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Unformatted text preview: A Sense of Place By William R. Ferris William R. Ferris is the new Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. This article is adapted from a 1996 speech he made to the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco. No southerner speaks about their region without mentioning family. Black and white southerners are, in fact, a single extended family, a network of people who teach and support each other, as they did me. I grew up on a farm outside of Vicksburg, Mississippi. My first teachers were the black and white families whose lives were closely entwined in our community. The first Sunday of each month I sometimes spent the day at Rose Hill Church where black families have worshiped since before the Civil War. There were no hymnals in the pews. Each generation learned to sing their hymns from previous generations. After church, a communal lunch of fried chicken, biscuits, and iced tea was served upon the lawn. The church stands atop a tall hill covered with hundreds of marked and umnarked graves and commands a view of pastures and plowed fields that extend outward. Alice Walker visited Rose Hill Church in 1971, while she was living in Mississippi. She was so moved as she stood in its doorway that she composed a poem. Here we have watched ten thousand Seasons Come and go. And unmarked graves atangled In the brush Turn our own legs to trees Vertical forever between earth And Sun. Here we are not quick to disavow The pull of field and wood And stream; We are not quick to turn Upon our dreams. As a child I ran barefoot each summer in the fields of which Alice wrote. I rode horses bareback. I learned to love my family's farm and its people, who were my first teachers. At the age of five, I entered Jefferson Davis Academy, a public school that, like all public schools in Mississippi at that time, was segregated. Each teacher taught two grades. I was the only student in the school whose parents had attended college. In the sixth grade our teacher asked which students planned to go to college, and I refused to raise my hand, knowing that none of my fellow students would go. Our teacher Mrs. Barfield pointed at me and said, "Billy Ferris, you will go to college. Your parents will make you go." With every eye in the class looking at me, I replied, "I ain't going to no college. I ain't going to no college." As she had predicted, I did go: first to Brooks School in Massachusetts, then to Davidson College, Northwestern University, Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, and finally to the University of Pennsylvania where I received a Ph.D. in folklore. Without my knowing, these studies were a journey home, a way of running the academic gauntlet without forgetting the black and white people who taught me my most enduring lessons....
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- Fall '07