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BC's History: At a Bookstore Near You

Feb. 8 - Five years in the making, "Berea College: An Illustrated History", a book authored by Archivist Shannon Wilson, is now available at the Berea College Bookstore. The 246-page book details BC's historic mission, accomplishments and tensions. "All who read Wilson's account of Berea College will acknowledge the school's uniqueness and appreciate its contribution to American life," says Marion Lucas, distinguished professor of history at Western Kentucky University.

Archivist Shannon Wilson signs his long-awaited book.

We sat down to talk with Wilson and find out a little more about the book and the process he went through to write it.

BCnow: Obviously, "Berea College: An Illustrated History" is about the history of Berea College, but did you focus on a specific time period or series of events in the schoolís history? If so, what time period or events did you focus on?

Wilson: What I did is I looked at the entire history of the college from its beginning to the present; so thereís even a chapter on the current administration as well as our founding. Rather than write some kind of massive 800 page tome, I looked at three or four incidents in each presidential administration that either affirmed, enhanced or at times denied our core values and claims as an institution.

BCnow: Why did you choose this particular topic to focus on? Why the history of Berea College?

Wilson: Well, my sabbatical idea about 5 years ago was to begin writing a biography on William Frost, but at the same time I was thinking this, the administration was noticing the sesquicentennial was coming up. President Shinn was very interested in having a new history written for the sake of the sesquicentennial. We hired a consultant, Dr. David Potts who is the prize winning author in the history of American higher education. They brought him in and he visited on the campus, he visited with me, and then not too long after that the President invited me to come over to his office. He said, ďShannon, I want you to write this book!Ē So thatís how it ended up. Thatís how I ended up writing this book. I have been the archivist for 20 years, so Iíve kind of lived in the past for 20 years! When you think about Berea College, Iíve developed this close acquaintance with how we used to be, and thatís helped me to develop a sense in some ways, and thatís helped me to understand why weíre so amazing and strange.

BCnow: What exactly do you mean by strange?

Wilson: Well, I think when you look at what we tried to do after the Civil War, to be an interracial, co educational institution, I canít imagine that most observers at that time would have thought that we were sane. Thatís what I mean by strange. In our very amazing, modern age, there are a lot of things that we just take for granted: our interactions with people from different backgrounds, our expectations. We know in our guts that something is really wrong if someone is cut away from something because of their gender or their racial background or their perspective or whatever. But in the 1860ís, this was new ground. This was very new ground. And itís an amazing story, so as a historian or writer my job, in some ways, was really easy because I had a great story to tell. So then I was trying to find a good way to tell it.

BCnow: What makes your book any different than all of the other books that we can find about Berea College?

Wilson: The last history of Berea College was published in 1982 and it was called ďBereaís First 125 Years.Ē That book was actually an update of our Centennial history, which was originally written by Elizabeth Peck in 1955 and was called ďBereaís First Century.Ē Dr. Peckís book is arranged topically. Thereís a chapter about labor, thereís a chapter about fundraising, a chapter about interracial education and so on. President Francis Hutchins who asked Dr. Peck to write that book said, ďI asked Mrs. Peck to write a nice history of the college, and she did.Ē Itís a book that is very useful and the topical arrangement is useful if youíre interested in some aspect of the college. My book is different in that it is a chronological story, beginning with John G. Fee before he even conceives of Berea, and it goes all the way from there to the present day. While it is probably in some ways not as detailed as Dr. Peckís book, what it does do, I think, is it allows the reader to have the whole story woven together for them. In Dr. Peckís book, what you have to do is if youíre looking at labor, she takes you chronologically through the topic but you donít have something to thread the whole book together. By the time you get to chapter nine in my book, and youíre reading about the current administration, there are certain phrases and ideas that youíre going to be just worn out with because Iíve pulled those threads all the way through.

BCnow: How time consuming was this project for you?

