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African American educator and 1901 graduate Wallace A. Battle to be honored at Berea College Founders’ Day Oct. 12

10/2/06
Wallace Aaron Battle, an African American graduate of Berea College in 1901 and a school administrator and educational leader in the Deep South, will be honored at the College’s Founders’ Day Convocation Thursday, Oct. 12. The annual event is scheduled for 3 p.m. in Phelps Stokes Chapel.

Battle is the 2006 recipient of the John G. Fee Award, given posthumously, which honors Berea alumni of 1866-1904 who gave distinguished service to their community, especially in the field of education, and whose lives reflect the ideals of Berea founder Rev. John G. Fee, as expressed in the College’s motto “God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth.”Four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren of Battle are expected to travel from New York, Minnesota, Georgia and Florida to attend the event. A grandchild of Battle will also speak as part of the program.

In honor of the award, Berea College President Larry Shinn will present family members with a walnut box designed and handcrafted by Berea College Woodcraft. Each box bears a cast-bronze medallion created by Berea artist Ken Gastineau featuring the African “sankofa, a symbol derived from a word in the language of the Akan people of Ghana that represents retrieving and understanding one’s heritage. Inside the box is a table runner in a traditional pattern hand woven by Berea College Weaving.

The event will also include a performance by the Berea College Black Music Ensemble.

Much is known of the life of Wallace Battle (1872-1946) from the diary he kept. He grew up on an Alabama cotton farm, one of thirteen children of Augustus and Jeanetta Battle, who were freed slaves. Although illiterate themselves, the parents encouraged their children to get an education and in 1888, at age 16, Battle began attending Talledega College, a private school in his home state. Ten years later, he had completed the first year of College. He decided to look for another college, he recorded in his diary, because “I had reached a point where I could not learn anything of real value from the professor unless he taught me as a man and brother and not as a missionary ward.” At age 26, Battle entered Berea College to complete his degree where he found himself “in a brand new world.” He earned a bachelor’s degree from Berea College in 1901, and was awarded a master’s degree in 1907. Later, in 1932, he received an honorary degree of Doctor of Literature from Berea in recognition of his professional achievements.

After graduating from Berea in 1901, Battle first served as academic director at Anniston (Ala.) Normal School for a year. In 1902, he moved to Okolona, Miss. to found the Okolona Industrial School, a normal and industrial school for African Americans, and a year later married Effie Dean Threet. The couple had four children. Under Battle’s leadership, the Okolona School prospered and in 1920, became affiliated with the Episcopal Church. Okolona’s most well-known graduate is 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist William Raspberry.

In 1932, Battle became responsible for supervising the operations of all the Episcopal Schools for Negroes, which included nine schools and colleges in eight southern states as Field Secretary for the American Church Institute for Negroes. He was the first African American to hold this position, retiring from it in 1937. Other highlights of his career included serving as President of the Mississippi State Teachers Association for five years and membership on the Mississippi State Inter-Racial Committee.

Berea was established in 1855 when abolitionist Rev. John G. Fee began what would become the first that was both co-educational and admitted black and white students on an equal basis. Fee’s founding vision characterized Berea until 1904, when Kentucky enacted the Day Law prohibiting integrated classrooms in the state’s schools, a law Berea unsuccessfully appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Not until 1950, when the law was amended, was Berea able to again admit African American students.

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