50 years later, Berea alumni say Selma march changed their lives

February 15, 2015

150215Berea-Selma0008Berea College student Mike Clark took these photos as one of 58 students and faculty to join the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march in 1965.  The students carried a banner and signs with the college’s mottos. At left of the banner is freshman Ann Grundy, shown below in detail and today with her husband, Chester Grundy. Photos by Mike Clark and Tom Eblen

 

When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. put out a call in the spring of 1965 for people to come to Alabama and march for civil rights, college students across the country jumped at the chance. College presidents shuddered.

Alabama cops and racist thugs had beaten previous marchers, killing two. University administrators worried about the safety of students, the fears of parents and the anger of conservative donors and community members.

Officials at Berea College, the South’s oldest interracial school, had an additional complication as campus opinion split over the civil rights movement and its tactics.

“Berea’s motto is ‘God hath made of one blood all nations of men’,” recalled Ann Grundy, who was then a freshman and one of 35 blacks among Berea’s 1,400 students. “Why did they ever tell us that? It became our weapon. We hammered them across the head to let us go.”

Berea President Francis Hutchins refused to sanction the trip, even after students marched on his house. But his heart was with them.

“They realized that morally we were correct,” Grundy said. “They just had to find a way to do it.”

Clark031Hutchins quietly loaned them his car and helped rent a Greyhound bus so 58 students and teachers could join the triumphant final day of the march from Selma to Montgomery, which led to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The 50th anniversary is attracting a lot of attention this year, in part because of Ava DuVernay’s acclaimed film, Selma, a contender for the best-picture Oscar at the Academy Awards on Sunday.

A two-month commemoration began last week in Selma. Among the participants March 7-8 will be a busload of Berea students, faculty and alumni that will include Grundy and 10 others who made the first trip. Of the original 58, 43 are still alive.

This time, Berea’s participation is official, organized by Alicestyne Turley, an African and African American studies professor who directs the Carter G. Woodson Center for Interracial Education.

Among other things, the group plans to attend festivities at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where the first two of King’s three marches ended almost as soon as they began.

The first one, on March 7, 1965, became known as “Bloody Sunday” after police beat the peaceful marchers as they tried to cross the bridge. A second attempt two days later came to be called Turnaround Tuesday” because, when confronted by police, King led the marchers back to a church in Selma.

150202Grundys0005AKing then sought a federal court order to protect marchers on their journey to the state Capitol in Montgomery, as well as federal legislation protecting black people’s right to register and vote. On March 15, President Lyndon B. Johnson asked Congress for that legislation in a nationally televised speech.

The third and final march began March 21 under the protection of 4,000 federalized troops and law-enforcement officers. Limited by the court order to 300 marchers on narrow parts of the road to Montgomery, the protest swelled to more than 25,000 as they reached the Capitol on March 25.

The Berea group spent all night driving through Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama to join that final day of marching. They carefully planned their route to include rest and refueling stops at places where it would be safe for blacks and whites to be seen traveling together.

“There were many white people at Berea who stepped outside their comfort zone to help us,” Grundy said. “Without their support, it would not have happened.”

She remembers an electric atmosphere, with students singing civil rights songs and talking about issues all night.

“On the bus we talked a lot about why we were doing it,” she said. “I remember being nervous, but when you’re 18 years old, what do you know about fear?”

Grundy led much of the singing. A piano major, her father had been pastor of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, where, three years after his death, Klansmen placed a bomb that killed four girls attending Sunday school on Sept. 15, 1963.

When they arrived at a Catholic school complex outside Montgomery where thousands were waiting to join the marchers coming from Selma, the Bereans organized behind a banner painted with their school’s motto. They carried signs with another school motto, in Latin, which means “victory through suffering.”

“I felt sort of a oneness with all of the people there from all over the United States,” said John Fleming, another black Berea student who had participated in lunch counter sit-ins as a teenager in Morganton, N.C.

Fleming’s most vivid memories from that day are of watching people on the sidewalks as the march passed through Montgomery — the icy stares and slurs of whites and the joyful faces and cheers of blacks who had been warned not to join the protest.

“I wondered what they were all thinking,” he said. “And I realized that the only way change is going to happen is for individuals to make a decision that they are going to take a stand.”

150215Berea-Selma0002Berea student Mike Clark watched much of the day through the viewfinder of the school newspaper’s camera. He was the sports editor, but he learned to use the camera when the newspaper’s conservative photographer refused to make the trip.

“What I was looking at was pretty dramatic; all I needed to do was focus,” said Clark, who recently sent some of those old pictures to Berea.

