OLLI highlights Black History Month

By Emily Ostertag – [email protected] – Staff Writer | Feb. 4, 2014 |
For the first time, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UNC Asheville hosts its own series to celebrate Black History Month, as part of their commitment to inclusion, according to members of the organization’s inclusion committee.
“When people see how far everything has come — they remember the lunch counter sit-ins and they remember those things that happened 50 years ago, and we elected an African-American president — everybody kind of pats themselves on the back and thinks everything is over, and it just isn’t. I think certainly when you have instances like Ferguson or Staten Island, you recognize that it’s not over, but it’s a really different struggle now, and trying to figure out how we can all be a part of the solution is part of what we’d like to work on,” said Catherine Frank, executive director of OLLI.  
OLLI at UNCA exists as a separate organization and a department of the university, Frank said, providing lifelong learning opportunities to Asheville residents over 50.
“I think there are some really interesting things that might be studied about the different ways that different cultural groups see retirement. So, retirement might feel and look really different for different groups of people,” Frank said. “I’ve been here for four years and at all of my interviews one of the first questions a lot of people ask me is, ‘What are you going to do about diversity?’ They looked and they saw that we have not even a handful of African-American participants.”
Frank said OLLI has established an inclusion committee as part of its efforts to better promote diversity, not only in the UNCA community, but in a broader sense. These issues are matters of the heart and mind, she said, and tackling them needs to start with initiating conversation.
“It’s not a matter of changing laws, it’s a matter of really, I think, starting those conversations. It’s not enough to stop at the conversations, because there are things we can do,” Frank said. “One of the members, who was a history professor at Mars Hill for a really long time, he said ‘I’m going to do things for Black History Month’. So, he organized this series.”
Jim Lenburg, a member of OLLI’s inclusion committee and a professor emeritus of Mars Hill University, said for the series some collaboration took place with UNCA, as faculty members will be taking part, but OLLI looks to reach the greater community as a whole, by appreciating African-American history and understanding contemporary race relationships.
“I think inclusiveness requires an understanding of different cultures and, to me, if we’re going to be inclusive we ought to understand the history, or at least some of the history, of the people that we want to include,” Lenburg said.
Lenburg said when he started teaching courses on African-American history in the late ‘60s, when the civil rights movement was drawing to a close, he realized what kind of an opportunity he was given, at the time, to tell such a rich story that had not yet been told – at least, not in most schools.
“It’s important, for me personally, to understand that other people have grown up and experienced things quite differently than I have,” Lenburg said. “This is a part of the tapestry of American life that has been left out of the history books before.”
Deborah Miles, executive director of UNCA’s Center for Diversity Education, said the CDE will be sponsoring several programs for the month of February, including a Selma photography exhibit in the lobby of Karpen Hall and a public talk from Henry Louis Gates Jr. on African-American history, genealogy and genetics.
Miles said Lenburg noticed her involvement in a project aimed toward establishing an African-American heritage monument downtown, and asked her to give a lecture on Asheville’s history of slavery for the OLLI series.
“The earliest records all say that there were African-American people here from the very beginning of non-indigenous life — 99 percent were people held in bondage,” Miles said. “They did gold-mining, road-building, factory work, tourism work, home care, field work. It was a little bit different than in the Piedmont or the coastal area, which was more agricultural.”
Miles said this petition for a monument was prompted by research she conducted with a group of students on slave deeds in the Asheville area. They not only found slave deeds in the register of deeds’ record room for Buncombe County, she said, but realized this office was once where the Vance monument stands today.
“So, when you go to the Vance monument, it is a confederate monument rather than talking anything about the African-American community here,” Miles said. “People are surprised, and part of the African-American community that exists here now is a remnant of that community. So, having access to this material has brought a whole new way for the community to research family history.”
Finding and sharing the truth, Miles said, guides her commemoration and activism.
“How we remember, what we remember, and what we’re supposed to forget, says a lot,” Miles said.