Years of work by history professor Ronald Davis (right) and his students paved the way for the Cal State Northridge exhibition, "Rising Above Jim Crow: The Paintings of Johnnie Lee Gray," in its sole West Coast visit.
Davis' involvement began with his work as principal historical coordinator on the Platinum Web Award-winning educational Web site (www.jimcrowhistory.org) constructed to support "The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow," a 2002–2003 Public Broadcasting Service documentary sponsored by New York Life Insurance Company. The series' re-broadcast in October and November on KCET, Los Angeles' public television station, will coincide with the Northridge exhibition.
While gathering materials for the site's image section, Davis recalls that a colleague, educational consulting firm director Tim Hallinan, came across an astonishing painted vision of the Jim Crow era by an unknown African-American folk artist: the late Johnnie Lee Gray.
Many of Gray's paintings were incorporated into the Web site and, under the sponsorship of New York Life, were presented as the traveling exhibition scheduled for October 11–November 15 at Northridge.
Davis and his students brought years of cumulative research to bear on the Web site project. In 1990, the U.S. Department of the Interior asked the historian to produce a study, "The Black Experience in Natchez, Mississippi," as the interpretive basis for a new national park focusing on slavery and its aftermath in the Natchez plantation environment. As project participants, Davis' Cal State Northridge graduate seminar students began traveling with him to Natchez and to various southern archives.
"In the process of conducting the study," Davis recalls, "we came upon a tremendous cache of courthouse records containing every legal case litigated since the Spanish controlled the Natchez region."
The work of interpreting the documents gave birth to the Biennial Historic Natchez Conference, which features his students' research papers, as well as an ongoing Natchez summer internship program for Northridge history students.
Much of the material on the Jim Crow Web site is based on Natchez history unearthed by the professor's summer interns.
"In a sense," Davis said, "the Natchez experience is the historical anchor for the Web site."
@csun | October 6, 2003 issue
Public Relations | University Advancement
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