Speaker Biographies - Spring 2023
William H. Turner is a sociologist and anthropologist and the author of the acclaimed book, The Harlan Renaissance: Stories of Black Life in Appalachian Coal Towns, winner of the Weatherford Award for Nonfiction. Turner, the fifth of ten children, was born in 1946 in the coal town of Lynch, Kentucky, in Harlan County. His grandfathers, his father, four uncles and an older brother were coal miners.
After completing a sociology degree at the University of Kentucky, Bill Turner went on to earn a Masters in Sociology and the PhD in Sociology and Anthropology from Notre Dame University, before pursuing post-doctoral studies at both the University of Pennsylvania and Duke University.
Turner has spent his professional career studying and working on behalf of marginalized communities, helping them create opportunities in the larger world while not abandoning their important cultural ties. He is best-known for his ground-breaking research on African-American communities in Appalachia, but Bill’s work is universal. As an academic and a consultant, he has studied economic systems and social structures in the urban South and burgeoning Latino communities in the Southwest. What he strives for on behalf of his clients and their communities is what we all want: prosperity, understanding and respect.
In addition to co-editing the groundbreaking textbook, Blacks in Appalachia, Turner has contributed essays on Black Appalachians to the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture and the Encyclopedia of Appalachia.
Among his many academic position, Dr. Turner served as Chair of Social Sciences at Winston-Salem University, Dean of Arts and Sciences and Interim President at Kentucky State, Vice President for Multicultural Affairs at UK, and Distinguished Professor of Appalachian Studies and Regional Ambassador at Berea College. From 1979-91, he was a research assistant to Roots author Alex Haley, who said, “Bill knows more about black people in the mountains of the South than anyone in the world.”
Turner’s many awards and recognitions include induction into the Kentucky Civil Rights Hall of Fame, the University of Kentucky Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame, a lifetime service award from the Appalachian Studies Association and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Citizen of the Year Award.
Today, Bill and his wife, Vivian – the retired President of the R.J. Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem, N.C. – live near their children and grandchildren in Houston.
About The Harlan Renaissance
The Harlan Renaissance is an intimate remembrance of kinship and community in eastern Kentucky’s coal towns written by one of the luminaries of Appalachian studies, William Turner. Turner reconstructs Black life in the company towns in and around Harlan County during coal’s final postwar boom years, which built toward an enduring bust as the children of Black miners, like the author, left the region in search of better opportunities.
The Harlan Renaissance invites readers into what might be an unfamiliar Appalachia: one studded by large and vibrant Black communities, where families took the pulse of the nation through magazines like Jet and Ebony and through the news that traveled within Black churches, schools, and restaurants. Difficult choices for the future were made as parents considered the unpredictable nature of Appalachia’s economic realities alongside the unpredictable nature of a national movement toward civil rights.
Unfolding through layers of sociological insight and oral history, The Harlan Renaissance centers the sympathetic perspectives and critical eye of a master narrator of Black life.
Sponsored by the Office of Student Life, Diversity and Inclusion, the African/African American Studies Program, the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences, the Department of Languages & Cultural Studies, Anthropology & Sociology and the Honors Program.
Jessica Wilkerson is a 2021-23 Carnegie Research Fellow, Associate Professor of History and Joyce and Stuart Robbins Chair of History at West Virginia University and the author of To Live Here, You Have to Fight: How Women Led Appalachian Movements for Social Justice (University of Illinois Press, 2019).
After completing her B.A. at Carson Newman College and the M.A. at Sara Lawrence College, Wilkerson went on to earn the Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 2014. Prior to arriving at West Virginia, she was on faculty at the University of Mississippi for six years and a visiting scholar at the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.
Dr. Wilkerson’s research and teaching explores questions of political economy and social change in the twentieth-century South and Appalachia. She is currently interested in exploring—and countering—big narratives: that of Appalachia and how it intersects with ideas of race and gender; and the mainstream history of the modern American women’s movement. Her first book, To Live Here, You Have to Fight: How Women Led Appalachian Movements for Social Justice, traces the alliances forged and the grassroots movements led by working-class women in the Appalachian South in the 1960s and 1970s. The book received the H.L. Mitchell Award for distinguished book on the southern working class from the Southern Historical Association and Honorable Mention from the Philip Taft Prize in Labor and Working-Class History. The dissertation on which the book was based won the OAH Lerner-Scott Prize and the Labor and Working-Class History’s Herbert Gutman Prize.
