Sharyn Richards Mitchell FD ‘65, BC ‘69: Making Connections
Through her natural curiosity, love of research and making connections, Sharyn Mitchell has helped innumerable people, campus departments, alumni families and community members track down fascinating information that they could not have gotten anywhere else.
Mitchell has served as a research services specialist in Hutchins Library Special Collections and Archives for eight years. In that time, she has become intimately familiar with Berea’s deep archives, the rich stories of Berea’s founders and their families, and the unique history of the people and places of Madison County, Ky.
Mitchell is this year’s recipient of the Rodney C. Bussey Award of Special Merit, given to alumni who have been employed by the College, recognizing them for their outstanding service, demonstrated loyal interest and extraordinary quality of work to the Berea College family.Mitchell spends most of her days digging through tangible pieces of history to tell the story of Berea College and its students from years gone by and making historical connections for often little-known events that surround Berea’s unique history and the people who contributed to it. Her research journeys usually start with someone asking a question. Maybe it’s a stranger walking into the library looking for information on her great grandmother who she believes attended Berea College in the late 1800s, or an entrepreneur trying to connect his lost family history to a Berea College alumnus in order to obtain funding to refurbish dilapidated housing in Louisville’s west end. There is no limit to the interesting leads Mitchell receives that drive the research in which she engages each day.
“You let them talk,” Mitchell said about the initial process of gathering information to start a new research path. “Basically if someone says where they are from, I just start asking questions like I was interviewing someone. Most of the time, you can take off from what they tell you. If they say, ‘My grandmother was a teacher,’ there’s a good chance she went to the Normal School.
“I tell the students here, when we are interviewing, I could have been a private investigator,” Mitchell continued, laughing. “You take one lead and you follow it back.”
In 2011, Mitchell took her love of investigating a step further and started a research group called the African American Genealogy Group of Kentucky (AAGGKY). After spending years in libraries across central Kentucky researching African American history and genealogy, she connected with others who wanted to consistently share the fruits of their research. On the third Saturday of each month, the AAGGKY meets at various places around Kentucky to share findings, make research connections and enjoy fellowship with like-minded individuals.
According to Mitchell, African American research is different. “Where you find the records is dicey,” Mitchell explained. “A lot of times white people will say, ‘I am ashamed that my family had slaves.’ I reply, ‘But our history is found in your books. It’s in your diaries and your wills. So the shame is if you don’t give it back and let us know where it is.’”
Recently, Mitchell began working with a group in Boonesborough, Ky., to add the names of African Americans to a large monument the town had constructed listing the names of early settlers to the area.
“The names read just like our families, yet they said, ‘We don’t know the names of any black families,’” Mitchell said of her conversation about the monument’s missing history.
“It takes a lot to learn what we have here and I learn every day,” Mitchell added. “You need to learn something new every day—even if it is not related to your job. I have a love of learning, and I’m naturally nosey. But you have to listen. I can make connections, just by asking the right questions.”