Please welcome guest author Rachel Vagts. Ms. Vagts joined Berea College’s Hutchins Library as the Head of Special Collections and Archives in February 2014. A native of Minnesota, she spent the previous 15 years as the College Archivist at Luther College in Decorah, IA and has served as the Director of the Archives Leadership Institute since 2013.
It was spring break last week at Berea and a storm closed the college on Thursday. Friday was a fairly quiet day with a few researchers and more than half of the staff out for the day. The last event on my schedule was a reception at the Carter G. Woodson Center for Interracial Education. It was a send-off for a group of college community members who were traveling to Selma, Alabama over the weekend to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March from Selma to Montgomery. I wanted to attend because my colleague Chris Miller had put together an exhibit of photos from the Berea College group who traveled to the march in 1965, and because there would be alumni returning to campus who had been part of the march.
In no way was I prepared for the next two and a half plus hours. As I sat listening to our alumni tell their stories of traveling to Selma, some for the second march on Turnaround Tuesday and many others for the third and final march on the 21st, I was so moved by their connection to our college’s history. Yes, they were called to act in the name of expanded civil rights, but again and again the name of the college’s founder, John G. Fee, was repeated.
Fee founded Berea College in 1855 as a school for men and women, black and white. Amongst his many beliefs was that he was anti-caste–believing that all people deserve equal treatment. Most spoke of how participating in the March had changed their lives–nothing was ever the same after Selma.
It made me regret not acting sooner to volunteer to be a part of the group that was traveling from Berea, but instead I had my own journey to take on Saturday. I was making a return trip to Alcoa, Tennessee to accept the donation of a collection of oral histories–Blount County Black History-As Told by Those Who Lived It-Then and Now. The collection had come to Berea via an Alcoa native and member of our faculty, Professor Andrew Baskin. We had been working with the donors for a few months and this was my second trip to Alcoa.
Working with this group (Dorothy Kincaid, Jo Davenport and Charles Pride) had been a pleasure, and after nearly a year of talking about how we might bring the collection to Berea College, it gave us all a sense of satisfaction. It was a concrete step in reaching one of our collection development goals of increasing our documentation of African-Americans in Appalachia.
I returned home feeling a strong need to write to two of my college professors, Greg Kaster and Kate Wittenstein. I had studied with them at Gustavus Adolphus College in Saint Peter, Minnesota, taking African-American history with Professor Wittenstein during spring semester of my first year and taking a number of classes with Professor Kaster, but the most memorable being a January term course during my junior year called “Do the Right Thing.”
In that course we studied the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. We read and wrote a great deal and most memorably for me, we watched every single episode of Eyes on the Prize. I thanked them for the education they had provided to a young woman who had grown up in a very homogenous small town in Minnesota and how I was using those lessons every day in my work.
Much as I was a student of history then, I remain one now. I am learning the history of the college where I work and whose history I am charged with preserving, but I also am learning the history of the region where I now live. As a collection that represents the first integrated co-educational college in Kentucky, we have a deep desire to continue to preserve the stories of the people who were a part of our college and our region, whether they are black or white, man or woman.
Last week was one of those times when I felt the history happening around me and it made me proud to be a part of it, part of the history of Berea College and to continue to do what we are able to preserve the story and history of all peoples of Appalachia.