Peter R. Whitis, M.D.
Donated by Dr. Whitis:These pins were used by Berea students
to protestsegregation in Berea during the early 1950s.
is a Berea College alumni, class of 1956. Dr. Whitis recently contributed a portion of his memoir, Stories I Tell Myself: A Memoir
, related to his experiences as a student at Berea College, which include details concerning racial equality and reintegration in the early 1950s. He also donated a button which was used as a protest by students in the 1950s who successfully convinced the Porter Moore Drug Store on Main Street in Berea to serve Berea's African and African American students. Peter and his wife Martha, also a Berea graduate, live in Wisconsin.
Excerpts from Memoirs of Peter R. Whitis, M.D.
"I first learned about Berea and the marvelous tuition-free educational opportunity it offered when my family visited Dad's sister, my Aunt Laura and her husband Frank Long
, who lived in rural Berea. Since I wanted to go to college and had no money, I applied. At the time of the application, I was a Junior in High School in Tampa. I got back a letter explaining that unfortunately I was out of the territory Berea normally served and they could not take me."
"The summer before my senior year my maternal grandparents had relocated near us in Tampa and had noticed a new drugstore opening up in their shopping area. They told me the store was hiring and I applied. I got a job as a stock boy when the store opened. I was fifteen. Everything was going fine for two weeks until the manager realized he had hired too many people and had to let some go. I was one of them. Now I had nothing. All of the summer jobs were taken. My major strength as a caddy or working around a golf course was work done by black people in Florida, and I didn’t have a ghost of a chance on any golf course. So, in desperation, having no viable alternatives, I thought of going to uncle Frank and Aunt Laura’s in Kentucky just to live with them and help them out. It wouldn’t be a job but at least I’d be doing something interesting. Little did I know that the course of my life would alter dramatically as I was setting off on my own to deal with the world—all because of a store manager’s hiring error!"
"Frank had casually said that I could come visit when I had been there the first time. When I learned that a free ride to Kentucky with one of Mom’s friends who happened to be going there, I hastily wrote Frank and left."
[Here, Peter describes the summer living in a rustic cabin near Berea, working, and locals fox hunting]
"Then Laura one day in late August said, “Why don’t you go down and apply to the Foundation School?” That was the local high school affiliated with the college. Laura thought if I could be accepted there I could get into the college.
I put on my best shirt and jeans and went in to talk with Dean Roy Walters, a short, smiling white-haired man with glasses who made me feel at ease. He talked with me about the school and I told him who I was and what I had been doing, what kind of student I was and how our family had no money for college, how I was the oldest of five boys, that I didn’t know what I wanted to be but I knew I wanted to go to college and I had always worked, how I’d spent the summer with Frank and learned lapidary work—we must have chatted for close to an hour. It was a warm day; there was an open window in this second story office and street sounds came in from the activity below. The office was unpretentious with some framed certificates on the wall, a nondescript desk, dean Walter’s tilt chair and two straight-back chairs, one of which I was occupying. I didn’t feel nervous probably because I thought my chances of getting in were nil anyway and I was just giving it one last shot. At the end of our conversation, without any school records to look at, without checking financial records, without any references, without anything but a conversation with me, a 16 year-old boy who had been living in the woods for the past three months—Dean Walters said there had been two cancellations and he would be happy to accept me into the twelfth grade of Foundation School.
I left his office floating. I could hardly believe it. Here was the education, board and room being offered and all I had to do was work in the college work program. I was elated. I had absolutely no money. My parents didn’t even know I had applied and couldn’t send me anything. The only clothes I owned I had brought in a suitcase, but it didn’t matter. I could manage all of those things. I was accepted into the high school and would get into the college if all went well. I had two weeks to get ready. Frank and Laura arranged for me to get a job those two weeks at a drugstore in town and I earned twenty dollars with which I bought some clothes. I wrote Mom and Dad. Phones were not used in those days like they are now and besides Frank didn’t have one. Their response was they were happy for me but they hadn’t planned on my leaving home so early. I was 15 when I went to Berea and had my 16th birthday with Frank and Laura that July. My parents wished me well. I was on my own.