Clark was a white boy from the North Carolina mountains. The first black people he ever met were chain-gang convicts who worked on the road outside his house. As a teenage restaurant cook, he worked for a black man he respected. Clark’s mother was a Christian who taught him that everyone deserved equal treatment.

He remembers running ahead of the march to take photographs as it approached the Capitol. There he encountered King and his lieutenants standing by the flatbed truck that would serve as the speakers’ platform for their rally.

“There was no security, so I just went up and chatted with them,” Clark recalled. “We were all just looking out at the crowd that stretched out in front of us for blocks. It was an inspiring moment. He had been a hero of mine for quite awhile, so to meet him personally was pretty cool.”

At the march’s dramatic conclusion, King and others spoke and Harry Belafonte and Peter, Paul and Mary sang. A line of police with billy clubs watched them from the Capitol steps.

“I can remember looking up at the state Capitol,” Grundy said, “and seeing (Gov.) George Wallace pulling back the curtain to peek and see what was going on.”

But Grundy’s most vivid memory was of a rest stop in Collinsville, Ala., on the way back that night. Zodia Belle Johnson Vaughn, the mother of black Berea freshman Robert Johnson, opened her home to the students and fed them delicious fried chicken, biscuits and collard greens.

“You know how they talk about Jesus and the miracle of the loaves and fishes? Well, he didn’t have anything on Mrs. Vaughan and her friends and neighbors,” Grundy said. “That to me was the highlight of the trip, because it demonstrated the many ways that people can support a struggle.”

After their return to campus, black students felt especially energized, and they focused that energy on Berea College.

Abolitionist John G. Fee founded the school in 1855 to educate freed blacks in an atmosphere of equality among the races and sexes. But in 1904, Kentucky legislators outlawed interracial education, and Berea refocused its mission on educating Appalachian white students of modest means.

Black students were once again admitted after the segregation law was repealed in 1950, but there were few of them — and no black faculty.

“Coming back from that trip we were definitely fired up,” Grundy said. “We really kicked in with the organization of the Black Student Union and started pressing Berea for black faculty, black staff, more students, more black course work.

Today, Berea’s student body of nearly 1,600 is 19 percent black, 4 percent Latino, 4 percent other minorities and 10 percent international. But the faculty remains 86 percent white — a sore point with some black alumni.

The Selma-to-Montgomery marches marked an historic watershed for the nation, and it shaped many of those Berea students for the rest of their lives.

“It perhaps set the tone for what I was going to do in the future, said Fleming, who would earn a doctorate at Howard University and become the founding director of the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center and director of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

Clark became a journalist, working for fearless publishers Tom and Pat Gish at the Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg. But he soon left journalism for a career in social justice and environmental activism, leading such organizations as Greenpeace and Tennessee’s legendary Highlander Research and Education Center.

Grundy and her husband, Chester, became lifelong civil rights activists who for more than four decades have organized the annual Martin Luther King Day festivities in Lexington that have included such speakers as Muhammad Ali, Maya Angelou and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

“I think most of us look back on the march with a great deal of honor and pride,” Grundy said. “I could almost feel myself growing up. I sometimes say I never got over it.”

 

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Black History Month founder was also an Appalachian coal miner

February 3, 2015

For several years, I have written a series of columns each February about little-known aspects of the history of Kentucky citizens of African descent.

So it seemed fitting to begin this year’s series with a look at the man who created Black History Month, Carter G. Woodson. A prolific author, historian and activist, he was the key figure in the recognition of black history as an academic specialty.

150204Woodson0002But before all of that, Woodson grew up in Appalachia, worked as a coal miner and began his academic career as a student at Berea College.

Many people don’t know about Woodson’s Appalachian roots, said Alicestyne Turley, director of Berea’s Carter G. Woodson Center for Interracial Education and an assistant professor of African and African American Studies.

“In fact, I never knew he had been a student at Berea until I came here,” she said. “It just never came up on the radar.”

Woodson was born in 1875 near New Canton, Va., the oldest of nine children of former slaves. After the Civil War, his parents moved to West Virginia when they heard Huntington was building a high school for blacks.

Woodson studied on his own while working as a coal miner. He wasn’t able to enter that high school until he was 20, but it took him only two years to earn a diploma.

“He had everything you would normally think of in an Appalachian background — except that he was black,” Turley said.

“Honestly, historians have not done a lot of work on his early life,” she added. “I wonder: what was he doing then besides working in the coal mines?”

After high school, Woodson began teaching in Winona, W.Va., at a school that black coal miners started for their children. But he wanted more education, and Berea College seemed a logical choice.

Berea was founded in 1855 by abolitionist John G. Fee on land given him by Cassius Clay of Lexington, an outspoken emancipationist newspaper publisher. It became the first non-segregated, co-educational school in the South.

