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UA students get real feel for rural life

Demopolis, known as the Shining Star of the Black Belt, is like no other city in the Black Belt region, and a group of students from the University of Alabama’s Blackburn Institute want to know why.

The students, part of a fellowship program at the institute, visited Demopolis and the surrounding areas this week to learn more about the issues facing rural Alabama and what Demopolis has done to escape the poverty and other problems so rampant in other parts of the area.

“The Blackburn Institute is very much involved in the state of Alabama,” Jon David Conolley said. “Our main interest is to come up with innovative ways to solve the problems facing rural areas.”

The junior listened intently Tuesday as Demopolis’ own Grand Dame, Gwyn Turner, told of the history of Demopolis. The group met with Turner, Historical Society Director Kirk Brooker and Library Director Lindsey Gardner at the library.

Turner discussed the recent visit by a French author who is working on a book about Demopolis’ French roots before moving on to more recent events like the civil rights movement and the Jewish community.

“We have a wonderful Jewish community here,” Turner said. She told the students gathered that she had a lot of Jewish friends growing up, but did not notice the differences between them and herself until they went to college.

“I didn’t understand why we couldn’t be in the same sorority,” she said, a statement that raised more than a few eyebrows. One instructor explained that until not too long ago, Jewish students had their own sororities and fraternities and were not allowed to join the “non-Jewish” organizations.

Turner said the civil rights movement was similar here in Demopolis, noting that while there were some marches and minor incidents, integration was rather smooth here.

“Everyone here just thought it made sense,” she said of the integration. “There were some white people who started the private school, and it’s still here today, but most of us thought it made sense. Everyone wanted it to work.”

The students have spent the last few days talking with people from the area to identify problems facing the rural towns and find out what residents think can be done about those problems. One student asked the panel at the library why Demopolis was the Shining Star of the Black Belt, and Brooker told her it was the very people they had been talking to.

“I think it’s because we make it the bright shining star,” he said. “We have an Arts Council, we have a Historical Society, we have a lot of things that most small rural towns don’t have and I think it’s because when we decide we want something to happen, we get out there and make sure it happens.”

Cheree Causey, vice president for student affairs and institute advisor, noted that the group had observed that community involvement in action.

“One way you grow leadership in a community is through boards. Just about every session we’ve had someone has mentioned being on a board,” she said. Sophomore Abby Smith said that was what she liked to hear.

“As we’ve talked we’ve heard of the Black Belt and the problems here, and there’s almost a despair, but I like to hear about community involvement,” she said.

In addition to the history lesson at the library, the group visited numerous businesses and spoke with local entrepreneurs, superintendents and representatives of the Demopolis City Schools Foundation. They also visited Bryan W. Whitfield Memorial Hospital, Foster Farms, Gulf States, New Era, the Chamber of Commerce and others.

The Blackburn Institute was created in 1995 by the Division of Student Affairs at The University of Alabama. It’s purpose is to create a network of leaders, the Blackburn Fellows, who have a clear understanding of the challenges that face the state of Alabama. The Institute strives to provide its fellows opportunities to explore issues and identify strategic actions that will improve the quality of life for all of Alabama’s citizens.

This is accomplished by giving fellows the opportunity for in-depth exposure to areas around the state of Alabama, stimulating intellectual discussion about civic issues and subsequent action. Student fellows study, explore, deliberate, and decide on strategic actions.

Throughout the year, student fellows travel to various areas of Alabama to be exposed to the broad issues involved in civic responsibility and meet with community and state leaders.