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I was born into a coal-mining family, the fifth of 10 children, in segregated Hazard, Kentucky. I attended an all-black school and an all-black church, and I saw whites only in passing.
In 1962, when I was in the fifth grade, a desegregation law mandated that we were to attend school with whites, which required being bused. On our first day, Mom polished us like little pennies, but the bus didn’t come, so we walked miles to school. For a year, we sat in the back of the class, until our mother moved us to Toledo, Ohio.
The idea that I could obtain a higher education or realize a meaningful career was unheard of in my peer group. Instead, I married right out of high school in 1969. Following my second divorce in 1987, I was a single mother on the verge of losing my home, with no job, no car, no money, very little hope and no idea what to do.
My sister then introduced me to Nichiren Buddhism. I took to the practice right away.
We need to have confidence in the Mystic Law. We mustn’t be swayed by immediate circumstances or allow them to cloud our faith.
In 1990, I moved back to Kentucky to be with my father, and I reconnected with some family lore I had heard since childhood—that my great-grandfather Moses Turley was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, a pre-Civil War network that helped fugitive slaves escape to free states and Canada. In the process of researching this, I realized there are many blacks who don’t know their own history, in part because it was never written.
A college education would help me understand more, I thought, but I was 39 by then—too late to change my life. However, as SGI President Daisaku Ikeda tells us: “We need to have confidence in the Mystic Law. We mustn’t be swayed by immediate circumstances or allow them to cloud our faith.”
Two years later, through events that included a boss who offered to send me to school, I finally applied to college and was accepted. After three months, however, I was shocked when my boss fired me because he felt I should focus on school. He was right, but it plunged me into financial hell. There were times when I struggled to keep the lights on, when all I could do was cry, but my Buddhist practice energized me throughout. To my delight, I was offered full tuition if I agreed to teach at the college after graduation. I never considered graduate studies, as I had believed I was too old. While tuition was covered, my living expenses were not, so I continued to work.
related article Building Sustainable Societies by Daisaku Ikeda, President, Soka Gakkai International The following is excerpted from SGI President Daisaku Ikeda's 2014 peace proposal. The full proposal and those of previous years can be viewed at www.sgi.org/about-us/president-ikedas-proposals/. In light of the increasing incidence of disasters and extreme weather events in recent years, there has been growing stress on the importance of enhancing the resilience of human societies--preparing The Kentucky State Historic Preservation Office hired me to research Kentucky’s Underground Railroad sites. This later became my starting point to create a nationwide network of Underground Railroad “friends” to connect all the known Underground Railroad sites.
In 12 years, I completed four degrees, receiving my doctorate in August 2009 while working full-time. My doctoral thesis, a history of the Underground Railroad that focused on Moses Turley and stories I had heard since childhood, eventually became a model for the state of Kentucky, which until then had almost no archives on the Underground Railroad.
As I overcame every obstacle, I realized my greatest benefit was learning that my life possessed limitless value and that I also possessed the perfect tool—my Buddhist practice—to unlock those limitless possibilities.
In 2012, I challenged myself further and applied for a position as the first director of the Carter G. Woodson Center for Interracial Education at Berea College, the first college in the South to admit African-American men and women as students.
I succeeded, and now have the responsibility to create a culture of racial peace and harmony among students, faculty and administrators, to guide the renovation of a $1 million campus center and to teach.
My vision is to help raise capable people and create cultures of peace and understanding among an expanding circle of friends, thereby opening a new era of peace in our world.
[Courtesy January 2015 SGI Quarterly]
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