About four months before William Wheeler arrived as a freshman at the University of Pikeville and relaunched the university’s Black Student Union, a group of about 125 white nationalists marched through the streets just blocks away.
They chanted and carried signs on April 29, 2017, hoping their message would resonate in a county that continues to suffer from a sharp decline in the coal industry.
The rally — condemned at the time by many Pikeville residents and local officials — contributed to what Wheeler said is a largely unfounded stereotype of Eastern Kentucky as a hotbed of racism in America.
“The only thing people really know (about Pikeville) right now that got national attention was the white supremacists coming,” Wheeler said. “With our BSU on campus, we can help change that face, the face of Eastern Kentucky.”
Wheeler grew up in Westchester County, New York, just north of the Bronx and a short train ride from New York City.
He heard about the University of Pikeville through a college selection survey he filled out in high school. Wheeler said he wanted to go somewhere he had never been before, preferably a smaller university where he could focus on his studies.
Despite some concern from friends and family, Wheeler decided on Eastern Kentucky.
“I came out here and kind of fell in love with UPike and the people here,” Wheeler said. “I knew I wanted to try something different, and I knew this was very different. I had never been to Eastern Kentucky before.”
For many black students who arrive in Pikeville from large cities, such as Louisville or Chicago, the racial makeup of the area — Pike County is nearly 98 percent white, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau — can be a shock, said Rob Musick, the university chaplain and adviser of the Black Student Union.
But the racial makeup of the university, which is about 13 percent black, can also be shocking to white students who grew up in Eastern Kentucky and rarely traveled outside the region, Musick said.
The university’s previous iteration of the Black Student Union began four years ago with the goal of fostering understanding.
“It was a very tense time,” Musick said, referring to the national conversation on race in 2014, which included protests in Ferguson, Missouri and the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement. “We started BSU out of a concern of many of my black students (who said), ‘I just don’t feel like there’s any space or voice to say anything.’”
With the formation of the BSU, minority students found a forum to talk about issues they faced on campus, ranging from a lack of ethnically-skilled barbers to limited racial diversity among the university’s faculty and administration.
“We wanted to force the campus to have this conversation,” Musick said.
But after about two years, the group fizzled out. Minority students were again without a space to meet and voice their concerns — until Wheeler arrived.
“Will’s leadership, and the students who support him, are just unbelievable,” Musick said.
By September 2017, the group was officially restored.
Its members soon began organizing events where students of all backgrounds could gather and have honest conversations about race and other sensitive political issues, such as gun control.
One of those events was a soul food dinner, held at the home of University of Pikeville President Burton Webb and attended by about 150 students, faculty and staff.
Webb said the city’s embrace of Wheeler and the BSU, and its rejection of the white nationalists who came just months earlier, illustrates “what happens when a small town really cares about the people who live in our area.”
“That story is not very newsworthy, it doesn’t get a lot of air play, but that’s the reality here,” Webb said, recalling the university’s reaction when Wheeler and other students proposed restarting the Black Student Union: “We said, ‘Great, it’s about time.’”