Woodson commuted from West Virginia by train and only studied part-time. Still, he managed to earn a bachelor’s of literature degree in 1903. His timing could not have been better.

150204Woodson0001The next year, Kentucky’s General Assembly passed the Day Law, which prohibited blacks and whites from attending school together. That law wasn’t repealed until 1950, and during the decades in between, Berea shifted its focus to white Appalachian students of modest means.

Woodson went on to earn another bachelor’s and a master’s degree in European History from the University of Chicago, and he studied at the Sorbonne in Paris. In 1912, he became the second black person, after W.E.B. Du Boise, to earn a doctorate from Harvard University.

Frustrated that white scholars were either ignoring or misrepresenting the history of his people, Woodson started what is now the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, which celebrates its centennial this year.

The association sponsored conferences, primarily to teachers of black children. Woodson edited the association’s Journal of Negro History until he died in 1950.

Woodson founded Associated Publishers in 1920, which was the nation’s oldest black-owned book publisher when it was dissolved in 2005.

In 1926, Woodson launched Negro History Week, sandwiched between the birthdates of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass on Feb. 12 and Feb. 20.

“He had to fight to get that week,” Turley said. But the concept gained acceptance and spread, eventually becoming Black History Month.

Woodson, who spent most of his academic career at Howard University in Washington, D.C., also became a political activist and a regular columnist for Marcus Garvey’s weekly newspaper, Negro World.

He wrote more than two dozen influential articles and books, the most famous of which was “The Mis-Education of the Negro,” published in 1933.

“When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions,” one of the book’s frequently quoted passages says. “You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it.”

After Woodson left Berea, he continued a correspondence with the college’s president, William Frost. Turley said those letters are revealing.

“He often talks about what he learned at Berea,” she said. “He understood Berea’s commitments of learning, labor and service. Those were things that stayed with him the rest of his life.”


Berea College archive preserves the sounds of Appalachia

December 29, 2013

131120Eblen-Berea0006

Renfro Valley radio show cast at the old barn stage in the early 1950s. Left to right are Ray Sosbyee, Linda Lou Martin, Claude Sweet and Glenn Pennington. Photo courtesy Berea College Special Collections and Archives.

 

BEREA — As soon as sound recording equipment became small enough to fit in a car trunk in the 1950s, academics began racing around the mountains, trying to preserve the music and stories of a disappearing Appalachian culture.

Now archivists at Berea College are in another race against time: to preserve those old recordings for the 21st century and beyond and make them more widely available through the Internet.

Over the past eight years, sound archivists John Bondurant and Harry Rice have digitized more than 3,000 hours of recordings. Bondurant figures they are about halfway through the archives’ current holdings.

Some of that material, as well as a more limited collection of digitized video and photos, can be seen and heard on the archives’ website:Libraryguides.berea.edu/soundarchivesguide.

131120Eblen-Berea0001The collection includes an impressive array of traditional Appalachian music, oral-history interviews, ballads, folk tales, old radio programs and black and white religious music. Plus, there are recordings of events, speakers and performances at the college going back to at least the 1960s.

Many of the recordings came from a collection started by Loyal Jones, who from 1970-1993 headed the college’s Appalachia Center, which is now named for him. But, over the years, many more collections have been donated to the college, providing a rich tapestry of authentic, one-of-a-kind sound.

The Appalachian music archives includes collections of fiddle, banjo and dulcimer tunes, band performances and recordings of Berea’s annual Celebration of Traditional Music, which began in 1974. Several collections focus on religious music, from Old Regular Baptist hymns to gospel music radio performances and Sacred Harp singing in rural black churches.

The archives also include broadcasts of John Lair’s Renfro Valley Barn Dance and related radio programs, which were broadcast between the late 1930s and the late 1950s on Cincinnati’s WLW-AM, Louisville’s WHAS-AM and the CBS Network. Although less famous than the Grand Ole Opry on Nashville’s WSM-AM, the shows had a huge impact on the development of country music.

131120Eblen-Berea0002Much of the radio collection was donated to Berea in the 1980s, when WHAS changed ownership and moved studios after the breakup of the Bingham family’s Louisville media empire.

“They called here and offered us these, implying that if we didn’t take them they would be thrown out,” Bondurant said. That archives included 1,500 16-inch transcription disc from the 1930s through the 1950s that were meant for short-term rebroadcast or advertiser verification.

“Like most media, it was never intended to be saved,” Bondurant said, so the transcription discs have been a challenge to copy before they disintegrate. “For most of these old programs, these are the only copies that exist.”

