Tracing (and saving) a community’s history through drone journalism

Photo from the Dorchester Academy Wikipedia page.

Just off the section of Highway 84 that runs through the east end of Liberty County, Georgia, stands the last vestige of a school that played a significant–though too often forgotten–role in the civil rights movement.

The school, Dorchester Academy, was a training site for the Citizenship Education Program (CEP) sponsored by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. CEP was instrumental in educating and registering thousands of black voters in the South both before and after the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Dr. King and other civil rights leaders also used the school as a planning location for the Birmingham Campaign, a 1963 direct action initiative aimed at breaking the chain of segregation in one of the most segregated cities in the South.

And before being a key site in the civil rights movement, Dorchester Academy was the only school where African Americans in Liberty County could earn an education. From 1869 to 1940, black students would walk anywhere from 7 to 17 miles to attend school, hoping that what they learned in the classroom would allow them to move from working in the fields to working in trade professions.

Each year, the Dorchester Improvement Association honors the school’s place in civil rights history and commemorates the trek students made by hosting the Walk to Dorchester. The event is a 9.5-mile benefit walk that raises proceeds that go toward renovating the school’s boys’ dormitory, a recognized national historic site and the only original building still standing. (It’s worth noting that Dr. King slept in the dormitory.)

I’ve had the opportunity to cover this event in the past through interviews and images taken on the ground level. But I think telling the story of this event from the sky using aerial drone footage would make the piece so much better.

Drone footage would trace along the walk route, giving viewers a better perspective on just how much ground black students had to cover–both ways–to get to the only school they were allowed to attend. It would provide a sense of what the walk truly entailed for those students committed to getting an education at this point in history.

To test my hypothesis that viewers would get a deeper perspective through drone footage, I would shoot a short video clip from the drone that starts above Dorchester Academy and then travels out a few minutes along the walk route. This clip would be included with a preview story, and it would also be posted on social media channels. From there, I would track viewer feedback as well as likes, shares, and retweets to gauge people’s interest in the drone content.

Assuming there’s positive feedback across platforms, I would then fly the drone over the course on the morning of the walk and let viewers know they can follow along via livestream. The footage would also be used in the post-event story and on social media platforms.

Measuring success would be based on viewer feedback, livestream numbers, views on the final story, and social media metrics.

Additionally, drone footage could enhance the story by using photos taken with the drone to create a 3D model of the boys’ dormitory and the surrounding campus grounds. This model would be annotated with different historic highlights and notes about where previous buildings stood, giving viewers yet another innovative way to view and experience the school while also preserving the history digitally.

The success of this approach could be measured in the same manner as mentioned previously for the drone footage, but with the addition of counting downloads of the 3D model.

Before shooting footage of anything though, there are a few steps I’d have to take in order to use a drone in Georgia.

Georgia requires pilots using drones for commercial purposes to follow the regulations of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Part 107 Small UAS Rule, which includes passing an aeronautical knowledge test.

Also, I would likely have to obtain a Part 107 waiver to make sure I’m in the clear to fly over people participating in the walk on event day.

This would obviously be a lengthy process that would have to start well in advance of the next walk. But I believe it would be worth it, in the end, to put new perspectives on local history and help save that history at the same time.



Just one of God’s storytellers.

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