As the world was still reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic early in 2020, our nation once again collided with injustice as deaths of Black men and women at the hands of law enforcement in Louisville, Ky.; Brunswick, Ga.; Minneapolis and Atlanta sparked outrage and protests coast to coast and throughout the world. Berea College’s founding in 1855 by radical abolitionists, the Reverend John G. and Matilda Fee, as the first interracial and coeducational college in the slaveholding South underscores the College’s unwavering commitment to equality and equity. Today, Bereans continue working to ensure the College fulfills its mission to educate blacks and whites together, living up to its motto: God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth (Acts 17:26). We reaffirm our commitment to interracial education, diversity, equity and inclusion, and dismantling white supremacy and systemic racism.
One step toward fulfilling this commitment is allowing the voices of our alumni to share their stories of how racism has affected their lives. Hearing real experiences from fellow Bereans we hope will break down barriers and open conversations. Below you will find the personal stories of Berea College alumni and a current student and the unfair, racially motivated treatment they have experienced in their lives. Listen, learn, empathize and decide how you can make a difference.
Joe Saleem II ’08
Hometown: Georgetown, Ky.
Profession: Women’s Soccer Coach, Berea College
Outside of the Bubble
As a professional comedian, soccer coach and former Residential and Campus Life program coordinator at Berea College, Joe Saleem ’08 has always enjoyed being around people, making them laugh and bringing out their positive potential. Originally from Georgetown, Ky., he wasn’t too far from home when he came to Berea in 2003. But his experiences in life, especially while at Berea, exposed him to many different cultures, races and religions that he has used to broaden his mindset and the way he thinks about those around him.
“I’ve been exposed to white people my entire life; I’ve been exposed to Native Americans my entire life by going to Cherokee, N.C., and interacting with people,” Saleem explained. “I’ve been impacted by Africans and South Americans—my spectrum is huge. I’ve met people from all over the world, so I understand people from all over the world to some degree.
“I think that’s something that Berea stands for and does a good job fostering in a lot of us,” he continued. “But some of us have a tendency to leave here and go right back into a bubble instead of actually getting to know other people who are different and from different backgrounds.”
But growing up as a biracial child in America had already prepared Saleem for how to negotiate identity and find his place in daily life.
“Anybody who has ever been biracial at some point has probably had somebody go, ‘What are you?’” Saleem explained. “As biracial people, we are constantly trying to define what our identity is and what’s acceptable. Because sometimes we’re not Black enough for our Black friends, and sometimes we’re not white enough for our white friends. And sometimes we’re watered-down Black. And sometimes people try to parade us as their Black friend—there is so much that goes into our identity and making sure that we are grounded and understand who we are.”
Saleem says he was lucky to have older brothers who helped him learn how to deal with the issues he faced growing up—from being asked where he was adopted from by a school teacher, to being repeatedly pelted with the N-word by the opposing coach’s son while he played goalie in a middle-school soccer game.
“They were able to give me a head’s up and tell me, ‘Hey you’re going to deal with a lot of this stuff and sometimes you have to make light of it and joke about it and let it roll off your shoulders,’” Saleem said about his brothers’ advice. “‘Other times you have to be a little more confrontational. Sometimes you just ignore it.’”
Saleem’s experiences with racial issues and biases, of course, did not stop with school. He’s had racial slurs yelled at him from passing trucks while standing at crosswalks on Berea’s campus. He’s been surrounded by five officers, questioned and searched just because he slid off an icy road and actually called law enforcement for help. It is experiences like these that Saleem says he wishes he could share with his white friends and family members who dismiss his personal encounters.
“If I want to go hang out with the Berea Police, and I say, ‘Hey I want to do a ride along,’ the chief will put me in a car, and I’ll ride along so I can understand what that officer goes through,” Saleem said. “I wish there was a way to do that for some people who just don’t believe that racism exists or that the country has gotten better.
“You would see that sometimes when I’m in a store in eastern Kentucky, I get followed,” he continued. “Or that I’ve been pulled over just because of what I look like, and they’ve been able to see me. I’ve been followed in a town in Arkansas because I hugged my wife while she was doing an internship there, and they didn’t think it was right for someone who looks like me to be hugging my white wife and then getting in a car.
“So I think if you experience those things,” Saleem said, “and are able to see what actually happens, maybe you’d have a little more compassion.”
Collis Robinson ’13
Hometown: Greenville, S.C.
Profession: Associate Dean of Student Life, Berea College
Just Picking up a Package
For Collis Robinson ’13, coming to Berea College in the fall of 2009 from the diverse and large community of Greenville, S.C., was a big culture shock and, initially, he struggled to find his place on campus. At the time, the Black Cultural Center had a peer-mentoring program where upper-division students were paired with first-year students. Robinson was paired with Triston Jones ’11, an upper-division student also from Greenville.
“He helped me stay on track,” Robinson said. “He made sure I would get to the writing center. He requested to see all of my papers before I would turn them in. That was really helpful—him encouraging me and being there.”
Robinson said programs like peer-mentoring, having professors who truly cared, support from his labor supervisor and his involvement with the Campus Activities Board allowed him to find success throughout college.
But as a young Black man in a predominantly white town, Robinson still experienced challenges outside of campus.
“As I came into the community, one of the things that would always make me nervous was being outside of the College campus,” Robinson recalled. “I knew that when I walked into stores I would not see many people who look like me. And that always made me nervous. So I usually went with a friend.”
