Students and citizens lined Chestnut Street on Monday to affirm their unity in the wake of racial and homophobic slurs and harassment directed toward Berea College students during homecoming weekend this month.
The demonstration continued Berea College’s history “of standing up against racial inequality and seeking social justice for all,” said Virgil Burnside, a college administrator and former Berea city councilman. The college was founded as an integrated school in the 1800s by abolitionist John G. Fee.
Demonstrators held “Love over hate” signs, chanted “This is what democracy looks like!” and sang the civil rights anthem We Shall Overcome as well as Bill Withers’ 1972 pop song Lean on Me. Passing motorists honked horns to express their support.
About 500 demonstrators participated in the event, said Lavoyed Hudgins, director of the college’s public safety department. The college has an enrollment of 1,600.
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An administrative committee for the college said incidents of “drive-by racism and homophobia” were directed at students from roads on campus during homecoming weekend Nov. 13 and 14. Some students took their concerns to the Nov. 17 meeting of Berea City Council.
Lyle Roelofs, the college’s ninth president, encouraged students and residents to protest together.
“It was important that the town and the college together make a statement against the hateful acts that we have occasionally experienced here,” Roelofs said. “We think possibly this will deter that kind of thing but more importantly develop a sense of solidarity among ourselves.”
Asked how the demonstration could be a deterrent, Roelofs said: “There’s something about shame, and when a whole community rises up and says ‘We reject this,’ we hope that has an influence. Of course, one can’t be sure. We don’t even know the people we’re dealing with.”
Formal complaints about the harassment have been filed with the Madison County attorney’s office, said Sgt. Jake Reed, spokesman for the Berea Police Department. He did not know if any alleged offender has been served a complaint.
It was important that the town and the college together make a statement against the hateful acts that we have occasionally experienced here.
Lyle Roelofs, president of Berea College
While Monday’s demonstration was in response to recent incidents, slurs are nothing new.
“We know of incidents every year that happen with our students,” said Sarah Broomfield, executive administrative assistant in the academic vice president’s office.
Students who took part in the demonstration told of incidents that have happened to them.
Tamia Ware, 19, said in an interview that a truck revved its engine as she crossed at a pedestrian crosswalk. Another time, a truck sped by and a person yelled a racial epithet to a group of people standing at the crosswalk.
“I’m from Alabama, so I’ve had things like this happen before,” Ware said. “But I wasn’t expecting it here because when I came to Berea, I was told it was inclusive and that it was diverse. ...Hopefully, it will change.”
Neidy Rodriguez-Hernandez, 19, said she was surprised by the anti-Hispanic remarks directed to her. She said that on at least three occasions, while she was working at the student craft center, comments like “You shouldn’t be here” and “You don’t belong here” have been directed to her.
Despite these incidents, “I love Kentucky as a whole. I’m happy to be here,” Rodriguez-Hernandez said. “There are a lot of flaws everywhere.”
Fortunately, the college community “has been very supportive, and that’s the best thing we can do, is stick together,” Rodriguez-Hernandez said.
Dayzaughn Graves, 18, of Richmond, said the incidents in Berea were not comparable to the racial tensions at the University of Missouri, where the football team boycotted activities and forced President Tim Wolfe to resign this month.
“I think that’s stretching it because that had a lot of racial things happen specifically with that president,” Graves said. “I think that is what our president was trying not to do, but to try to say, “I see you all, I do care for you all’ so it doesn’t escalate to that.”
That Roelofs took a public position to rally the campus and community “makes me excited and secure in my choice as a freshman that I chose Berea College,” Graves said. “I’m at a place where I don’t have to be afraid to go to the administration if I need something. That’s terribly important.”