When I went to Berea Foundation School and later the College, I went knowing only that it was an opportunity to go to college and I could work my way through. I don’t think I considered anything else other than how fortunate I was to be able to go. I was coming out of a very poor family who could not afford any financial support, where seven of us were living in a two bedroom house and everything I earned had to go into the family pot. So I was just grateful and overjoyed to be accepted at Berea. I did not know how extremely fortunate I was because Berea was more than just a school for mountain children who couldn’t afford to go elsewhere. I had stumbled onto a gold mine of dedicated people who taught to the highest standards, whose values were service and dedication to enduring principles of integrity."
"As you know the Kentucky Day Law was rescinded and allowed the colleges to accept black students in the early 1950s. The early history of the college which had both white and black students and then was forced by the Day Law to separate races is a fascinating story."
"My girlfriend then, (wife now) Martha Noss (daughter of Prof. George S. Noss of the Philosophy and Religion department) was asked if she would be willing to be a roommate for the first black student admitted. That was fine with Martha. Gradually more black students were admitted and by the mid-1950s, it was an accepted fact."
"Berea’s admission policy also admitted 10% of their students from foreign countries feeling they would add an important cross-cultural dimension to campus life."
"It took me five years to work my way through Berea College taking classes half-time. I felt the extra year in college was a bonus and I got to take all the classes I enjoyed. As I matured, I found some “rust spots” in the college commitment to racial equality and did what I could to rectify the situation as I saw it."
"The college owned the stores across the street from the campus and rented them out to local citizen proprietors. One of these was a popular drug store that had a soda fountain and was a favorite student hang out. When more black students came to campus, they were refused service at the drugstore because of the owners’ prejudice. The college administration was unwilling to confront the issue so Martha and I organized a boycott of the store until their practices changed. We invested our own money in a thousand black and white pins which stated the college motto. We circulated a petition to student and faculty to pledge not to patronize the store until all students were served there. People who signed the pledge wore the buttons. We contacted over 800 like-minded people on campus.
I was shocked by the ambivalence and moral difficulty some faculty and fellow students had with our request. There was a professor of religion who would not sign because he really enjoyed going there for his afternoon malt. Another professor just couldn’t give me a straight answer and kept avoiding the subject. Some of the students responded with blatant racist remarks and I was accused of being a “nigger lover”. At one point, the lady in the post-office was spreading rumors that I was a communist. This was all very educational for me as I had stumbled onto a situation that challenged peoples’ values in unforeseen ways.
Eventually, the drugstore capitulated but I don’t think many blacks went there for a long time. The local movie theater, the only one in town, had a policy of making all the blacks sit in the balcony. I used to refuse to take Martha to that movie house because of that policy. One day I just go so angry at the whole situation that as we went up to the balcony, I simply tore down the sign directing “Colored” upstairs. The sign was never replaced and blacks began moving into the lower areas. By now I was getting a reputation for being an agitator but generally was well-liked and respected. Looking back, I think some of my intensity and rigidity of principle kept me from finding more workable and compassionate solutions; also I am sure my adolescent righteousness turned people off.
There was another memorable incident that illustrates the tenor of those times. I became friends with an African student, Ade Aderonamu, an ebullient, stockily built, very black, witty young man a few years older than the rest of us who spoke excellent English and had a great grin and sense of humor. He had come to Berea College from Nigeria at the influence of Baptist missionaries. Imagine his dismay when, after he attended his first service at a local Baptist Church, he was asked to not return. As we sat talking over this, he described how he was not going to let this incident prejudice him. He would not write a letter to his homeland about the disrespect he’d been shown because if he did, the missionaries there would no longer be respected and might be chased out. The irony of a black man recruited by missionaries from a Baptist faith to come to America and then be discriminated against by those same Baptists in America was one of the saddest stories of the times. But what redeemed it was Ade having the full sense of the Christian message and showing the tolerance his benefactors lacked."
Dr. Whitis explains how "the small steps of social activism in Berea shaped an important dimension that continued to influence our lives." Peter and his wife Martha served as peace activists working to improve relations with the USSR. He earned an award in 1985 while working with the Physicians for Social Responsibility, the same year the organization won the Nobel Peace Prize. Peter states, "our goal back then was to reduce the tensions of the Cold War and nuclear MADness."