“I Didn’t Know that I Didn’t Know”

Abbie Darst ‘03Leave a Comment

Civil Rights Tour participants on bus

Civil Rights Tour introduces faculty and staff to untold history of race relations in the South, builds upon Berea’s fifth Great Commitment

Forty-one people, eight cities, seven days, four states, one bus.

Berea College’s 2017 Civil Rights Seminar and Tour took these 41 Bereans on a Sankofa journey of discovery, remembrance and action toward justice and liberty. The third of its kind, the tour encouraged faculty and staff participants to come together as a learning community to apply solutions to ongoing social, political and economic problems.

This power-packed experience was not just a physical journey from Kentucky to South Carolina, Alabama and Tennessee, but a spiritual journey of study, meditation and life-changing discoveries.

“Walking across the bridge to Selma (2015 tour), being in Martin Luther King Jr.’s church and standing in his kitchen—these moments on the tours were sacred and life changing,” said Dr. Linda Strong-Leek, Berea College vice president for diversity and inclusion and associate vice president for academic affairs, who has participated in two tours. “To experience that together, that was the power of the tour.”

Berea began the Civil Rights Seminar and Tour in 2013 as a counterpart to the Appalachian Tour the College has offered faculty, staff and others for approximately 50 years. The two tours alternate each year. The former attempts to revisit the work of American civil rights activists and pioneers, many of whom had connections to Berea College; explore how the work of Berea College faculty and staff connects to the broader world; provide context to the lives of the students the College seeks to serve; and aid in building a stronger Berea community.

“The way the tour started and has continued is having a deep appreciation for the history of the College and its mission, and how I can help people understand that mission in today’s time,” said Dr. Alicestyne Turley, tour facilitator and director of the Carter G. Woodson Center for Interracial Education at Berea. “I want them to understand why they are faculty or staff members at this institution and why that is different than being anywhere else.”

Reaching out to people like Carl Thomas ‘78, associate director of admissions and coordinator of minority services, Turley has crafted three unique tour experiences that incorporate major landmarks in the Civil Rights Movement, lesser-known moments of significant impact and numerous Berea College alumni who are facilitating change in communities throughout the South.

The old is new again

The 2017 tour participants loaded a bus at Boone Tavern on the morning of July 27 and made their first stop less than an hour later in London, Ky., at the Laurel County African American Heritage
Center. The center was founded in 2004 by Wayne Riley, a 2016 Berea College Service Award winner. The Center strives to preserve African-American heritage and history in Laurel County.

“I don’t think of London as a hotbed of racial tension,” Berea Gifts and Records Assistant Brittany Ash said of that first experience so close to home. “But I realized I didn’t have to know that as a white kid that hasn’t experienced racism from that perspective. I realize horrible things have happened, and I can know the facts and dates, but
I don’t feel it.”

Ash, who was born and raised in Berea and earned a degree in history from Eastern Kentucky University, quickly realized the tour would not be a vacation, but a journey that would challenge her historical knowledge and view of the world around her, she said.

From London, the bus departed for the Greenville (S.C.) Peace Center. The Peace Center provides arts education and outreach, and supports local arts organizations. While there, participants dined with Berea alumni who shared their Berea stories and how they currently are serving in their communities. Throughout the tour’s history, alumni sessions like this help connect faculty and staff with Berea students’ hometowns and the impact the Berea experience has had on their lives.

“These sessions where faculty and staff engage with alumni are extremely important because [the alumni] talk about how important it was to have someone believe in them and help them transition,” Thomas said. “Our faculty members are game-changers in the lives of students who come from these places.”

Hearing the various stories helped participants understand the challenges these students faced before coming to Berea and how they have grown at Berea and returned to these communities to try to make their hometowns better, Thomas explained.

“It was nice to see former students and how they went and made change in and out of Appalachia,” Child Development Professor Cindy McGaha said. “There is a history of some very brave people in this college—phenomenal people who knock my socks off. It’s amazing how hard they’ve worked and the changes they’ve made.”

