This week we feature two African American staff/faculty members―Carl Thomas and Dr. Alicestyne Turley―whose work and personal influence is having a significant impact on Berea College students. Like others on campus and beyond, they are “investing in lives of great promise.”
Mr. Carl Thomas
Carl Thomas, a 1978 Berea graduate, is Berea’s Associate Director of Admissions and Coordinator of Minority Services.
During his years of service in the Admissions office, he has guided hundreds of students to Berea for a life-changing education. Many of those were students from his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama.
In an interview recently published in the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center Newsletter, he described some of his own experiences and explained how Birmingham has changed over the years and what it means for today’s students from Birmingham to attend Berea.
“But my story about Berea starts when I was in high school, and me and a friend of mine were trying to decide whether or not we were going to cut class, and we knew we wanted to leave school and take a break but we hadn’t decided where we were going to do it. We were out in the hall trying to decide in between classes, and there was this rule that anyone caught loitering in the hall after the tardy bell had rung would get a day or two suspension.
There was no way I could go home and tell [my parents] that I got put out of school for any reason. So my friend and I we were caught in no man’s land, the bell had rung, and we were still just standing out here. We didn’t realize what was going on, but the boy’s advisor was coming down the hall and he called out to us and we did what any normal person would do: we ran. I happened to run into the auditorium, and there was a small group of students talking to a Berea College representative, so I just slowed down and tried to act natural. I went and sat down, and the guy thought I was just a late arrival, but the more he talked the more I realized, hey, that sounds like me. Here’s a place where you go to school; you can work your way through because there’s a work program here; the cost is minimal, but [they’re] looking for students who are academically capable. Well I fit into that description.”
“Now when I talk to students, I am seeing more and more students who will need mentoring . . . because it doesn’t exist in their community. There are some programs out there that capture some of the kids, but there are still a number of them out there who just don’t have that connectivity to that sense of purpose, which comes from a sense of family, from an extension of other supports within a community, a church, for us. They just don’t have that.”
You wonder why things stand out, like money as the focus. As for me, learning was the focus because of encyclopedias [and] my father, that structure he provided for me. It didn’t matter to me how much money I was going to make because I worked seven jobs. I knew how to make money, and I knew I could always make money because of the skills my dad also helped me with. In addition to those jobs I always knew I would be able to do that so for me it was more intrinsic self-enrichment, but that’s not the case with a lot of people. We have to understand that they don’t have the ability to get to that place. We [must] take them from where they are right now and look at whatever challenges they are confronted with and try to help them work through those challenges.”
“I came up the summer after I was admitted. I got on a greyhound bus by myself and rode 24 hours to Berea, and that was before the Interstate was complete, so I took all the back roads coming up to Knoxville and then coming up through the gap and coming to Berea, coming through Corbin and all of that. Coming from Knoxville you didn’t just come straight up as you do now.
So its 24 hours, and I get off here [Berea] at a bus stop right out front. I guess people knew that I was kind of wandering because I stood out and didn’t know where to go. I just sat and talked to people about coming up to visit campus and told them that I needed to find [the] admissions office and was supposed to just stay overnight … and I met some guys here who were from Birmingham and oddly enough these guys lived within blocks of me.
I knew them, but I didn’t know they were at Berea because they graduated two years before me. Larry Lewis, Larry Penick, Douglas Jackson, Michael Cannon, Jerome Austin, Phyllis West, were all people from my high school who were here at Berea, and there was a guy by the name of Richie Grissett who didn’t go to my high school. These guys took me in, and I ended up staying here for almost a week. That sealed the deal for me.”
“I think it’s fairly typical of many [Birmingham] communities now. There is no real sense of community. I wish I could say that people are making a link between the history of Birmingham in terms of civil rights and what that struggle was about and what that struggle brought about and realizing that dream that King and others had as a result of that. In many ways, we’re not realizing that because the younger people are not connecting. There’s been a breach in terms of those stories, and they’re not being carried along.
Something I thought was a huge challenge to the breakdown of the infrastructure among the African American community was the war in Vietnam. It took a lot of our men away, many who never came back, and those that did were very damaged either with what they witnessed, finding coping mechanisms that are not positive things and so now you don’t have that family structure that I spoke about or I grew up in where you have the two parent family. You’ve got struggling single parent homes. You don’t have the kind of guidance that I got from my dad. It bothers me that kids can’t reference back to what my daddy taught me. That may not sound important but it was extremely important for me. What would my father have done in this situation? You don’t have that reference, you don’t even have what the patriarch would bring to a family experience. It’s lost and it’s just not there, so you see people who are disconnected.”
Dr. Alicestyne Turley
In her role as Director of the Carter G. Woodson Center and Assistant Professor of African and African American Studies, Dr. Alicestyne Turley, helps people―students, faculty, and staff alike―understand the impact of Black History.
The Carter G. Woodson Center for Interracial Education provides opportunities to:
- Celebrate and honor Carter G. Woodson, a 1903 alumnus of Berea College and the founder of “Black History Month;
- Study Black History and interracial education;
- Serve as a vehicle for continuing to make history.
“Woodson himself said Berea was the place where his ideas were shaped,” Turley states. “His whole educational model both as principal of public schools in the Philippines and in Washington, D.C. was developed here.”
The Carter G. Woodson Center for Interracial Education fosters communication around the fifth of Berea’s Great Commitments, which states: “To assert the kinship of all people and provide interracial education with a particular emphasis on understanding and equality among blacks and whites.”
Dr. Turley, who holds degrees in Anthropology/ Sociology, Public Policy Administration, and History, notes that Woodson’s Appalachian roots and Berea’s influence often have been overlooked. Therefore the Woodson Center is focused on telling his story in order to make the world aware of Berea’s significant role that created change in public education throughout the region and to continue furthering the cause of interracial education for which Berea College has long been a champion.
Activities and events organized by the Carter G. Woodson Center for Interracial Education include:
- The annual Martin Luther Day Celebration a symbolic community march
- Bringing notable speakers to campus, such as Naomi Tutu, Berea College alum 1983; Dr. Daryl Michael Scott, President of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, an organization founded by Berea College alum, Dr. Carter G. Woodson; and Jim Kates, an organizer and participant in the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project
- Conversations on Race that foster interracial dialogue between blacks and whites with nationally ranked discussion leaders such as bell hooks, author, feminist and resident Appalachian Scholar; Dr. John A. Powell, author and director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Equitable Society at Stanford University; Mr. Tim Wise, anti-racist essayist, author and educator; and Peggy McIntosh, feminist scholar and anti-racism activist, associate director of the Wellesley Center for Women, speaker and the founder of the national S.E.E.D Project on Inclusive Curriculum.
- Civil Rights Seminar and Tour that creates opportunities for faculty and staff to connect with each other and their work as Berea College educators through an on-campus Civil Rights Seminar and a Tour of significant locations across the South where landmark events took place in the struggle for equal Civil Rights.
- Diversity Peer Education Training (DPET) Team that consists of students who conduct peer education to promote social and cultural change.
- February Film Festival that features a four week, theme-based movie series focused on issues of racial identity in America and followed with discussion led by faculty, staff and community leaders.
- Christmas Around the World is a cooperative project with Berea College’s Child Development Lab for children from the CDL to enjoy storytelling, artwork, music and fun while hearing about other Christmas and holiday traditions from around the world and understanding about different holiday traditions as well as how all human beings enjoy spending time with family and friends.