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William Turner Honored for Lifetime Service to Appalachia

During its annual conference held in Portsmouth, Ohio, March 27-29, the Appalachian Studies Association (ASA) honored Dr. William H. Turner, current National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Chair in Appalachian Studies at Berea College, for a lifetime of service to the Appalachian region. The Cratis D. Williams / James S. Brown Service Award is the highest honor bestowed by the organization and is given annually to an individual who has made exemplary contributions to Appalachia.

Dr. William Turner

A pioneer in articulating the role of African Americans in the region, Turner grew up in the company town of Lynch in eastern Kentucky where his father and grandfather were coal miners. He has combined the personal with the professional by focusing his career as a sociologist on Appalachia with an emphasis on the African American experience in the mountains. For nearly three decades he has contributed to the understanding of Appalachia and its African American minority through his teaching, publications, lectures, newspaper editorials, media consulting, mentoring, and administrative work. Through this work he has shared with others the struggle to be both black and Appalachian, and he has modeled the achievements that can come from meeting that struggle head on.

Among the first to combine interests in the fields of African American and Appalachian Studies, Turner has produced a number of path-breaking texts, including the seminal Blacks in Appalachia coedited with Edward Cabbell and published by the University Press of Kentucky in 1984, “Between Berea and Birmingham: The rock and hard place for blacks in Appalachia,” and a thematic essay on black Appalachians published in the widely-respected Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. Turner has also twice served as guest editor of special issues of Appalachian Heritage devoted to African Americans in the region.

Throughout his career, Turner has held various administrative and teaching positions at several colleges and universities and has used these appointments to promote recognition of the Appalachian region, and of its black and white residents. Perhaps most important are his unstinting efforts to make higher education attractive and accessible to students from the region. As NEH Chair in Appalachian Studies at Berea College, he continues to teach classes on Appalachian history and culture, pursue research projects on Appalachia, and work with students, faculty, and staff to facilitate the integration of Appalachian Studies scholarship and materials into courses at Berea.

Among the many honors Turner has received throughout his career, in 1994 the Christian Appalachian Project named him its “Person of the Year,” in part for his “untiring dedication to the people of Appalachia.” Last year, for similar reasons, he was inducted into the Kentucky Civil Rights Hall of Fame, and also recognized as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Citizen of the Year, for “advocating for the rights and expanded educational opportunities of Blacks in Appalachian Kentucky.”

The ASA award honors Cratis Williams, linguist, storyteller, cultural activist, and eloquent defender of Appalachian culture born in 1911 in Lawrence County, Ky. and Berea alumnus James S. Brown, the sociologist at the University of Kentucky who pioneered studies of Appalachian society, demography, and migration.

The Appalachian Studies Association is a professional association of nearly 1,000 members. Composed of scholars, writers, artists, teachers, and other professionals whose work or interests relate to the Appalachian region, its members come from all across the United States, as well as from mountainous regions in other countries, such as Scotland and Wales. It conducts conferences, publishes a newsletter and journal, and maintains a website to promote regional understanding and growth.

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