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148 Year Old Alumnus Shares History

Speaking to the audience of Phelps-Stokes straight from the time of the Civil War, Angus A. Burleigh talked of racism, patriotism, his life at Camp Nelson and of a kind-faced man named John Fee who invited him to take part in a "grand experiment between the races." 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 used the character of Burleigh to give a first-hand account of Union-enlisted blacks living at Camp Nelson during the Civil War. He described the mistreatment of blacks at the hands of fellow soldiers, evoking strong emotions from the audience with his passionate delivery. "Burleigh" also told of John G. Fee, Berea College's founder, who personally invited Burleigh to attend the college. Burleigh adopted Fee's vision of peace between the races. "We will not give up this ground," said Davis as Burleigh. "Father Fee's dream will live here." Burleigh was a student at Berea for many years, and after he graduated in 1875 he went on to become a teacher and minister.

When Davis decided to create his performance A.A. Burleigh: The Long Climb to Freedom, he researched Burleigh through the Berea College archives. He based his performance on military records and on numerous letters that Burleigh wrote to Fee and other individuals at the college after graduation. Davis also received help from people who researched Camp Nelson, such as Professor Richard Sears. Mary Ann Shupe, Berea College's costume designer and supervisor of the costume studio, made Davis's costume.

Burleigh's legacy of pride and overcoming obstacles lives on in Davis. After graduating from the Berea College in '92, after years of struggle with learning disabilities and attitude problems, Davis went on to get a degree in law from the University of Kentucky. He is now a lawyer, a community activist, a motivational speaker, a poet, and an actor. He has started his own business, "Empowerment Solutions", through which he hopes to help youth facing some of the same problems he faced. And much like the historic man he portrays, Davis still has strong ties to Berea College.

Davis, in a Q&A session after his performance, left the audience with some words of wisdom: "The history of this place is unique in all the world. [And] we come from humble beginnings: dirt-poor people who believe."

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