Dr. Wilkerson has collaborated on or co-founded several oral history and public history projects, including the Long Women's Movement Project at the Southern Oral History Program, the Invisible Histories Project-Mississippi to document LGBTQ+ history in Mississippi, and the Black Families of Yalobusha County, MS Oral History Project at the University of Mississippi. At WVU, she is currently collaborating with former women coal miners on an oral history project documenting their lives and work, and she is on the advisory board for the West Virginia Feminist Activist History Collection.
Dr. Wilkerson is currently working on two book projects. A Women’s History of Appalachia will be the first narrative history of the Mountain South through the lives of women who lived and worked in the region from the nineteenth century to the present. In her other project, In Sisterhood, In Struggle: Feminisms of the American South, Dr. Wilkerson explores the understudied yet expansive women's movements throughout the South and Appalachia from the 1960s through the 1990s. Along with scholarly projects, she has written regularly for popular media outlets including 100 Days in Appalachia, Boston Review, NPR, Rewire News, Washington Post and Longreads.
Sponsored by Women and Gender Studies, the Office of Student Life, Diversity and Inclusion, the Department of History, Philosophy and Religious Studies and the Honors Program.
Dr. Deborah Alexander, a former diplomat with the U.S. Department of State, served as senior political advisor and election attaché for countries emerging from conflict and political crises. With over 30 years’ experience in democracy-building programs, her work focused on elections, women’s advancement, military relations, and rule of law. She retired to Kentucky in 2017 and now focuses on higher education philanthropy, civil rights projects, refugee resettlement, and veterans’ support. Prior to her federal foreign service, she was a local and state government official in New York state. She serves on the EKU Foundation Board and the advisory council for the Kentucky Center for Veterans Studies at EKU. Deborah is also collaborating with the EKU Education Abroad Program to offer future courses.
Alexander earned her A.B. in Social Work from Eastern Kentucky University (EKU) and her M.S. and Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Social Sciences from Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs. Her doctoral dissertation, “The Influence of Gender Beliefs in Constructing Candidate Images,” was a study of four election campaigns examining the use of stereotypes in voter evaluations, newspaper campaign coverage, and candidates’ communication strategies. Her co-authored article “Gender as a Factor in the Attribution of Leadership Traits” (1993) is still one of the most referenced articles from the Political Science Quarterly. Soon after graduation, she was recruited by the State Department and deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina, joining an international team of civilian experts and military peacekeepers tasked with implementing the Dayton Peace Accords.
In addition to Bosnia, she served in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Pakistan, Somalia, and Ukraine. During her career, Alexander sought other diplomatic, defense and development agency assignments, working also at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the U.S. Joint Forces Command (JFCOM), and the Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
After the September 11 attacks on the U.S., Alexander volunteered for Afghanistan and was one of the first civilians on the ground. Initially she was embedded with U.S. Army Special Forces and Civil Affairs teams throughout the countryside; next she oversaw U.S. technical and financial assistance to Afghanistan’s first presidential elections in 2004, and provincial elections in 2005. By 2010 she was the U.S. Senior Representative to U.S. and NATO commanders in the south and southwest during the largest military operation against insurgent forces. In 2012 Alexander joined an embassy civilian-military task force, planning the drawdown and withdrawal of troops and civilian personnel. Her final Afghanistan responsibility was the 2014 presidential election recount, likely the country’s last democratic election.
The U.S. Army honored Alexander in 2018 with a lifetime membership in the Special Operations Civil Affairs Regiment. She is the recipient of the Syracuse University's Spirit of Public Service Award, two U.S. Department of State Expeditionary Service Awards, two Superior Honor Awards, two Meritorious Awards, NATO's Public Service Award, and the U.S. Secretary of Defense Medal for Exceptional Public Service.
During her sophomore year at EKU, Deborah was a Fulbright Fellow, interning with Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity in India – igniting her love for global affairs. She currently serves on the Lexington (KY) Mayor's International Affairs Advisory Commission and represents the United States on overseas election missions. She has observed elections in Ukraine, Moldova, North Macedonia, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Belarus, and Russia. She works as an election day polling sheriff, and volunteers for the Christian-Muslim Dialogue, the Community Response Coalition-KY, and Lexington Habitat for Humanity. Since Afghanistan’s collapse in August 2021, Alexander focuses part of her time on rescuing people from that country and on supporting new Afghan immigrants in Kentucky.
In her spare time, she is developing her photography and hopes to write and teach.
Sponsored by the Veterans Studies Program the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences, Graduate Education and Research and the Honors Program.