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Founders' Day Honors Battle for Education

At Oct. 12th's annual Founders' Day convocation, Wallace A. Battle, an African American graduate of Berea College in 1901, was honored posthumously for his tireless service and great commitment to education as a school administrator and leader in his community.

Images from Founder's Day convocation, O'Neil Arnold Photography.

Battle is the most recent recipient of the John G. Fee Award, which honors Berea alumni from 1866-1904 who gave distinguished service to their community, and whose lives reflected the College's motto: "God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth."

Four of Battle's grandchildren attended the convocation to accept the award in Battle's honor. Larry Shinn, Berea College's president, presented the family members with walnut boxes designed and handcrafted by Berea College Woodcraft. Each box bore a cast-bronze medallion created by Berea artist Ken Gastineau featuring the African symbol of "sankofa". The symbol is derived from a word in the language of the Akan people of Ghana, and represents retrieving and understanding one's heritage. It also implies one must "learn from your past that you might move forward," said Shinn. The box also contained a woven table runner in a traditional pattern, made by Berea College Weaving.

Berea's Black Music Ensemble opened and closed the convocation with their performances, as they took over the first two rows of seats and got the audience in a celebratory mood with the songs "I Will Bless the Lord" and "Total Praise".

Wallace Battle (1872-1946) left a diary in which he recorded much of his life. He grew up on an Alabama cotton farm, one of thirteen children of Augustus and Jeanetta Battle, who were freed slaves. Although illiterate themselves, the parents encouraged their children to get an education and in 1888, at age 16, Battle began attending Talledega College, a private school in his home state. Ten years later, he had completed the first year of college. He decided to look for another college, he recorded in his diary, because “I had reached a point where I could not learn anything of real value from the professor unless he taught me as a man and brother and not as a missionary ward.” At age 26, Battle entered Berea College to complete his degree where he found himself “in a brand new world.” He earned a bachelor’s degree from Berea College in 1901, and was awarded a master’s degree in 1907. Later, in 1932, he received an honorary degree of Doctor of Literature from Berea in recognition of his professional achievements.

After graduating from Berea in 1901, Battle first served as academic director at Anniston (Ala.) Normal School for a year. In 1902, he moved to Okolona, Miss. to found the Okolona Industrial School, a normal and industrial school for African Americans, and a year later married Effie Dean Threet. The couple had four children. Under Battle’s leadership, the Okolona School prospered and in 1920, became affiliated with the Episcopal Church. Okolona’s most well-known graduate is 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist William Raspberry.

In 1932, Battle became responsible for supervising the operations of all the Episcopal Schools for Negroes, which included nine schools and colleges in eight southern states as Field Secretary for the American Church Institute for Negroes. He was the first African American to hold this position, retiring from it in 1937. Other highlights of his career included serving as President of the Mississippi State Teachers Association for five years and membership on the Mississippi State Inter-Racial Committee.

The children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of Battle have carried on his legacy of education. Four of five grandchildren appeared at the ceremony to honor their grandfather, traveling from New York, Minnesota, Georgia and Florida. Granddaughter Anita Pernell-Arnold, of St. Petersburg, Florida, has gained national recognition for her dedication to improving multicultural competence and psychiatric rehabilitation. She has served on three major research center advisory boards, including the University of Pennsylvania. Evelyn B. Kalibala of Brooklyn, New York, has served as the Director of the Office of Multicultural Education of the New York City Public Schools system. She is credited with single-handedly developing the multicultural program for the entire New York City system. Wallene Jones of Newnan, Georgia, dedicated her life to an exciting career in law enforcement, working as a detective in New York City and breaking new ground as the first African American female detective on the NYPD force before retiring to Georgia. She now operates an art gallery called “Gems of Africa” which “requires” her to travel to Zimbabwe and South Africa regularly. Grandson Ed Rhodes, Jr., of Jamaica, New York, is a marketing officer with the City University of New York, serving in a leadership role for that institution’s comprehensive fundraising campaign. His wife, Dr. Joanne Edey-Rhodes, is a professor of African American history at Hunter College of the CUNY.

The granddaughter who was unable to attend the convocation, Dr. Jane Rhodes, is Dean for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, and Professor and Department Chair of American Studies at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. She said, “I am truly saddened that I cannot attend this tribute to my grandfather, who has been a central role model for my own professional development…I thank you for the honor being bestowed on my grandfather and his descendants. We will treasure this memoriam always.”

Anita Pernell-Arnold spoke for herself and her family in accepting the award, saying "I wish to express that we are overjoyed [and] proud." She shared her earliest memories of "Grandpapa, or Papa Battle," and how he would visit her family and bring "a very tiny brown paper bag filled with rock candy."

She also shared the family's perspective on Battle's accomplishments, and on the goals and dreams Battle held for himself and his family. Many of Battle's family members and descendants have gone on to well-educated and significant careers, still devoted to making a difference.

"Our earliest memories are full of our family's educational expectations for us," said Pernell-Arnold. And of her own drive to be educated, she said "I am only now beginning to realize how much my grandfather had to do with [it]."

Because of Battle's influence, education is now a family tradition, said Pernell-Arnold. "My mother teaches, I teach -- all of us teach, one way or another."

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