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Dr. John Fleming opens doors to history

In the afternoon of February 25, students walked to Union Church, not Phelps Stokes, to attend a special convocation commemorating Black History Month. Because of ongoing structural repair work at Phelps Stokes, the convocation was held at this historic church.

Dr. John Fleming, '66.

The speaker, Dr. John Fleming, ’66, was the founding director of the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center, and director of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

Attending Berea College as a student, Dr. Fleming majored in History and worked as a janitor for the department, opening its doors early every morning as part of his job. The intellectual growth he experienced and the work ethic he developed at Berea enabled him to open many other doors through his work. Only these doors opened to various chapters of African American history.

After graduating from Berea College, Dr. Fleming attended the University of Kentucky, the University of California at Berkeley, and Howard University, where he got his Ph.D. Soon after, he embarked on a lifelong path of establishing and directing museums for the generations of Americans who only have a textbook knowledge of the African American struggle for equal rights.

At the convocation, Dr. Fleming spoke of his experiences throughout his career.

He helped to open the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce, Ohio in 1988. With an area of approximately 240,000 square feet, the museum aims to educate the public about the history and culture of African Americans.

One of the museum’s permanent exhibits that Dr. Fleming helped to create is “From Victory to Freedom: Afro-American Life in the Fifties.” It chronicles the African American experience from 1945 until 1965, and depicts African American life at a time when the struggle against segregation was beginning to bear fruit. To illustrate this history, Dr. Fleming has used scenes of a barber shop, a beauty shop, and a church. In total, the exhibit has collected over 5,000 objects from that period.

Another project that Dr. Fleming helped to create was the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. The purpose of the center is to offer lessons on the historic African American struggle for freedom. Its location is significant to the name because many slaves escaped to Cincinnati using the Underground Railroad.

The museum’s August 2004 opening ceremony attracted quite the crowd of high-profile guests. Laura Bush, Oprah Winfrey, and Muhammad Ali were among the attendants.

Today, Dr. Fleming is the vice president of the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal. He also directs the traveling exhibition “America I Am: African American Imprint on America.”

Dr. Fleming cited Carter G. Woodson, Berea graduate and founder of Black History Month, as one of his chief inspirations. He also fondly reminisced about his days at Berea, including his job as the History Department janitor.

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