Afterward, the group was treated to a poetry workshop by Glenis Redmond, the poet-in-residence at the Peace Center. Each tour participant was given a short time to write a poem titled, “Where I’m From,” an exercise developed by Kentucky poet laureate George Ella Lyon. Despite the discomfort in writing personal poetry, each person shared his or her poem with the group. That sharing began the process of bonding the group together and gave participants new insights about their colleagues that they hadn’t previously taken the time to learn.

“Sometimes I feel I’m alone in the world and the only person going through things,” said Shai Anderson ’11, international student advisor at Berea’s Center for International Education, about her experiences before the tour. “But then you realize you’re not alone. We (tour participants) had time to bond with one another and understand that we’re all here and have a similar goal in mind, which, in my opinion, is to produce global citizens. But until you get to know each other, you don’t know what strengths and weaknesses others bring to accomplish that task.”

Day 1 wrapped up nearly 550 miles south of Berea in St. Helena Island, S.C. The following morning, Day 2, participants were introduced to the Gullah Geechee—members  of a sovereign nation that exists between Jacksonville, N.C. and Jacksonville, Fla., led by Queen Quet, who was elected chieftess in 1999. Many participants were shocked to discover that an entire sovereign nation was situated in the southern region of the U.S., made up of descendants of formerly enslaved Africans from
various tribes.

The next stop was the Penn Center, formerly known as Penn School, also located on St. Helena Island, S.C. Penn Center was founded in 1862 by an abolitionist and served as a school for formerly enslaved Africans. The group toured the grounds and museum where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. also studied and lectured during his early years as a civil rights leader.

Missing history

Day 3 began in Charleston, S.C. with tours of Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired, and Fort Moultrie, or Sullivan’s Island. As the largest slave port in North America, the island was the entry point for approximately 40 percent of the 400,000 enslaved Africans brought to British North America.

“Being at Fort Sumter and Sullivan’s Island made me think about how we take for granted the information we learn in school,” Anderson said. “I feel like we should make informed decisions, but I failed myself to do the research of what happened there.

“Listening to the tour guide talk about what happened. . . it made me angry,” she continued. “I realized there were things being left out. The history I had learned [in school] had truly been whitewashed. It has all been glamorized and only half the story is being told. It makes you want to take a deeper look at the material.”

In Charleston, the group also toured the Old Slave Mart where enslaved Africans were sold at auction in the mid-19th century until Union forces occupied Charleston in 1865 and freed the enslaved Africans held there.

“When I stood in the former slave market between two evangelical churches, I felt the separation of humanity from the righteousness of God,” said Keith Bullock Hon ’17, who serves as the coordinator of Berea’s Black Male Leadership Initiative. “The church people would purchase enslaved Africans after service was over. How could a religion that is supposed to be so good do such evil things?”

Bullock has attended all three civil rights tours and has vivid memories from locations on each tour, such as the Rosa Parks Museum, where he sat in the replica seat where Parks sat and sparked the Montgomery bus boycott.

“It was almost as if she was still there,” Bullock recalled about the experience on his first civil rights tour.

Standing in the same courtroom where the Scottsboro Boys were tried, on the second tour, Bullock said he felt humbled and blessed that he didn’t have to experience what those nine young men did. Yet he finds himself fearful because an unjust trial for false accusations that changed the course of these young men’s lives still could happen today.

For Bullock, the tours have pushed him to continually share his knowledge with other faculty, staff and students on campus so our nation’s history is remembered and never repeated, he said.

“The tours have allowed me to experience the incredible history of the Civil Rights era with the faculty and staff with whom I work,” Bullock said. “It demonstrates how that history aligns with the commitments of the College and shows how progressive our college was when it was founded.”

“I’ve worked in a lot of different schools, but what impresses me most about Berea is it knows what it is and what it wants to do, articulates its commitments well and supports them,” Registrar Judy Ginter agreed. “It’s so great to be at a place where the commitments are fabulous and everyone tries to support them, and the college puts the time, effort and money into knowing why they’re important.”

