Over the summer of 2021, student interns conducted a self-directed research project using Library of Virginia collections and other resources to explore the effects of the 1971 Constitution fifty years after its ratification. They developed or strengthened their archival research skills, furthered their critical thinking within a digital humanities framework, and polished their presentation skills as part of the 1971 Constitution Project. The interns also developed collaborative skills as part of a professional team, with several key Library staff members supporting and mentoring their development. Project interns were asked to work with LVA staff to complete a digital project–website, data visualization, digital mapping, or other online resource–that would be widely accessible to many different audiences. They decided to collaborate on a single website with different sections, available today!
We asked our interns, Kofi Mason and Joellen Ceide, to reflect on what this project has meant to them.
Kofi Mason is an accomplished student and the president of the Black Student Union at Albemarle High School. He is interested in the education and empowerment of Black youth as well as technology and coding.
As a young person, it’s been eye-opening, to say the least, to learn about where we have come and how far we have to go as a country and state. With the current political and social climate of people becoming increasingly more aware of the inequities and shortcomings of our county, the question I find myself asking the most is “What can I do to change things?” The only way to answer that is to know the current limitations and laws, which is why studying the constitution and its history has been such a fundamental aspect of my activist journey. Knowing the language actually used, the authors’ intentions, and the current interpretation of said language has not only further fueled my fire, but also has made me more knowledgeable and willing to find a solution.
Protesters in front of Prince Edward County Courthouse, Farmville (Va.), July 1963
Farmville 1963 Civil Rights Protests, Freedom Now Project, VCU Libraries. (Click image to access via Flickr).
I am a firm believer in the phrase “knowledge is power,” so I will take this newfound knowledge back to my peer groups and community to educate them and brainstorm the most effective forms of change. For example, when it comes to the right to “high quality” education, as prescribed in the constitution, what does that look like? It’s defined by the Virginia Department of Education, but how can we as Virginians uphold a higher standard of education that aims to serve every student equitably? Personally, I have answers to that question, but I’m more interested in hearing from those who have been systematically ignored and disadvantaged to give them a voice to influence the changes they want to see. Being a part of this project has provided me with the skills, knowledge, motivation, and resources to engage other young people in the work to advocate for change and be more civically involved. I want to see the changes enacted by the 1971 Virginia Constitution become a reality.
Joellen Ceide is a VCU graduate student in history with a focus on the Civil Rights Movement. Joellen holds a bachelor’s degree in history from James Madison University. She is already an experienced researcher at the Library through her work on school desegregation in New Kent County.
Since May, I have been working with the Library of Virginia on a summer project to commemorate the 1971 Virginia Constitution, an event in Virginia history that began to centralize racial, educational, and individual equality. The Library of Virginia plans to celebrate the – at the time – revolutionary revisions of the 1971 Constitution. The last revision of this size to happen to the Virginia Constitution took place in 1902; however, for dramatically different policies. Rather than to extend the rights of every Virginian, it had an explicit intention of limiting those of millions — particularly anyone not white, or male. After the Civil Rights Movement, and a national shift towards a more equal standard of living, the Virginia Commission on Constitutional Revision set forth to completely overhaul the still-standing 1902 Constitution in a way that implemented Supreme Court decisions relating to race, marriage, and voting rights (to name a few).
Excerpt from the 1902 Virginia constitution, showing some of the discriminatory provisions the 1971 constitution removed.
Virginia Constitutional Convention (1901-1902), Constitution, 1902. Accession 40664. State government records collection, Library of Virginia.
Since May, I have completed over 250 hours in this internship. I spent time looking at archival material. Thanks to the resources at the Library of Virginia, I also participated in lectures moderated by digital historians, members of the library staff that were essential in the production of the summer’s end project. I even sat in on a lecture commemorating the 50th anniversary of the implementation of the 1971 constitution, moderated by A. E. Dick Howard, a member of the original Commission on Constitutional Revision in 1971. We have plans to digitize archival material pertinent to our project, investigate newspapers, and understand the impact of the 1971 Constitution on the years that followed.
Moving forward we have discussed how the research we do will eventually become a public project that hopefully will allow many people to understand the significance of this piece of legislation. My initial project was supposed to compare the language used in the 1902 and 1971 Virginia Constitutions. I planned to investigate the ways specific words were used to either limit, extend, or define specific rights. However, as the research progressed for this project, I found myself turning what was supposed to be a digital history project into a research paper. After discussing it with my internship advisors, we refocused specifically on the fact that a big part of the project was supposed to allow the general public to take in and understand the constitution in a way that moved away from simply reading it. Because of that, I moved on to develop an alternative project.
Headlines regarding school desegregation in Virginia, NORTHERN VIRGINIA SUN, 2 February 1959.
NORTHERN VIRGINIA SUN, 22(103), 2 February 1959. Scans provided by the Center for Local History, Arlington Public Library. Accessed: virginiachronicle.com.
Our new direction took us into completing a website. We specifically wanted to investigate how the 1971 constitution impacted education, voting rights, and social equity. Each tab of the website would investigate a specific section of the constitution that we are particularly interested in. In the future we hope to add and incorporate input from leading scholars on the constitution. In concluding this website it has been important for us to look at where the next constitution needs to go to get us into the next 50 years.
This past year has seen unprecedented times as far as the three specific topics illustrated above. Given the global pandemic, the last election cycle forced not only Virginians, but Americans as a whole, to reexamine what the responsibility of the government and the General Assembly is to allow eligible voters easy and just access to voting, whether that be early voting, or mail-in ballots. These options have existed in many states for decades, but maybe were not advertised in a way that made access to voting fair across all demographics and voting blocks. In addition to forcing a reassessment of how Virginians can vote, the pandemic also limited the access of several thousand children from a free, public education. As the year progressed, limitations arose specifically in the efforts to continue to provide that free and public education. The immediate reaction was to transition to online school, but then the question arises as to who is responsible for providing internet access, or telecom equipment to those students who lack that type of access. Questions like this one are those that the Virginia constitution will look to answer over the next 50 years, as technology, people, and access advances.