Those discs included episodes of Circle Star Ranch, a children’s radio show from the 1940s that featured a cowboy singer and the predecessor of WHAS-TV’s famous kids’ show, T-Bar-V Ranch, which had a loyal following among Louisville baby boomers.

Bondurant works in a tiny studio with a reel-to-reel tape player and a specially a specially modified turntable with a variety of sizes of phonograph styluses. Both are hooked up to a computer with digital sound software.

“Some of these materials, you have one shot; we play it to copy it and it should never be played again,” he said. “I’m trying to get the cleanest signal so it sounds like the original document.”

Bondurant, an amateur guitar player, worked in music licensing for Broadcast Music Inc., better known as BMI, in Nashville before earning a master’s degree in library science at the University of Kentucky.

Bondurant said the digital technology he uses to copy archival recordings has improved dramatically since he joined Berea College in 2005. And, unlike other preservation methods, digital copying makes it safe and easy to share material with researchers and other interested listeners more widely.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that digital technology is changing so fast, it will be a constant challenge to keep material preserved and accessible.

“The digital life cycle is a lot shorter than the analog life cycle,” Bondurant said. “We can still play recordings that are century old easier than we can play some DAT (digital audio tape) recordings from the 1990s that have essentially erased themselves.”

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Berea should again be a leader, enact fairness law

June 22, 2011

The nation has begun commemorating a series of 50th anniversary milestones from the civil rights movement.

Looking back, it is hard to imagine an America where citizens could be denied a job, a home or service in a restaurant or hotel because of their race, sex, ethnicity, religion or disability. But that was acceptable until anti-discrimination laws were passed in the mid-1960s.

Those laws didn’t just happen. People were beaten, jailed and even killed while fighting for them — and it wasn’t just the people who suffered discrimination. Things didn’t change until enough other people found the courage to speak out.

I offer this history lesson because Kentucky’s civil rights law remains incomplete. In most of this state, citizens can still be denied a job, a rental home or service in public accommodations based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Berea is now debating whether to join Louisville, Lexington and Covington as the only places in Kentucky that prohibit such discrimination through so-called fairness ordinances.

Berea’s suggested ordinance would protect gay, lesbian and transgender people from discrimination in the workplace, housing and public accommodations. Still, there might be exceptions for employment at small, private businesses and faith-based organizations. The ordinance also might create a local human rights commission to investigate allegations of discrimination.

At a crowded public meeting in May, called by a three-member city council committee studying the issue, many citizens, including some Christian pastors, spoke against a fairness ordinance. “That was sufficient evidence to me that the possibility of discrimination exists,” said Jason Howard, an ordinance advocate.

But at a second public meeting last Thursday, speakers for an ordinance outnumbered opponents by three-to-one. The committee must eventually recommend that the council draft and vote on an ordinance, or not, or put the issue up for a public referendum.

Fairness laws have faced significant opposition across Kentucky. Henderson city commissioners adopted one in 1999, only to repeal it two years later amid voter backlash. Louisville’s ordinance failed several times before it passed in 1999.

Most opposition to fairness laws comes from Christians who consider homosexuality to be a sin. Other Christians disagree, or they believe laws shouldn’t be based on religious views.

Berea’s debate over a fairness ordinance has gained special attention because of the town’s progressive history. Berea College was founded in 1855 by the Rev. John G. Fee based on what he considered the Christian principles of fairness and equality. At the time, many other Christians quoted the Bible to justify slavery. The college was the first in the South to admit African-Americans and women. It is best known now for educating students of modest means who work in return for full scholarships.

A fairness ordinance is supported by two Berea churches Fee founded: First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and Church of Christ, Union. Berea College hasn’t taken a stand on the issue, although it prohibits such discrimination on its campus and offers same-sex partner benefits to employees.

Christians have differing views on homosexuality. Many point to a few Bible verses that condemn it. But the Bible also prohibits divorce and says adulterers and non-virgin brides should be stoned to death.

Other Christians note that Jesus didn’t mention homosexuality in the Bible, but he did talk about loving your neighbor, treating people as you would want to be treated and being careful about judging others.

Homosexuality will always be subject to religious debate, because each Christian interprets the Bible to fit his or her own conscience and understanding. But that’s not really the point.

Freedom of religion — even freedom from religion — is a core American value. The same goes for equal protection under the law. Gay, lesbian and transgender people deserve the same legal rights and protections as everyone else. It won’t happen easily, though, so long as elected officials can get more votes by pandering to some people’s fears and prejudices.

The people of Berea have long set an example for the rest of Kentucky by treating society’s marginalized people with fairness and justice. The right thing to do in this case should be obvious. And it might even help other Kentuckians find the courage to speak out.