Love over hate

The morning of Day 4, the group attended Sunday service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest church of its kind in the south. The church has faced multiple attacks throughout its 200-year history, but most recently was terrorized by Dylann Roof, who shot and killed nine church members on June 17, 2015.

Pulling up to the church, many described the mood as somber, recognizing how the recent tragedy still felt raw and shocking. Yet when they entered the church, the atmosphere was light, joyous and welcoming.

“The church service in Charleston was the best service I’ve ever been to in my life,” Ginter said. “The energy and message—the hope in a place where such hate had been displayed.”

“They welcomed us in as strangers into their congregation. How did they know we weren’t there to do them harm?” Ash asked. “But they welcomed us with open arms. How do you have such unconditional love?”

For McGaha, it was that love that resonated with her, not just at Mother Emanuel, as the church is called, but throughout the entire tour.

“It was impressed on my heart that these were acts of love for those involved in the Civil Rights Movement,” she said. “Black or white, they performed very brave things because of their love for other people. I aspire to be like so many of the people we met [during the tour.] They weren’t perfect human beings, but their love and courage won out in the end.”

After leaving the church, the group made a brief stop in Anniston, Ala., where the Freedom Riders’ bus was bombed in 1961, before continuing on to Montgomery. They gathered at Anniston’s bus station to hear City Councilman Seyram Selase ’06 and consultants from the National Park Service talk about “freedom Summer” and share plans for a new national park to commemorate that pivotal time during the Civil Rights Movement.

On Day 5 in Montgomery, they visited the Southern Poverty Law Center, where participants added their names to the 500,000-plus names on the Wall of Tolerance, pledging to take a stand against hate, and work for justice and tolerance in their daily lives.

From there they toured the Rosa Parks Museum, the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and the parsonage where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached and lived with his young family. Dr. Shirley Cherry, who knew Dr. King personally, brought all 41 participants into King’s former kitchen. She described in detail his last night sitting in that kitchen before heading to Memphis, where he was assassinated. She explained King’s realization that he would die for the cause of civil rights, and how he chose in that moment to let go of his fear of death.

As participants shared the same space once inhabited by Dr. King in the parsonage and at the church, every person was moved to tears by what they heard, saw and felt.

“I was overcome with gratitude for having this opportunity to not just see these places, but to see them through others’ eyes,” Ash said. “It was transformative and life changing in that moment. All the things on the tour had culminated into that mind-altering moment of, ‘You’re here; do something with your world.’ I had to take it and run with it, and it changed the way I see the future of my life.”

On Days 6 and 7, the group traveled to Birmingham and Memphis, visiting Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham’s Civil Rights District and the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four girls were killed in 1963 when KKK members planted dynamite outside the church’s basement. In Memphis, they participated in the Memphis Heritage Tour and visited the National Civil Rights Museum, which was created inside the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was assassinated in 1968.

As the 2017 tour wrapped up and participants returned to Berea, the tour’s effects quickly began to take hold. For some faculty members, like McGaha, it changed the way she understands her students and how she conducts her classes.

“The tour opened my eyes to things I didn’t know that I didn’t know,” she said. “I have a different sense of empathy for my students, I think, being in those places and walking in the ghosts of those shoes. Every theory of child development says what moves us forward is discomfort. I love being able to confront that.”

For others, they are challenged each day to look at the world through fresh eyes, seeking to listen and understand everyone with whom they come in contact.

“It is life altering and life changing,” said Jackie Collier ’80, associate vice president for Alumni Relations.  “That’s why people should attend the tour. No matter where you are in life, if anyone walked away from the Civil Rights Tour and didn’t feel a change, they are cold.”

“It will change you in great ways if you open yourself up to it,” McGaha agreed. “You should understand why being here (Berea College) in this time and place is so important. I don’t think you can do that without understanding the context of this place.”

But even those who never experience the tour can open themselves up to the depth and breadth of history they may not know they don’t know, and seek to forge a greater understanding of the diverse people in their surroundings.

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