Wilson: Iím really fuzzy now about when this actually started! It started in the fall of 2001 with my sabbatical and the college granted me a full year just to do research and writing. Then I worked part time on it until this past summer and I returned to full time duty. There have still been distractions like, "Oh, you have to finish the index," problems with photographs, and I needed to get all these things done. The library staff and special collections division have been amazingly generous. For about 18 months, it was all I thought about. It was all I did! Iíd come in, Iíd have a research carrel here in the library and Iíd be here at 8 am every morning sitting down. Iíd have a really great day, and Iíd whip out three pages and then the next day Iíd spend three hours trying to compose a sentence, so it went back and forth. I was really encouraged by Janet Blythe who was also on sabbatical at least at the very beginning; we were on sabbatical more or less at the same time. She was researching ďthinking,Ē and I was telling her this, I said "This is terrible! I havenít done anything! I have nothing to show for eight hours at the office today." She said, "But have you really thought about it? What have you learned by thinking about it?" So we had this big discussion and at the end of it, she said, "You know, I think youíve had a pretty good day!" That was a real encouragement to me, that saying that staring out the window trying to gather my thoughts and trying to really understand what the reader needs to know about this place was really good work but it was really exasperating.

BCnow: Was writing the book more challenging than you thought it would be?

Wilson: Yes, it was much more challenging than I thought it would be. I had co-edited a book on the civil war in Appalachia back in 1997 and I contributed an article to that, and helped edit the other 10 or 11 articles that were in that volume. I understood the publishing process and working with the University Press. I understood the level of commitment, I think. Honestly, I spent the first six months writing the wrong book! It was painstakingly detailed, it was very carefully crafted, and it was unbelievably boring. I really hope that what finally came out with a lot of help and careful thought from lots of different people, that this will be a good read. What I hope is that the general reader, when he or she comes to the end of it and puts it down, theyíll say "Wow, what an interesting place!" For the scholar, what I hope will happen is he or she will put that down and say "What an interesting place, and Iíd like to think some more about it and go more in depth" into topics and areas that I didnít have time to explore.

BCnow: Is there a special significance for you in having this book released in Berea Collegeís sesquicentennial year?

Wilson: Well, for me itís just a privilege to participate in the sesquicentennial year in this way. I see this book, if Iíve done it right, then itís a present to the college that itís given to itself. Hopefully it will be around, it will be useful for a long time to come. I think, years and years from now, when weíre celebrating our bicentennial, people will look at the book that I have written and will say, "Isnít it interesting how they saw themselves back then?"

BCnow: Now that the Illustrated History of Berea College is finished, can you describe the feelings you have right now about the book and being finished?

Wilson: I am exhausted, but itís the kind of tired you have when you feel like youíve done something really good. Iím very satisfied with it. Iíve seen the proof pages, and I think itís going to be a beautiful book. The designers at University Press did a great job with it. Itís beautiful, so itís very satisfying and Iím very excited to see it, to actually hold it in my hand. Iím ready for that.

BCnow: Do you have anything else youíd like to add? Anything interesting about the process you went through or any funny stories youíd like to share?

Wilson: Wow, there are so many! Well, I think one of my favorite lines from the book is actually a caption from a photograph, and itís a phrase that I think many students would appreciate today, I know I would have when I was a student here. Itís a phrase from a young woman, an Ohio student named Daisy Nichom. Daisy was here about 1900 or so, and sheís writing to a parent, and sheís talking about all the work sheís doing, all the studying sheís doing; and she closes the letter by saying "I know I shall be better and more ladylike if I should live to get out of this place." I think there are a lot of students that might feel that way about Berea. "If I can just live through this, Iíll probably be a better person." I thought that was a very telling phrase. The other aspect of this work that was really wonderful for me was, as I said, Iíve worked here for 20 years, and I felt quite easy and familiar with the records and the photographs that Iíve used. There are 180 photographs in this volume. There were photos that I had never seen before when I was going through the selection process. Thereís a wonderful connection that you make when you look into the eyes of a person that is looking back at you from all those years ago. I think it pulls you back. I think especially when you look at the photographs from the early campus, you just have to wonder, "How did they do it?" When I look at those early photos and I see men and women of different ages, different colors, all mixed up in those different photos together, I think, ďWow, what a witness that is to who they were and what weíre trying to be.Ē

Shannon Wilson's book is now available to the public. You can find your own copy at the Berea College Bookstore.

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