This summer, 43 Berea College faculty and staff embarked on a six-day journey through the South on the second biennial Civil Rights Tour, grant-funded and organized by the college’s Carter G. Woodson Center.

Located just past the welcome desk on the top floor of the Alumni Building, the Center is named after 1903 alumnus, Carter G. Woodson, who pioneered the celebration of “Negro History Week” and is known as the “Father of Black History.” One of the Center’s goals is to build community and an appreciation for the work and continuing need for interracial education, which is part of the college’s mission, said Dr. Alicestyne Turley, director of the center.

Another goal was to familiarize faculty and staff with communities and environments from which Berea’s students arrive, Turley said. Around 72 percent of Berea students are from the Appalachian region and Kentucky (an Appalachian Tour is offered on alternate years). Not including international students, 25 percent are minorities and the median family income for a first-year Berea student is $29,043.

“For Berea College faculty and staff who may not have come from diverse backgrounds or communities, this may be the first opportunity many have had to interact with colleagues from a different culture,” said Turley. “True to our Berea College mission, sharing our life experiences, contributions and lifestyles can be a great way to build a stronger Berea community.”

Pre-journey

Before we stepped foot on the Berea College passenger bus that would be our mobile cool-down station for six sweltering days in the South, travelers met at the Woodson Center for a full-day seminar to prepare for the journey ahead.

We took that time to review selected texts that had been assigned in advance and talk about the modern American civil rights movement, the intersection of race and other social identities, and micro-aggressions in both the classroom and workplace. But perhaps most of all, we spent that time getting to know each other as well as ponder questions about race we may have previously been hesitant to ask.

As I looked around the room that day at both familiar and new faces, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to remember all of their names. But over the next week as we rushed from one destination to another, campus colleagues who may have never had occasion to speak to each other before began to deconstruct what they saw and talk about how they felt. It just happened naturally.

During the seminar, Dr. Turley asked us to define a “black community.” The answer to that question is obviously complex and not something any of us could fully define that day. But, she implored us to think about how our own definition of “black community” may alter, if at all, during our travels.

Day 1

Our first destination was the Gay Hawk Restaurant in Memphis where we helped ourselves to a buffet of southern cooking: fried fish, steamed cabbage, corn muffins, iced tea and peach cobbler. One five-star Yelp reviewer called it “old school soul food.”

After filling our bellies, we piled back into the bus for a guided tour through Memphis. We stopped by the W.C. Handy Memphis Home Museum, the shotgun house of early 1900s blues composer and musician widely known as the “Father of the Blues.”

Next stop was the Burkle Estate, known as the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum since 1997. Located just down from a slave auction block in one direction and the Mississippi River in another, the home was constructed by German immigrant Jacob Burkle, who reportedly used the home as a way station to help enslaved Africans escape to freedom.

While touring the home, we learned that Burkle himself bought slaves from the auction just to turn around and release them later. He would smuggle them away on a boat travelling up the Mississippi River to freedom and then wait a few weeks to report them missing. He even offered a reward, to keep up the façade. In his front yard, Burkle planted magnolia trees, a non-native evergreen that signaled to runaway slaves they could seek safe shelter there.

Our tour guide took us into the dark cellar of the old clapboard house and ushered us in until there was no room to move. She turned off the light as we ducked under the low ceiling. She asked us to imagine what it would’ve felt like to be an enslaved person hiding in that space. I remembered thinking I had no room to complain about the heat of the south when so many men, women and children hid, scared for their lives, in places just like this.

Day 2

We started Day 2 with a two-hour tour of the National Civil Rights Museum, housed in the Lorraine Motel and site of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. While the museum is a 12,800 square foot labyrinth of compelling exhibits and interactive touch-screen displays, nothing was quite as powerful as walking by the rooms in which Dr. King spent his last moments. Although glassed in for preservation, peering in to see the cigarette butts in the ashtray, the rotary phone and the dated 60s-era furniture in a room where he stayed, made you feel as if you caught a glimpse of King as a man, not just the legend.

We also were excited to see Berea College included in a list of early black colleges and universities on the wall of the museum. We could’ve spent an entire day in the museum and still wouldn’t have been able to view everything it had to offer.

After another savory (and filling) buffet of southern-style food at B.B. King’s Blues Club on Beale Street, our group left for the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The studio was formed in 1969 when a group of four session musicians called The Swampers created their own recording set-up. Their arrangements were included on major soul and R&B hits and this success attracted a wide array of famous musicians who went on to record hit songs and albums at the studio. Several of us took the opportunity to relax on the tattered orange vinyl couch where the Rolling Stones had been known to sit.

We wrapped up the evening with a home-cooked meal prepared by the hospitable folks at Trinity AME Zion Church in Birmingham, Alabama. A group of Berea College graduates representing classes from the last five decades joined us for dinner there. They each shared their “Berea Story” – how they heard of Berea College, what they did while they were enrolled, and what they went on to achieve after they graduated.

At Berea College, we gladly measure our success by the accomplishments of our alumni, so I knew every faculty and staff in that room felt proud to be a part of an institution that graduated individuals like those we met that night. But I know for me, and many others, that our pride was mixed with sorrow as we listened to one alum recall how she was scared to stand at the crosswalk (at Chestnut and Prospect) while a student at Berea in the 90s. She said she did everything she could to avoid standing at that crosswalk because she was terrified of the race-based harassment both she and her classmates had been victims of at that spot.

I’m proud that Berea College was the first interracial and coeducational college in the South, founded by ardent abolitionist John G. Fee. But, I left that night reminded that there is still work to be done, as a community, to realize Fee’s vision.

Crystal Wylie is a 2005 alumna of Berea College and is the administration and communication coordinator at Berea College Alumni Relations. Look for Part 2, 3 and 4 in the Feb. 11, 18 and 25 editions of the Richmond Register.

Staffer, alumna recap transformative trip through the South

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