Dr. Alicestyne Turley: Looking Back, Moving Forward
Dr. Alicestyne Turley, Director of the newly established Carter G. Woodson Center and Assistant Professor of African and African American Studies, holds degrees in Anthropology/ Sociology, Public Policy Administration, and History. The question of how these seemingly disparate degrees work together is one Turley admits to receiving often. For her, the answer is a long one, and it began very early in life.
“When I was a kid, a little kid, my aunts and uncles would tell us the story of Moses, my great-grandfather who escaped on the Underground Railroad.” Turley was told that her great-grandfather also became a conductor on the Underground Railroad, assisting other escaped slaves on their journey to freedom. It was frequently told story on her family’s farm in Powell County in Eastern Kentucky. In middle school, however, Turley encountered a teacher that challenged the story, telling her that the Underground Railroad was a myth. “I really kind of shut down after that. I didn’t know whether to believe my family or not, so I decided not to deal with it at all.”
With the story of her family’s history tucked away but not forgotten, Turley graduated from high school and enrolled at the University of Toledo. After two years of study as a communication major, however, she abandoned her studies in Communication realizing the difficulties a woman of color would encounter in the field.
Deciding to stay in Toledo, Turley entered the workforce as assistant to the Director of the city’s Economic Opportunity Association. As her talents and dedication were recognized, a string of increasingly impressive jobs followed. Turley became the first African American secretary to Toledo City Council, and the first African American to serve as secretary to the mayor. A position with the Lexington Human Rights Commission brought her back to Kentucky, where a board member took a special interest in her. “He said, ‘You’re too smart to be working here. You need to go back to school.’ He went over to Georgetown College, paid my admission fee, and I was off to college.”
At Georgetown, Turley earned the first of her four degrees, double majoring in Anthropology and Sociology. She also met a professor, Dr. Robert Bryant, who encouraged her to revisit the story of her great-grandfather Moses. Turley told Bryant about the story, and he challenged her to prove it. That effort became the topic of Turley’s Bachelor Honors Thesis and the foundation for much of her career. “It helped me understand how to conduct oral history interviews, and determine what information was important and needed to be captured.”
Before graduation, Turley met the President of Mississippi State University, a Georgetown College grad, who, like her benefactor from the Human Rights Commission said, “You need to complete your terminal degrees,” and offered Turley a full scholarship to the school’s John C. Stennis Institute of Government. There she earned her second degree, in Public Policy Administration. In the process, she worked with the director of the Institute and Mississippi State officials, including serving as an intern for the Mississippi Municipal Association on public policy implementation. It was an opportunity for Turley to affect the policies she had so long observed. “I worked with the political figures making decisions in Mississippi. That just launched me into the realization of the importance of legislative policies—how policy is made and how it affects people’s lives.”
Returning home to care for ailing parents, Turley obtained a second Masters degree and completed a Ph.D. in history at the University of Kentucky. Returning to her family history, she found connections to the world of politics. Although she had verified one Underground Railroad story, Turley found dozens more wanting confirmation. She began working with the State Historic Preservation Office to develop the Underground Railroad Research Model for the State of Kentucky requested by the National Park Service. She reached out to the National Park Service and aided in developing standards for preservation at the national level. “There weren’t that many people involved with that aspect of African American history then. After that, whenever Kentucky began talking about various aspects of preservation associated with African American history in Kentucky, they called me.”
The work led her to develop locally and nationally implemented policies. Her recognition in the field of historic preservation resulted in a special invitation from First Lady Hillary Clinton to celebrate restoration of Ellis Island in New York Harbor and from government officials in Mystic Seaport, Connecticut, the site of the recreated slave ship, Amistad. While serving as director of the Underground Railroad Research Institute, the institute she established at Georgetown College, her work with the Park Service culminated in formation of a network of national and international Underground Railroad sites, the Network to Freedom Association. The association brought together for the first time, known members of protected national and international Underground Railroad sites for the purpose of furthering preservation and research efforts.
“That’s how you marry history with policy.” For Turley, it is the intersection that matters, between people, the stories of their past, and the direction of their future. “That’s policy. When you study history, you’re really studying policies that have made an impact.” Those are the kind of policies Turley has worked to implement throughout her career.
When she received the offer from Berea to direct the newly formed Carter G.Woodson Center for Interracial Education, she saw it as a way to continue making history and new policy. “Woodson himself said Berea was the place where his ideas were shaped. His whole educational model both as principal of public schools in the Philippines and in Washington, D.C. was developed here.” As she looks to the future, Turley is excited to tell Woodson’s story, to make the world aware of Berea’s role in influencing education that created change in public education throughout the region, and to continue furthering the cause of interracial education Berea has championed for so long.