Introduction - Woven With Words
Laurie Grobman, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of English and Coordinator, B.A. in Professional Writing
Gary Kunkelman, Ph.D.
Lecturer in English
On November 5, 2005, at the annual NAACP Reading Branch Freedom Fund Banquet, Mr. Frank Gilyard, Director of the Central Pennsylvania African American Museum on North 10th Street in Reading, asked the audience to support the expansion of the museum. He implored, "Let us tell our own story."
Although many of us from Penn State Berks who worked on this project are neither African American nor from Berks County (some students live here while going to college, while others commute to campus from their homes elsewhere), we knew from the start that the African American community in Berks does, indeed, need to tell its own story. We worked diligently to ensure that these stories were told through the community’s eyes. Much of the project's research involved interviews with members of the African American community who either lived through or had knowledge of the past. The Penn State students who wrote and researched much of this volume also turned to primary sources such as old letters, documents, and record books. These efforts proved to be an extraordinary learning opportunity for them. Not only did our students refine their research and writing skills, they also gained something that is both precious and difficult to teach: the experience of stepping outside of ones own skin and seeing through eyes of others.
This has been very much a student project, and thanks are certainly due to the students in the Professional Writing and American Studies programs at Penn State Berks who worked on this book over many months. This was most students first exposure to historical research and writing, and they rose to the challenge, approaching the effort with enthusiasm, energy, and hard work. Although most of the students wrote single-authored articles for class, in the interest of our readers, the editors combined some of their work to avoid overlap and repetition.
For the editors in particular, this project was an opportunity to meet and come to know extraordinary people. Of the many who have had a hand in it, two in particular stand out. Mr. Gilyard's knowledge is encyclopedic, and his relentless work has been fundamental to the project's success. Mr. Robert Jefferson, who coordinated the project for the NAACP Reading Branch, has been unflagging at marshalling resources, tracking down information, and coordinating the efforts of numerous people in the local community. Although it may sound like a cliché, this project wouldn't have been possible without either.
The content in this book was necessarily limited by time, space, cost, and access. We tried to cover as much as possible, but we know there is a great deal of history, including those who made and make it happen, left out. The content in this book is accurate to the best of our knowledge; a great deal is based on memory, and any inaccuracies are purely unintentional. We are hopeful that the African American History in Berks website will be maintained and updated with new information as it is sent to us. And perhaps this volume will prove to be a first chapter in an even more comprehensive story of the African American experience in Berks.
Both as foundation for future study and record of a rich past, this book is a gift from the NAACP to the African American community and to the entire Berks County community. The goal has been to create an educational tool that not only documents facts, but also records the very human experiences of struggle, overcoming obstacles, and persevering until victories are won. While the African American experience is unique, it is also a shared human experience which speaks to our common humanity, regardless of who we are. If this volume contributes even in small part to understanding ourselves and those around us, that's certainly an accomplishment to be proud of.