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.”
Unless you attended the Civil Rights Tour with a significant other, tour organizers picked who would be your roommate for the entire trip. We didn’t discover who this person would be until we checked into the hotel the first night. But, this gave us each an opportunity to learn about someone new, even if you had both worked at Berea College for years.
I still call her “roomie” when I see her on campus.
We stayed at the same chain of hotels throughout the trip, so my roommate and me would jokingly compare each location. But when we left Selma on the morning of Day 5, I remember thinking how poverty touches everything, even hotel chains.
The hotel in Selma had no elevator, the furniture was older and the room smelled moldy. While none of that really mattered — I was grateful to have an air-conditioned roof over my head — it was hard not to notice the difference. Had we not been staying in the same chain of hotels for the past four days, these differences may have not been so apparent. But this was another way in which experiential learning, however seemingly insignificant, was as meaningful as what we read on the wall of any museum.
While the small city of Selma may have changed America, “in many ways time has stood still in this community of 20,000 that was at the center of the push that culminated with the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” reported Aamer Madhani in a March 2015 USA Today article covering the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday.
Dallas County, of which Selma is the county seat, was the poorest county in Alabama last year, he wrote. James Perkins Jr., who became Selma’s first African-American mayor in 2000, told Madhani, “Selma sowed, but it did not reap.”
Our first stop that morning was in Hayneville, Alabama, to see the memorial for Episcopal seminarian and white civil rights activist Jonathan Daniels.
In the selections we read to prepare for the trip, we learned in 1965, Daniels recruited students and clergy to join the voting rights movement in Selma. Instead of returning to the seminary, Daniels continued his work in Selma, where he stayed with a local black family. He tutored children, helped poor locals apply for aid, registered voters and worked to integrate an unwelcoming Episcopal church.
In August 1965, Daniels was among a group of 29 protestors who picketed whites-only stores in Fort Deposit, Alabama where the group was arrested and then taken to jail in Hayneville. Upon their release, Daniels and three others — a white Catholic priest and two black female activists — walked to a nearby store (that served non-whites) to buy a drink while awaiting transportation. An unpaid special deputy was waiting for them with a shotgun. When he aimed at 17-year-old Ruby Sales, Daniels pushed her down, caught the full blast of the shotgun, and was killed instantly. After learning of Daniels’ murder, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “one of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry was performed by Jonathan Daniels.”
We left Hayneville for Scottsboro, Alabama, and while on the bus watched a documentary about the Scottsboro Boys case, what some consider to be the greatest miscarriage of justice in the U.S. legal system and the start of the civil rights movement in the South.
In 1931, nine black teenagers ranging from ages 12 to 20 were pulled off a train in Jackson County, Alabama, and accused of raping two white women. A group of white teenagers, who also were train hopping, told a local sheriff that the black teenagers attacked them. The black teenagers were arrested and all but the 12-year-old were quickly convicted of rape and sentenced to death.
During an appeal and a series of retrials (during which one of the women recanted her story) with all-white juries and poor defense attorneys, eight of the nine were held in Kilby Prison, where they were subject to abuse and mistreatment. While some of the teenagers eventually received pardons or had their sentences overturned, all of their lives were negatively altered by their wrongful arrest and imprisonment.
When we arrived in Scottsboro, we were treated to lunch at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church where we met up with 1985 alumnus John Graham, circuit judge in the 38th judicial circuit of Alabama, which encompasses Jackson County.
While enjoying lunch, complete with homemade ice cream and cookies, Scottsboro High School senior Zhantiarra Cotton enchanted us with her angelic voice. We learned that she was selected as a music ambassador for the state of Alabama and went on a singing tour in Europe to represent her state.
After lunch, we followed Judge Graham for a short trek to the Jackson County Courthouse, where he works and the site of the first of the Scottsboro Boy trials. He first took us to the spot where the jail had once stood and where a lynch mob had gathered in 1931 to demand the black teenagers be handed over before they had a chance to stand trial.
Sheriff Matt Wann stood in front of the jail and reportedly threatened the crowd with harm if they tried to enter. He then walked through the mob and across the street to the courthouse where he telephoned Gov. Benjamin Miller, who sent the Alabama Army National Guard to protect the defendants.
We continued on the path the boys would’ve walked as they were escorted to their first trial. We paused to look at the historical marker describing the Scottsboro Boys case in front of the courthouse, erected in 2003. Judge Graham, who advocated for the historical marker, said its placement was not without controversy. Members of the KKK showed up at the marker’s unveiling, he recalled.
