Learning from Dr. William Turner

Over a decade ago I sat in a small classroom a couple floors above the Appalachian Center, learning about Contemporary Appalachia from the ever charismatic Dr. William Turner. To learn about Appalachia from a Black professor born and raised in Lynch, Harlan County Kentucky, reading books like Uneven Ground by Ron Eller and Lost Mountain by Erik Reece, is truly a unique opportunity even if I didn’t realize it at the time.

I’ve since graduated and now work for the Appalachian Center as a Program Associate. Dr. Turner went on to retire and write his newly released book, The Harlan Renaissance: Stories of Black Life in Appalachia. Our paths crossed again last week when he came to Berea as a distinguished convocation speaker for his talk “Between Birmingham and Black Mountain in Kentucky: The Harlan Renaissance in Central Appalachia’s Coalfields.” It’s been over a decade since I’ve seen him, but he’s the same as he ever was. Wearing a suit and bow tie, he paced up and down the floor of the stage, captivating the audience with his sense of humor, speaking uncomfortable truths, and even singing Bill Wither’s classic “Grandma’s Hands.”

Dr. Turner was an endless fountain of knowledge on Appalachian history, but he also knew the importance of keeping up with the times. We were not only encouraged, but REQUIRED to keep up with current events. I remember frantically browsing online for tidbits of news before rushing off to class in the mornings, so if Dr. Turner called on me I would have something to share. He often had a way of calling on you when you least expected it and while we were never punished for not staying up with current events I couldn’t bear to disappoint him.

Dr. Turner demanded that his students actually engage in class material. It was not enough to simply show up and read the materials. He wanted to us to be curious, think critically, and not be afraid to delve in to difficult and uncomfortable truths. I remember receiving a C on a paper once (a low grade for me), and asking where I went wrong. He said “Your paper has all the right ingredients, it’s just opaque. The message is unclear.” To this day I strive to make my message clear in my writing and get at the heart of each story.

So what is the heart of this essay? I suppose it’s the fact that students are lucky to have mentors like Dr. Turner in our lives. Someone who expects greatness. Someone who challenges you to think differently. Someone who cares deeply about Appalachia and for his students.

Article Written by Heather Dent