virginia. That February, in honor of Black History Month, VCU Libraries organized a roundtable discussion titled “Separate but Not Equal: Race, Education and Virginia.” Strong positive response to the event prompted VCU Libraries to organize a second event the following February, a discussion titled “The Road to Brown: The Prince Edward County Student Strike, April 1951,” to address the Prince Edward Country situation specifically.

Since then, VCU Libraries has held annual Black History Month lectures. These subsequent events have drawn increasing attention and increasingly large and enthusiastic audiences. Particularly successful lectures have included “And Still I Sing, African-American Women in Three Musical Traditions”; “The Physical Presence of Slavery in Richmond, Virginia,” which focused on Richmond locations such as the Slave Burial Ground and Lumpkins Jail, places still embroiled in controversy today; and “Fifty Years after the Student-led Sit-ins: Where Are We Now?”  Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry

Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry, one of our country’s most esteemed scholars and a sought-after commentator on Black political life today, delivered the VCU Libraries’ Black History Month Lecture for February 2011.  She is an award-winning author of two books; expert commentator for MSNBC on issues related to race, religion, and gender; and writes a monthly column for The Nation magazine.  Among other honours, Dr. Harris-Perry is the youngest scholar ever to deliver the W.E.B. DuBois lectures at Harvard University.  She delivered a powerful and entertaining presentation on race, gender and politics to an enthusiastic audience of over 270 students and community members, and engaged in extended dialog with the audience during questions afterwards.  Many attendees remarked that Dr. Harris-Perry was a riveting speaker and one of the most compelling presenters they had ever seen anywhere. 

The VCU Friends of the Library continue to develop a wide variety of programming at VCU to foster community engagement and dialogue. Additional information about the VCU Friends of the Library is available online: