Lee University, College Hill relationship explored

Posted 1/26/20

A panel discussion on the relationship of Lee University and the College Hill Community evolved into an opportunity to delve into how to bridge the racial divide.

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Lee University, College Hill relationship explored


A panel discussion on the relationship of Lee University and the College Hill Community evolved into an opportunity to delve into how to bridge the racial divide.

Held Thursday night in Lee University’s Johnson Lecture Hall, “Bridging our Parallel Lives: Lee University and College Hill Community” drew an audience of students and community members.

Dr. Arlie Tagayuna, associate professor of sociology and hosted,  said it is important to focus on issues like this, especially during the week of the Martin Luther King Jr. observance.

Tagayuna introduced the panelists for the discussion: Dr. Carolyn Dirksen, a professor of English at Lee; Antoinette "Toni" Miles, the founder and CEO of Transforming Greatness, which helps with personal and professional advancement “to empower people and organizations to discover, develop and dominate in God’s original design”; Olympia Pierce, a Christian Leadership graduate of Lee; and Jake Strum, director of strategy and development at City Fields, a local organization with the goal and mission to transition the Blythe-Oldfield Neighborhood into a sustainable community.

Tagayuna said a few years ago he and a group of students did a survey of the College Hill neighborhood and learned of the growing challenges of College Hill. He noted it is "a repository of so many talents," but few Lee students know about the community.

He said, historically, College Hill grew from systemic migration of African-Americans into the neighborhood. College Hill School was the only black high school in Bradley County and one of only three elementary schools in the county from the late 1800s to the 1960s, before segregation ended. The College Hill School burned and closed in 1966.

Pierce said College Hill started in the 1800s. In the 1930s, it was the only local school with teachers who had earned college degrees. In 2005, the Tennessee Historical Commission placed a marker "making it a historical landmark for the state of Tennessee," she said.

The College Hill High School Association was also founded that year "to make sure the history of College Hill is preserved and carried on," she said, mentioning notable College Hill graduates, including Cleveland Vice Mayor Avery Johnson, Dr. Jane Smith Redmond, former U.S. Air Force Maj. Dennis Green, Dr. Harry Johnson and Harvey Tillery. She added there are many College Hill graduates who have held prominent posts all over the world.

The College Hill Recreation Center was built in 1991.

"College Hill and the City of Cleveland has a rich history here," Pierce said. She added there is much to learn about College Hill and its people.

Tagayuna said College Hill faced a lot of social challenges and there have been sparse connections between Lee University and the College Hill neighborhood.

He said Dirksen was among the first to make that bridge.

Dirksen said she came to Cleveland 1968 and began getting involved in College Hill through a local pastor, with whom she helped distribute food and items like clothing every Saturday. She said she loved helping with his work in the community.

However, her perspective on him and that work changed after a College Hill mother asked her to help arrange making sure her children got to church, because the mother couldn’t for a while.

Dirksen asked the pastor to direct the bus that picked up children for church to add the College Hill street to the route. However, he said he couldn’t take black children to his church.

“He said, ‘It’s not me. It’s my congregation — they would never accept bringing black children to the church,’” Dirksen said, adding she was devastated by his comments, but didn’t know how to reply.

Dirksen spoke to her husband, Murl, and they decided to begin offering Sunday school to the children of College Hill. They bought a van and rented a building, later moving to a house on Wildwood Avenue and starting an after-school group. As the program grew, Lee students began to help and the group was integrated during a time in the 1970s in Cleveland where not much else was integrated, she said. The program lasted 10 years.

“We made it our goal to get them (the black and white youngsters in the group) to get along,” Dirksen said, adding “we learned then that prejudice is learned (behavior).”

‘Be the Bridge’

All four panelists participated together in a “Be the Bridge” discussion group based on Latasha Morrison’s book title “Be the Bridge: Pursuing God’s Heart for Racial Reconciliation.” Their group, Be the Bridge Southeast Tennessee Region group, discussed a variety of topics.

“You will learn what you are is an accumulation of your surroundings,” Pierce said. She said through this process she has learned to ask herself hard questions and to challenge her thinking and assumptions.

Locally, the "Be the Bridge" curriculum has brought people together to learn how to bring the community together.

Miles said about 1 ½ years ago she and Strum went to a United Way presentation and learned about a book by author Leroy Barber. They decided then to work "to bridge all the people in this country."