Like a majority of Black Americans, Robinson’s experiences with racial tension, profiling and unequal treatment have been many and varied throughout his life. One such experience Robinson recalls happened to him in Winchester, Ky., about two years after he graduated from Berea. He had begun teaching in Montgomery County, about 30 minutes east of Winchester. Because of his daily commute, he chose not to have packages delivered to his apartment, and instead picked them up at a local UPS store, he said.
“I will never forget walking into the UPS Store, and a lady that I hadn’t seen before looks up at me and says, ‘What are you doing here?’” Robinson recalled. “And I was like, ‘I’m here to pick up my package.’ And she said, ‘Well, I’ve never seen you in here before.’ And I thought what does that have to do with me picking up my package?
“She obviously was upset, and she began to say things like, ‘Get out of my store,’ ‘You are not allowed to be in here,’ ‘I’m calling the police on you.’ And she did—she called the cops on me,” Robinson continued. “So, I immediately remember that moment because of the fear that went through my heart. She could have told them anything. I don’t know what she told them. She wanted me out of her store. So, I immediately left the store.”
Worried of appearing as if he were fleeing a scene, Robinson returned to his truck and remained in the parking lot until the police arrived.
“Afterwards, the police said to me, ‘We get complaints from the store all the time similar to this,’” Robinson said. “The police officer understood, and he did let me go. But the fact that my license was run, everything was written down—it was like, first, let me see if you have a record, and then I’ll decide how we’re going to deal with this.
“So I made a commitment to myself that I was going to do something about it,” Robinson continued.
Because of experiences he had earlier in life where he felt powerless and without options, Robinson decided this time he would not accept this treatment and just move on. He called the corporate office to file a complaint and was able to make contact with the general manager of the location, who apologized and assured Robinson that the employee’s behavior was unacceptable, and she was released from her position.
After a week of dealing with this situation, Robinson finally was able to go back and retrieve his package.
“And it was there,” Robinson emphasized. “That was the other piece that I missed sharing. In the argument, she claimed my package was not there. And so I went an additional week, while I was waiting on corporate, and my package was there the entire time.
“That was in 2015,” he continued. “It just shows that there’s still work to do. All I was doing was just getting off work and trying to go get a package. I’m reminded that no matter how nice we are, no matter how professional I speak, I could still be taken as a threat.”
Dayjha Hogg ’23
Hometown: Whitesburg, Ky.
Profession: Berea College student
Finding My Voice
Growing up in Whitesburg, Ky., Dayjha (Carter) Hogg ’23 was influenced by very little in the way of Black culture, but she and her three siblings knew they didn’t quite fit in with the town’s predominantly white community either. Despite the small-town feel where, Hogg said, everyone knows everyone, as a biracial child there were times she felt shunned because of the differences in her appearance.
“There has always been this inclusion, but at the same time, I realize as I have gotten older, there was a lot of institutionalized racism and oppression that I didn’t even realize I was being put through,” Hogg said. “It made it very hard at times for me and my brothers. We’ve been raised here, and we expect everyone to treat us the same, but then we go to certain places, and we’re getting stared down. I think that’s something I’ve always had to keep in mind around here—that’s how people were raised, very closed minded.”
Hogg said her mother helped her understand the world around her and served as her biggest advocate.
“My mom was there to facilitate conversations and to let us know the positive end of it,” Hogg said. “Honestly, I feel extremely grateful that we had that voice of positivity always in our ear, especially considering she was raised in a family that was very racist. My mom realized this is going to be a battle for the rest of their lives, and thought, ‘I have to be their No. 1 ally.’ And I’m so grateful because if she hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have that sense of self-worth because no one else was saying it but her.”
Attending Berea College her first year, Hogg’s confidence was boosted further, she said.
When it came to speaking out, Hogg said her Berea classes and experiences prepared her. “They gave me the education. They gave me the vocabulary. But mainly they gave me the confidence to stand up for what I believe in and not be afraid of what happens afterwards.”
This past summer that self-assurance was tested in the wake of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of Minneapolis law enforcement, which Hogg described as lighting a fire under everyone. Though initially timid to speak out, Hogg, along with her husband and a close friend, decided to organize a protest in Whitesburg.
“I thought if no one else shows up, it’ll be us four—she and her husband and me and mine, holding hands with our hands in the air,” Hogg said.
But they were not alone. To Hogg’s amazement, about 200 people turned out in support of the protest, in a town of approximately 1,800. But shortly after the protest, the local county judge-executive posted disparaging remarks on his Facebook page about the protest and its organizers. These posts prompted Hogg to attend a fiscal court meeting that same week and speak up about the racism she had experienced growing up.
“At the end of the day, there’s a momentum in this fight, and it is here right now,” Hogg recalled thinking in the moment. “I can’t let this moment pass by because when else is a room full of people going to sit and listen to what I’ve been through?
“I told them about a few experiences that happened in school, and I said, ‘I’m having to get up here and rip open scabs and dig into old wounds just to prove to you that there is racism here,’” she continued. “‘That hurts. I don’t want to think back to all these different things. Of course I don’t care to share my story because I know that’s how you use your voice. But you all are making me do this, so at least listen. At least try to hear us out, hear where we are coming from and to understand, and don’t just dismiss it.’”
Hogg credits Berea for giving her the confidence and tools to stand up and speak out in her community, and she looks forward to returning to Berea for the fall 2021 semester, after the pandemic has subsided.
“Going back, after all this, I can appreciate all the resources Berea has to offer and use them,” Hogg said. “I can join some clubs and be a part of things that contribute, not only to the college and community, but to society.”