Berea College Archives preserve the stories, black and white, man and woman

Posted by Dave Tabler | March 16, 2015

Rachel VagtsPlease 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.

Courtesy Berea College Alumni Relations.

Ann Beard Grundy ’68 and Barbara Cranford Rhymes ’65 look at the photo of the “Berea 59” with Dr. Alicestyne Turley, the Director of the Carter G. Woodson Center for Interracial Education. Courtesy Berea College Alumni Relations.


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.”

Courtesy Berea College Alumni Relations.

Members of the “Berea 59″ who participated in the Selma marches in 1965, hold a banner created by Carolyn Hearne, ’66, who made the same one they carried 50 years ago. Courtesy Berea College Alumni Relations.


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.



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With their Heads Together as Lovin’ as Two Little Kittens

Posted by Dave Tabler | March 13, 2015

Major crime remained very rare in Noble County [OH], and the occasional exceptions made big news. One of the county’s more baffling murder cases began on November 5, 1905, when the family of William Leisure returned to their Carlisle home from Sunday church services and found Leisure sitting fatally wounded in his chair with two bullet wounds to the head.

One bullet, fired from inside the house, was found lodged in the door, but no weapon could be found. Subsequent investigations were apparently fruitless as well, because in December, the county commissioners offered a $350 reward for evidence leading to conviction of the guilty party. They later increased the reward to $500, and on January 10, 1906, the apparent breakthrough came.

On evidence gathered by T.P. Gidden of Caldwell and a Cambridge detective, officials arrested James Harvey Leisure, a nephew of the deceased. A few weeks after his arrest, a grand jury indicted Leisure for first degree murder. Meanwhile, rumors spread that the accused had a romantic interest in his uncle’s daughter, while others spoke of his alleged love for Leisure’s wife.

By the time the trial opened on March 13, interest in the case was intense. Courtroom spectators reportedly stood “on window sills, on the backs of seats, on the tops of desks and wherever a footing could be had.” They watched as over fifty witnesses told their stories in an epic two week courtroom drama.

The prosecution based much of its case on James Harvey Leisure’s alleged love for his uncle’s wife. They produced one witness, a neighbor, who testified, according to the Republican Journal, that she had once seen the accused and Mrs. Leisure “with their heads together as lovin’ as two little kittens.”

They were unable, however, to secure a witness to the crime. This aided the defense, which called a large number of character witnesses before both counsels addressed the jury one last time. With two weeks of testimony to consider, the jury deliberated 6 hours before finding Leisure not guilty. No subsequent arrests were made in the case. James Harvey Leisure died in 1908.


from A History of Noble County, 1887-1987, by Roger Pickenpaugh, Gateway Press, Baltimore, 1988

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Leo Finkelstein. Pawnbroker. Mensch.

Posted by Dave Tabler | March 12, 2015

Leo Finkelstein’s father came to Asheville, NC in 1903; Leo was born in 1905. “Kosher food and orthodox cooking was family tradition until my father died. I attended camp in Brevard and canoed on the French Broad to Arden. I left my lunch behind and ate the bacon and eggs with the rest – despite the Jewish rules. I used to take a car from the square to Biltmore and fish in the Swannanoa. The Asheville Power and Light ran an open air street car and rides cost 5 cents each way.”

“My father gave me a job in his pawn shop for 50 cents a week – out of this I was to save 25 cents. Because of the serial movie on Saturday, I did not work Saturday morning.”


Finkelstein was in the 1922 class of what is now Asheville High School. His high school principal called him into his office and said “You’re wasting tax payer’s money – go out and get a job!”

“When I graduated from high school I inspected watches for the railroad. Railroad workers’ watches could not vary over 30 seconds a week. They were purchased from my father’s store. There is only one person in the city who can work with wind-up watches today.”

He eventually took over the family business, and was successful during the Depression when other businesses failed. “We made smaller loans during the Depression but the same 80% of items were redeemed. Anything that had value and was portable was handled. I knew most of my customers and made about 100 loans a day – 50% black and 50% white. The most reliable were the prostitutes. A lady came to my shop to pawn something – she was drunk, offered me a drink and dropped dead.

“The customers had no credit and couldn’t borrow from the bank. They needed cash for doctor bills, to buy drugs, and to eat. My father gave loans on practically nothing. He gave $5.00 with no collateral to a man who bought a portable stove and chestnuts which he roasted. The man later opened a restaurant with two sections – one black, one white.”

Finkelstein was in charge of the Jewish Aid Society. “I gave a 50 cent meal ticket to Peterson’s on the Square and helped them leave town. There were no shelters. The Jewish Aid Society, later the Federated Charity, was run by women. A drive was put on every year. One man refused to give more than $5.00 and was finally induced to donate $500.00!”

Leo Finkelstein, 1905-1998
Asheville, NC




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The shiny needle darted in and out of scallop and loop

Posted by Dave Tabler | March 11, 2015

At the first call of the robin in the spring, Aunt Emmie on Honey Camp Run, in clean starched apron and calico frock, dragged her rocker to the front stoop of her little house and there she sat for hours rocking contentedly while her nimble fingers moved swiftly with crochet needle and thread. “Aunt Emmie’s crocheting lace for Lulie Bell’s wedding garments.” Folks knew the signs. Hadn’t Lulie Bell ridden muleback from Old Nell Knob just as soon as winter broke to take the day with the old woman?