She and Strum co-facilitated the nine-week class, expanding it a few additional weeks to talk about race relations and multiple issues.

"We wanted to figure out what we could do that would be meaningful in a way of giving back," she said.

To that end, the group is working on a podcast, interviewing local people "to uncover all the stories." (See related article on Page XXX.)

Miles said she believes it is important to tell the story of College Hill because "we can be the bridge we so need right now in this divided country."

Question-and-answer session

The panel members answered several questions from the audience, including asking Strum to explain what he meant by the term “redlining” he used in earlier comments.

Strum said many banks used to only loan money to black families living in an area surrounded by a red line on a map; that is why so many black families moved to College Hill — it was “redlined.” Even then, banks wouldn’t often offer loans to blacks, he added.

Another question from the audience was how many times College Hill High School had burned down, and if those fires had been considered arson of hate crime, or accidental.

Pierce said the school was part of the Cleveland City Schools system; it caught fire three times and there were investigations, but no findings.

“There are no definitive answers,” she said, adding though that it is discussed in the podcast.

There were school records lost in the fires, but many remaining records are part of the information on display at the College Hill Recreation Center. There are many photos of students, events and activities that remain from the school, Pierce added.

“This wasn’t a shabby school at all,” Pierce said. It had sports programs, cotillions and other events.

An audience member requested the panelists share their own stories, to which they agreed.

Mile said she grew up in a family of activists in Richmond, Kentucky, understanding that she was to “do better” and felt as though she carried the responsibility of her race on her shoulders. That was emphasized when her grandmother told her “your whole race (is who) you’re representing.”

Miles said her grandparents ran an organization called CORE. Her family members participated in protests, including sitting at a “whites only” lunch counter at a Woolworth's store. Miles said she saw her family members spat on, and dogs loosed on them.

Personally, Miles said she was one of 12 students chosen to integrate the middle school where she lived. As a child, she heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak, in Frankfort, Kentucky.

She said being one of the students to integrate a school “was tough because you feel alone.” It was also an honor and a privilege, but she resented it, especially all the “firsts” — she was the first black cheerleader, the first black homecoming queen, etc.

“For me this is an assignment … that we have to build this bridge to the size of our country, for the size of this world” and to honor God, she said.

Pierce said her family is “very multicultural” with family members married to people of other ethnicities and nationalities, so she didn’t think she’d bring much “baggage” to the group. However, the “Be the Bridge” discussion and self-reflection process was difficult for her at times, she said.

Strum said he and his wife have two sons, the older son adopted from Ethiopia and the younger son adopted from India. A few years ago, Strum’s older son wanted to play football and the family had two choices: a league with mostly white players whose parents the Strums knew, or a league with mostly black players where their son could be with other youngsters who looked like him. They chose the latter group, not realizing it would put them in the minority in that scenario.

“We were the only white parents,” Strum said, adding he felt exposed and anxious. “That’s how our (black) friends feel every day in Cleveland.”

Another audience member asked if the “Be the Bridge” curriculum can be taught in the local school systems.

Strum said it probably could, noting it is a faith-based curriculum.

Miles added there is a “Be the Bridge” university curriculum, too.

Pierce said links are available on the local group’s Facebook page.

Another question from the audience centered on how Lee University students can help bridge the gap between the races.

Dirksen said Lee University offers both Crossover, a community service effort led by Lee students to get to know people in the community, and Backyard Ministry, a student-led tutoring ministry. She encouraged the students to “really have a sincere friendship with a person of color or an international student.”

“Try to be a friend,” Dirksen said, adding she knows a lot of lonely people of color and international students at Lee who would welcome friendship.

Pierce added there are many churches in the Church Hill area that will welcome all Lee students. She noted among those offering welcome are her father, Pastor Samuel Hall, the pastor of Fellowship of Praise Church of God, formerly Inman Street Church of God.

“That’s a real low-risk way to get involved as well,” Pierce said of visiting local churches.

Concluding the discussion, Tagayuna offered a quote from Richie Norton, the award-winning bestselling author of “The Power of Starting Something Stupid: How to Crush Fear, Make Dreams Happen, and Live Without Regret”:

“Believing there is a bridge from where you are to where you want to go is 99% of the battle. The other 1% is to cross it.”


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