The Danville Museum of Fine Arts & History is now part of the historic U.S. Civil Rights Trail.
Officials announced the museum’s designation as a site on the trail Tuesday morning inside the museum.
The U.S. Civil Rights Trail debuted in 2018 and includes more than 120 sites — churches, schools, courthouses, museums — across 15 states, mostly in the South.
The sites are places where activists challenged segregation and inequality in the 1950s and 1960s to advance social justice.
“The stories of Danville’s civil rights belong to us all,” said Elsabé Dixon, the museum’s executive director, during remarks.
The Sutherlin Mansion, which houses the museum, used to be the Main Street “whites only” library. It was the site where a group of Black high school students staged a sit-in on April 2, 1960, as a first step toward integration, according to information provided by the museum.
Sixteen Black students entered the library and began working on school assignments. Twenty minutes later, the librarian closed the library and Black teenagers were refused service at the library days later.
The city closed both the “whites only” Main Street library and the segregated Black library on May 20, 1960. Both libraries were reopened and integrated the following September after a federal court ruling, but the chairs had been removed so patrons could not sit and spend time at the libraries.
Swanson Studio located in the firehouse behind the museum.
“Danville played a critical role in the civil rights movement, so we are extremely proud to be added to the U.S. Civil Rights Trail,” Dixon said in a prepared statement. “Inclusion and diversity are cornerstones of the Danville museum’s experience.”
Danville is one of three locations in Virginia with sites on the trail. The other sites are in Farmville and Richmond.
The museum applied last summer for inclusion as a site on the trail.
“We cannot think of any greater honor for us … than to to be added to the National Civil Rights Trial,” said Justin Ferrell, with the museum’s executive committee.
Mayor Alonzo Jones, in a letter of support for the application, stated, “Danville has made great strides, and I am excited about our future, but we must not forget that our city’s heritage also is rich with struggle — a struggle that I believe is significant to the civil rights movement.”
During his remarks, Jones added, “To be recognized for the critical role this city played in the civil rights movement, and what happened here changed life as we know it, … I’m excited about our future and we must not forget that our city’s heritage also is rich with struggle.”
Danville is “home to some of the most poignant moments that changed the fabric of our nation,” said Justin Reid, Director of Community Initiatives for Virginia Humanities and a member of the Virginia Tourism Corporation Board of Directors.
“This city is home to some pretty extraordinary stories from people who fought for justice and helped change the course of history,” Reid said. “So it is only fitting that, today, we honor them by announcing the addition of Danville to the Civil Rights Trail.”
Torrey Dixon, who submitted a letter with the museum’s application for being added to the National Civil Rights Trail, told the Danville Register & Bee on Tuesday morning that it meant a lot to him to see the 16 African Americans recognized.
“It’s especially meaningful to me because, as a native of Danville and also give then work I was able to do while in school there researching the Civil Rights movement, that of course, had an impact on me,” said Dixon, who is now a special deputy attorney general with the state of North Carolina.
U.S. Civil Rights Trail sites must:
Be associated with events that made a significant contribution to the civil rights movement during its height (1950s and 1960s); or
Be associated with the life of a person(s) who was significant in the civil rights movement; or
Embody the distinctive characteristics of a tourism site, including but not limited to being open to the public or public view as a tourist attraction, providing guided or self-guided experiential activities, or displaying a series of commemorative markers that communicate context for the history of the civil rights movement.
Located at 975 Main St. in downtown Danville, the main part of the museum is in what was the Sutherlin Mansion and then the Danville Public Library.
In August 2019, the museum installed the first long-term civil rights timeline available to the public, “The Movement: Danville’s Civil Rights.”
The exhibition details the events that took place in Danville during the 1960s, the work done by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1958 to establish support and Martin Luther King Jr.’s visits to Danville.
Also, the museum features the Camilla Williams exhibition, which highlights the relationship this New York City Opera diva had with her hometown, Danville, and explores the difficult path to fame in a racially divided South during the civil rights protests.
For more information about the Danville Museum of Fine Arts & History and its exhibits, visit DanvilleMuseum.org. For more information about the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, visit CivilRightsTrail.com.