“Make mine prettier than Dessie’s and Flossie’s,” she had said.
Or, “I want the seashell pattern for my pillowcases.”
Or, “I want you to crochet me a pretty chair back.”
“I want a lamberkin all scalloped deep”–another bride-to-be measured a half arm’s length.
“I want my edging for the gown and petticoat to match.”

Kentucky lacemaker handsPassersby overheard the talk of the young folk. “Wouldn’t you favor the fan pattern?” Aunt Emmie offered a suggestion now and then while the shiny needle darted in and out of scallop and loop. Sometimes she dropped a word of advice to the young, how to live a long and happy married life, how and when to plant, what to take for this ailment and that. There were things that brought bad luck, she warned, and some that brought good.

“If a bride plants cucumber seed the first day of May when the dew is still on the ground, the vines will grow hardy and bear lots of cucumbers and she will bring forth many babes, too,” her words fell on willing ears of the young bride-to-be. “If you sleep under a new quilt that no one has ever slept under, what you dream that night will come true.” Many a young miss declared she had experienced the proof of the saying. There was something else. “Mind, don’t ever sew a ripped seam or patch a garment that’s on your back. There will be lies told on you sure as you do.” That could be proved in most any community in the Blue Ridge.

Yards upon yards of lace Aunt Emmie crocheted, the Clover Leaf pattern, the Sea Shell, Acorn, the Rose, and if a bride-to-be had no silver, the lacemaker was content to take in exchange a pat of butter, eggs, or well-cured ham. Her delight was in the work itself.


Source: American Folkways: Blue Ridge Country, by Jean Thomas, New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1942

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The boldest indecent passages I have ever seen

Posted by Dave Tabler | March 10, 2015

Publishers’ Weekly 145 (March 25, 1944):
“Strange Fruit banned by Boston booksellers”

Says a Cambridge adage: “Banned in Boston is the trademark of a good book.” On March 25,1944 Cambridge Police Chief Timothy J. O’Leary, Boston’s Police Commissioner Thomas F. Sullivan, and the Boston Bookseller’s Association all joined in squashing the sale of Strange Fruit, Lillian Smith’s recently published controversial novel about Southern racial problems, miscegenation and lynching. “The boldest indecent passages I have ever seen,” said Sullivan. The group asked the author to delete three lines of “sexual phraseology,” thereby adding the novel to the long list of Boston’s hallmarked books.

novel Strange FruitSmith, for many years director of the Laurel Falls Camp for girls in Clayton, GA, achieved national fame with the publication of Strange Fruit, which tells the story of the forbidden romance between a white man, Tracy Dean, and a black woman, Nonnie Anderson.

Commissioner Sullivan insisted that he had not banned the book, in fact “had no right to do so.” He had merely dropped in at Boston’s oldest booksellers, the Old Corner Bookstore (whose head, Richard F. Fuller, was also President of the Boston Board of Retail Book Merchants), and drawn an interested clerk’s attention to Strange Fruit‘s overripe passages. Soon all Boston booksellers received a notice from the Board of Retail Book Merchants asking them to withdraw the book.

Detroit was quick to follow Boston’s lead. Nor was the black community particularly won over. In 1945 Dean Gordon B. Hancock, editor of The Associated Negro Press wrote: “It is difficult to imagine a more subtle yet scathing indictment against the Negro race in general and the Negro womanhood in particular than that presented in Strange Fruit.”

Smith’s publisher fanned the flames. In response to the requests of some Boston booksellers to make “minor changes,” Reynal & Hitchcock issued a statement that they “have no intention whatsoever of tampering with a fine and important book in order to transform it to what official Boston might regard as acceptable. The book was published because Reynal & Hitchcock consider it an outstanding work of literature.”

Within 2 weeks of the ban, Smith’s book was selling 3,000 copies a day, while a new edition of 50,000 copies was tumbling off the press.

author Lillian SmithThanks to the ban, the novel created a sensation in 1944, going on to become a best seller, and was dramatized by Smith and her sister, Esther, for Jose Ferrer’s Broadway production of it the next year.

“In trying to shut the Negro race away from us, we have shut ourselves away from the good, the creative, the human in life,” wrote Smith about the response to her work. “The warping distorted frame we have put around every Negro child from birth is around every white child from birth also.

“Each is on a different side of the frame, but each is there. As in its twisting distorted form it shapes and cripples the life and personality of one, it is shaping and crippling the life and personality of the other. It would be difficult to decide which character is maimed the more–the white or the Negro–after living a life in the Southern framework of segregation.”


sources: “Overripe?” Time magazine April 10, 1944
Patton, Randall. “Lillian Smith and the Transformation of American Liberalism, 1945-1950.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly(GHQ). Volume 76, no. 1-2, p. 373-392, 1992.


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