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Alumnus Returns to BC After 132 Years

The audience was mesmerized as A.A. (Angus Augustus) Burleigh spoke of war, racism, his life at Camp Nelson and of a kind-faced man named John Fee who invited him to take part in a "grand experiment". Burleigh, who was the first adult black student at Berea College in 1866, was portrayed in a powerful one-man performance by Berea graduate Hasan Davis.

Hasan Davis as A.A. Burleigh.

Davis's strong voice boomed across Gray Auditorium as he used the character of Burleigh to give a first-hand account of Union-enlisted blacks living at Camp Nelson during the Civil War. Sometimes, when describing the mistreatment of blacks at the hands of fellow soldiers, Davis would trail off in a slightly choked tone; the silence adding a more profound punctuation to his descriptions than his angered voice. Davis then shifted time to ten years later, showing Burleigh happy and well, on the verge of graduating Berea College and getting married. Davis also described Berea's founder John G. Fee and the college's early days through Burleigh's eyes.

Davis researched Burleigh for his performance, "A.A. Burleigh: The Long Climb to Freedom", through the Berea College archives, basing his performance on military records and on numerous letters that Burleigh wrote to Fee and other individuals at the college after graduation. Burleigh was invited to attend Berea by Fee himself, who was undertaking the college as an "experiment" in blacks and whites living together side by side. The two grew close: "I call him Father Fee," said "Burleigh", "because he has shared with me the same love, honor and respect as he shows his own family."

Hasan Davis graduated from Berea College in '92 after years of struggle. Originally from Georgia, Davis was a troubled student who suffered from learning disabilities. He was involved in gangs and dropped out of high school before finally earning his GED and coming to Berea. But even here he managed to get into trouble, and he was expelled from Berea twice before finally graduating with a degree in Oral Communications.

"I came here with a lot of issues, because I didn't believe that this was my place," said Davis. Learning about Berea and A.A. Burleigh helped him reconcile his own history with the primarily white history in textbooks. "If I had known this story twenty years ago when I showed up, I might not have been expelled twice!" he said, provoking a laugh from the audience.

After graduating Berea, Davis went on to get a degree in law from the University of Kentucky. Today he is a lawyer, a community activist, a motivational speaker, a poet, an actor, and has started his own business, "Empowerment Solutions", through which he hopes to help youth facing some of the same problems he faced.

Davis performed the character of Burleigh as part of Kentucky Chautauqua, a program by the Kentucky Humanities Council which funds historically accurate impersonations of important but little-known figures from Kentucky's past. Anyone who missed this performance has another chance to see it next semester. Davis will be reprising his role for the convocation on February 2. More information on Davis's projects are available at the links below.

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