Special To The Enteprise
Dr. William “Bill” Turner is coming home to Harlan County.
The celebrated author on books about Appalachia and a noted historian and professor at Berea College, Dr. Turner will deliver the commencement address to the graduates of Southeast Kentucky Community & Technical College on Friday in the gymnasium of the Harlan County High School. The commencement and awarding of degrees will take place at 6 p.m. with over 350 individuals slated to receive degrees and diplomas during the college’s 50th annual ceremony.
A pioneer in communicating the role of African Americans in Appalachia, Bill grew up in the coal-company town of Lynch where his grandfathers, father, brother and uncles were miners. He has combined his family and personal journey with his professional career by focusing as a sociologist on Appalachia, with an emphasis on the African American experience.
At Kentucky’s renowned Berea College, he is a Regional Ambassador, and earned his PhD in sociology and anthropology from the University of Notre Dame in 1976. He completed a post-doctoral fellowship at Duke University in 1983 where he was tutored by John Hope Franklin and D. Eric Lincoln in the Center for Study of Race Relations and Civil Rights. He began his venture into education as a student at the Lynch West Main Colored School where he attended through his junior year when the school was consolidated as Lynch High School. He received an associate in arts degree from Southeast Community College, graduating in 1966. Soon thereafter, he would leave Harlan County and enroll at the University of Kentucky where he earned a bachelor’s degree.
Over the past four decades, he has contributed to the understanding of Appalachia and its African American population through teaching, publications, lectures, newspaper editorials, media consulting, mentoring and administrative work. He has held academic posts at Fisk University and Howard University and served both as dean and as the interim president of Kentucky State University. Roots author Alex Haley for whom Bill served as research associate from 1980-91 proclaimed: “Bill Tuner knows more about black people in the mountains of the South than anybody in the world!”
Among the first to combine interests in the fields of African American and Appalachian Studies, Turner has produced a number of path-breaking texts, including the seminal ‘Blacks in Appalachia,’ 1984, which he co-edited. His thematic essay on ‘Black Appalachians’ was published in the widely-respected Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. He was an editorial advisor of the Encyclopedia of Appalachia. He has also twice served as guest editor of special issues on ‘Blacks in Appalachia’ of Appalachian Heritage published by Berea College. He has also worked with the Whitesburg-based media group, Appalshop, in particular, on a documentary titled Long Journey Home, about migration in Central Appalachia. For two decades, he penned columns for the daily paper in Winston-Salem, N.C. (The Journal), and for the African-American weekly, The Chronicle.
Despite his many accomplishments, Turner never forgot his Harlan County roots and relished each opportunity to return to the area in order to reconnect with family and friends.
“The area will forever be in my heart,” he said. “That is why I am so very happy to be able to come home and speak to the graduates of Southeast and compliment them on their hard work and to offer words of encouragement as they push forward into their careers and with their lives.”
SKCTC President Dr. W. Bruce Ayers, a long-time friend of Dr. Turner and a former classmate at Southeast, noted how happy the college community is to have a person of such standing come home and help celebrate the graduates’ accomplishments.
“I have called Bill Turner a true friend for nearly half a century; I am pleased he has been able to take time out from his busy schedule to be with us on graduation night.”
Among the many honors Turner has received throughout his career, in 1994 the Christian Appalachian Project named him its “Person of the Year,” for his “untiring dedication to the people of Appalachia.” In 2006, Notre Dame University named him “An Exemplary Graduate.” In 2009, the Appalachian Studies Association honored Bill for a lifetime of service to the region, noting on its highest honor, “Bill Turner is an individual who has made consummate contributions to the Appalachian region.” He is also a member of the Hall of Fame at Southeast Kentucky Community & Technical College.
In 2007, he was inducted into the Kentucky Civil Rights Hall of Fame, and, in 2008, he was recognized by the Governor of Kentucky as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Citizen of the Year, for “advocating for the rights and expanded educational opportunities for people in Appalachian Kentucky.” He also serves on the board of the Kentucky National Lands Trust, the New Opportunity School for Women and the Christian Appalachian Project.
Dr. Turner has been married since 1969 to Vivian Love Turner, retired president of the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Foundation. They are the parents of three adult children and four grandchildren.