From the beginning, women at Berea College have lived and learned alongside men. During Women’s History Month, we focus this week on several women who were educated here before pursuing successful careers in diverse fields. These few individuals listed here represent the thousands more who also used their Berea education to influence their world.
Mary Ellen Britton (1855-1925) attended Berea College from 1871 to 1874. She went on to become a physician, educator, suffragist, journalist and civil rights activist. An original member of the Kentucky Negro Education Association, which was formed in 1877, Britton also was president of the Lexington Woman’s Improvement Club and later served as a charter member of the Ladies Orphan Society, which founded the Colored Orphan Industrial Home in 1892. After teaching black children in Lexington public schools, she was licensed to practice medicine in Lexington in 1902, making her the first woman doctor to be licensed there. As a doctor, Britton specialized in hydrotherapy and electrotherapy.
Harriette Simpson Arnow (1908-1986) was an American novelist. Her 1949 novel, Hunter’s Horn, was a best seller that received critical acclaim. Her most famous work, The Dollmaker, was published in 1954. The novel, which focused on a poor Kentucky family forced by economic necessity to move to Detroit, reflected some of her own life as well as the experiences of many Appalachians who migrated from their mountain homes to the industrialized North in search of better lives.
Juanita Kreps (1921-2010), a native of Lynch, Kentucky, graduated from Berea College in 1942. After earning her masters and Ph.D. degrees from Duke University, she went on to become the university’s first female vice president. She was the first woman director of the New York Stock Exchange and the first woman to serve as United States Secretary of Commerce, a post she held during the administration of President Jimmy Carter.
Tharon Musser (1925-2009), a 1946 graduate of Berea College, was a noted lighting designer. Often called the “Dean of American Lighting Designers,” Musser worked on more than 150 theatrical productions on Broadway and is considered one of the pioneers in her field. Musser won her first Tony Award for Best Lighting Design in 1972 for Follies, followed by Tonys for A Chorus Line in 1976 and Dreamgirls in 1982. She was nominated for Applause, A Little Night Music, The Good Doctor, Pacific Overtures, The Act, Ballroom and 42nd Street. She also won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Lighting Design for Dreamgirls. A Chorus Line was the first Broadway production to use a fully computerized lighting console instead of a manually operated system.
Jewrette Y. (J.J.) Johnson ’77 – pursued a successful career in the financial services and banking industry in Alabama. She has actively served her alma mater as alumni class chair, former president of the Alumni Executive Council and as an alumni trustee. In 1989, J.J. was designated Outstanding Young Banker of the Year by the Alabama Bankers Association. Berea College awarded the Outstanding Young Alumnus award to her in 1992. She has been actively involved in many professional and civic organizations In Alabama.
Dreama Gentry ’89 – A first-generation college graduate from rural Appalachia, Gentry holds a B.A. in Political Science from Berea Collage and a Juris Doctor from the University of Kentucky College of Law. She leads Berea College’s educational outreach into rural Appalachian Kentucky. With an annual budget of $20 million and a staff of 140, Gentry provides leadership to 12 federally or privately funded outreach programs, such as GEAR UP, that focus on improving educational outcomes of thousands of rural Appalachian youth. Her team’s design was chosen as the only U.S. Department of Education Promise Neighborhood Implementation Grant to serve a rural community.
Kiki Ramsey ’02 is a motivational speaker, author and life and business mindset coach who provides transformational strategies to help people overcome limitations, find purpose and live happier, courageously successful lives. She has spoken as part of the Kula Kusoma program at the Berea College Carter G. Woodson Center, had a Shepherd internship as a student and was an athlete.
DeJuana Thompson ’05 – A native of Birmingham, Alabama, DeJuana credits Berea’s labor program with preparing her for a political career, teaching her the dignity of all work, the ability to work with people from diverse backgrounds, and how to resolve conflict. DeJuana has provided leadership as a political strategist to senatorial and presidential campaigns. She has led domestic and international social justice initiatives, serving as a youth mentor and helping to establish a school system in The Gambia. Her community service has been recognized with numerous awards including the Coretta Scott King Leadership Award.
Enchanta Ma’at Jackson ’09 received a dual Bachelor’s degree in African-American Studies and Women’s Studies from Berea College. She is Criminal Justice Campaign Manager for Color of Change, a political action group focused on addressing concerns of Black Americans to bring about positive political and social change to make sure all Americans are represented, served and protected regardless of race or class. Enchanta previously served as the Deputy Organizing Director for Voter Empowerment for Kentuckians For The Commonwealth.