Once inside, and with the Scottsboro Boys documentary fresh in our minds, we had the opportunity to pick the brains of a few townsfolk, some of whom worked in the courthouse and knew the history of the town.
We learned that in this small town, with a predominantly white population of nearly 15,000, many would rather leave this case in the past. Some felt that if the sheriff had only waited to stop the train a few miles down the road, there would be no “Scottsboro Boys” — this case would’ve tainted another town’s history. Sheriff Wann, who protected the boys from the lynch mob, was mysteriously murdered around a year later.
Although this is certainly a history you would not want your hometown to be known for, it was too late to re-write the script. Now it was time to embrace that past as a lesson for the future, and there’s hope that the younger generations in that town are willing to do that. I still had the impression that many wanted to sweep it under the rug and keep it there.
But just a few blocks down the road, Sheila Washington, founder and director of the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center, is working to make sure that the world not forget the real victims in this case. She collaborated with Dr. Thomas Reidy of the University of Alabama, Huntsville, to obtain posthumous pardons for the three Scottsboro Boys who did not already have their convictions overturned or received a pardon.
The museum occupies a church built in 1878 by former slaves and is the oldest standing African American church in Jackson County. Although the museum has only been open for the past five years, Washington said she “has been fighting for it for the past 35 years.”
The story of the Scottsboro Boys will stick with me for the rest of my life. This case will always be a reminder that young black males are still guilty before proven innocent, even today. While the modern day lynch mob may now take the form of social media posts and hashtags, racial profiling, wrongful imprisonment and systemic racism are still very real.
That evening, we were treated to a lovely dinner at the home of Judge Graham and his wife, Angela Redmon Graham, a 1985 nursing alumna. A Berea College pennant and photos from their 1985 graduation were displayed proudly in their home.
The outpouring of love and hospitality we’d received on this trip from our alumni was overwhelming. It makes the work I do in the Alumni Relations office all the more meaningful to me.
For the homeward leg of our trip, we left for the Alex Haley Farm — Home of the Children’s Defense Fund in Clinton, Tennessee. Inspired by the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s, the CDF was founded in 1973 to improve federal policies around child welfare. In 1994, the CDF purchased the 157-acre farm that once belonged to Haley, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Roots” and a Berea College trustee from 1984 to 1990.
The Alex Haley Farm is now a training center and retreat for children advocates. It features the Riggio-Lynch Interfaith Chapel, built to look like an ark, and the Langston Hughes Library, a restored cantilever barn, both by Maya Lin. Lin is the award-winning designer who created the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
While at the farm, we met up with 1970 alumnus and trustee Charles Crowe who shared his own “Berea Story” and spoke about the work he was doing with high school students to encourage them to attend college.
While a student at Berea, Crowe and a friend watched a performance of an all-black music ensemble in a nearby town and decided Berea should have its own. Before the days of email and social media, Crowe and friends placed a note in the college mailbox of every black student on campus asking them to meet if they were interested in joining. Most everyone showed up, Crowe recalled.
What began in 1969 as a group of students eager to bring the black spirituals and gospel music of their home churches to Berea, the Black Music Ensemble continues today as an award-winning and diverse group of singers who uphold the spirit of BME’s original goal, to “supplement religious life on campus and give vent to Christian love through songs.”
On the bus ride home, Dean Chad Berry challenged us to think about the question “Who cares and so what?” or more specifically, he explained, “How can we sustain the learning, the commitment, and ultimately the transformative power of this experience?”
While I can’t always remember the longer version of that question, I do remember to ask myself, “Who cares and so what?” every day. What am I doing to be an advocate for racial justice? For peace? For mutual understanding? My “so what” are my family, my students, my college and my town.
Leaving the Alex Haley Farm that day brought a mixture of emotions. I knew I was only hours away from seeing my 4-year-old (this was the longest time we had ever been apart), but I also knew I was going back to the town and college I’ve loved my entire life. There, I now had the responsibility of taking what I’d learned and making it a part of everything I do. I could no longer shy away from conversations on race because they are uncomfortable, but to find ways to inject more compassion and understanding when I have those conversations, especially with those who disagree with me.
Crystal Wylie is a 2005 alumna of Berea College and is the administration and communication coordinator at Berea College Alumni Relations. Part 1, 2 and 3 were published in the Feb. 4, Feb. 11 and Feb. 18 editions respectively and at www.richmondregister.com.