A Sankofa Journey Berea’s First Civil Rights Seminar and Tour

Tracey Thomas, ’03Leave a Comment

Berea alumni and civil rights

Sankofa is a word in the Akan language of Ghana that translates in English to “reach back and get,” which is often more broadly interpreted to refer to the importance of looking backward to move forward.

     Dr. Alicestyne Turley, director of Berea’s Carter G. Woodson Center for Interracial Education, used sankofa to describe the spiritual and intellectual journey that is more formally known as the Civil Rights Seminar and Tour to the Berea College campus community.

     This August, Dr. Turley led 33 Berea College faculty and staff, representing diverse offices and departments across campus, on the College’s first Civil Rights Seminar and Tour. The seminar and tour took place over seven days, with participants traveling more than 1,200 miles together to reflect upon the history of the Civil Rights Movement and the historical and ongoing roles Berea College has played in the movement. Before embarking on this journey, Dr. Turley reminded participants that what they were about to do, travel together as blacks and whites by bus, would have been a controversial political act just a short time ago.

     The Civil Rights Seminar and Tour was modeled after Berea’s Appalachian Seminar and Tour, which was created more than 50 years ago to provide new faculty and staff with an opportunity to learn more about the Appalachian region and the College’s Appalachian commitment. Similarly, the Civil Rights Seminar and Tour was designed to engage faculty and staff, both new and senior, in personal and professional reflection on Berea’s commitment to interracial education. These complementary tours are now offered on a rotating basis, with the civil rights tour occurring in odd years and the Appalachian tour in even years.

     One of the primary goals of these tours is to allow faculty and staff to become more acquainted with the communities from which many Berea students hail. Regardless of how many months or years they had spent teaching or working at Berea, faculty and staff participating in the Civil Rights Seminar and Tour commonly reported that visiting these communities deepened their understanding of the students they serve.

     Dr. Gary Mahoney, ’82, professor of technology and applied design, has a long history with Berea, having attended college and spent the past 25 years teaching here. Although he was already well versed in Berea’s commitment to interracial education, the tour led him to a greater understanding and appreciation of the connections between Berea and the Civil Rights Movement’s most well-known communities and leaders.

     “I had issues and values classes as a student at Berea, and I have participated in different programs and events focused on interracial education throughout my career here,” he explained, “but it’s at a different level when you’re with people who grew up in the civil rights era in these historic places.”

     For Dr. Mahoney and many other tour participants, the highlight of the tour was meeting with Berea alumni along the route to learn how Berea had influenced their careers and their lives. Alumni also talked about what it was like for them to live, learn, and work at Berea, providing insight into the challenges students face when adjusting to life on Berea’s campus.

     Ann Butwell, ’87, education abroad advisor and interim director of the Center for International Education, said, “Hearing the stories of Berea grads was the most important piece to me. I understood in a deeper way what a tough transition it is to move from a supportive black community in a large urban setting to a more rural, majority-white campus.”

     Mahoney’s and Butwell’s reflections demonstrate that the Civil Rights Seminar and Tour is achieving exactly what it was designed to do. Dr. Turley said, “We wanted faculty and staff to see where their student population comes from, the neighborhoods they live in, the people they associate with, and the types of cultural and social values that are instilled in them. And we also wanted to let parents meet our faculty and staff, so all along the way we had those types of interactions.”

     Deepening participants’ understanding of Berea’s student body was only one of the tour’s goals. Dr. Turley also wanted the tour to be an occasion for the community to celebrate Berea’s history as a leader in interracial education. “Berea stepped out early, when this idea of interracial education was very unpopular,” she explained. “The Civil Rights Seminar and Tour is about continuing this wonderful legacy, recognizing the many early connections Berea had to the movement, and showing how this part of Berea’s history has helped to create a better America.”

     During the tour, faculty and staff developed an understanding of their important role in celebrating—and continuing—Berea’s legacy in interracial education. College Forester Clint Patterson said, “Taking the trip opened my eyes to aspects of Berea’s history that I did not know, and it helped me to realize that the mission of interracial education is an ongoing mission, not just part of Berea’s history.”

     For many tour participants, this was the ultimate takeaway of the seminar and tour. Now that participants have looked back, they are ready to move forward, carrying on and honoring Berea’s commitment to interracial education and civil rights.

     Reflecting upon the tour and speaking of the community journal that participants kept along the way, Dr. Turley said, “Reading all of the commitments people made in writing about how they were going to work together to improve Berea and help Berea achieve its goal of being a leader in interracial education, that was the highlight for me.”

     Those commitments, built upon the linking of the past and future, demonstrate that the Civil Rights Seminar and Tour was indeed a sankofa journey.

Stops Along the 1,200-Mile Sankofa Journey from Kentucky to Alabama

1. Berea, Kentucky: Taking a historical look at Berea College’s Involvement in the Civil Rights Movement

     Berea alumni and civil rights activists Ann Grundy, ’68, and George Giffin, ’66, visited campus to share their experiences as organizers of the Berea College group that traveled to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965 to participate in the third Selma to Montgomery march. Fifty-eight members of the Berea College community joined the march, representing the largest delegation from any Kentucky college.

2. Clinton, Tennessee: Touring the Alex Haley Farm

      Alex Haley is best known as the author of the 1976 book Roots: The Saga of an American Family and co-author of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Haley served as a member of the Berea College Board of Trustees.

3. Chattanooga, Tennessee: Visiting the Bessie Smith Cultural Center (BSCC)

     The BSCC is named for Elizabeth (Bessie) Smith, a music legend known as the Empress of the Blues. The BSCC preserves, develops, exhibits, studies, and advocates meaningful approaches to educate the nation about the contributions of African Americans.

4. Birmingham, Alabama:  Attending Sunday Service at the historic 16th Street Baptist Church

      September 1963, the 16th Street Baptist Church was the target of a racially motivated bombing that killed four young girls attending Sunday school and injured 23 others. The church is now the central landmark of the Birmingham Civil Rights District.

5. Montgomery, Alabama: Visiting major sites of the Civil Rights Movement

     King Memorial Baptist Church & Parsonage is the church where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. began his quest for civil rights.

     The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), including the Civil Rights Memorial Center, is “dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of our society.” Julian Bond, the grandson of 1892 Berea College graduate and trustee James Bond, was the first president of the SPLC.

6. Selma, Alabama: Remembering the 50-mile Selma to Montgomery Marches

     The Edmund Pettus Bridge was the site of the historic Selma to Montgomery marches. This year, the bridge was recognized as a National Historic Landmark for the significant events that took place here, which contributed to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

7. Memphis, Tennessee: “Exploring the Legacy”

     The National Civil Rights Museum is housed in the Lorraine Motel, site of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The museum’s “Exploring the Legacy” exhibit chronicles the 1968 assassination of Dr. King and the enduring influence of his life and work.

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