U.S. Poet Laureate Has Maternal Tie to Bluffton

   A little-known chapter of Bluffton University history, outlined in a campus forum Oct. 1, will be illustrated in the flesh at another forum Oct. 15.
   Fifty years after her mother, Gwendolyn Turnbough, finished her one year at then-Bluffton College, Natasha Trethewey, the current Poet Laureate of the United States, will speak “On Poetry and History” in the university’s annual Keeney Peace Lecture.
   Telling Turnbough’s story as part of the Oct. 1 forum was Hannah Johnson, a junior from Goshen, Ind., and one of six students who assisted Dr. Perry Bush, a professor of history, in relating a mixed history of race and ethnicity at Bluffton.
   From 1946-76, Johnson said, Gulfport, Miss., was the site of a Mennonite voluntary service unit, which built relationships between whites and blacks through involvement in numerous community projects and religious programs.
   In the late 1950s and early ‘60s, the General Conference Mennonite Church and its colleges—including Bluffton—made it possible for 10 African-American students from Gulfport to attend church colleges, she said. Two of those students came to Bluffton—Turnbough and Milton Lee, a 1960 graduate who went on to become a doctor in California.
   Johnson quoted Sara (Yoder) VonGunten, a 1965 alumna, as calling Turnbough “very friendly, outgoing, assertive, attractive and self-confident.” But she only stayed for a year before transferring to Kentucky State College, now University, where she met and fell in love with a white Canadian, Eric Trethewey. They married in Ohio—interracial marriages weren’t legal in many southern states—and settled in Gulfport, where they had Natasha but divorced when she was 6, Johnson noted.
   She added that Gwendolyn later moved to Atlanta to pursue a master’s degree in social work and married Joel Grimmette, a Vietnam veteran. They had a son, Joe, but Grimmette was abusive, the marriage ended and, when Natasha was a college freshman, he murdered Gwendolyn.
   “It was these experiences,” Johnson said, “that led Natasha to begin writing poetry”—some of which she will read during her 11 a.m. presentation Oct. 15 in Bluffton’s Founders Hall. The Pulitzer Prize-winning “Native Guard” is among the poetry collections by   Trethewey, who was appointed as U.S. Poet Laureate in June 2012.
   Her visit is part of a yearlong Bluffton focus on race and ethnicity in America—also the impetus for the examination of the university’s history in those areas.

An Ongoing Dynamic

   It’s an uneven story that keeps circling back, Bush said, to a central theme with which nearly every Christian—and every religious person, for that matter—struggles. “This is the ancient question of how much to accommodate outside society without surrendering basic group beliefs: how to be, in Christian talk, ‘in the world but not of the world,’” he explained.
   “Very few religious people can totally isolate themselves from outside society,” and most of them end up borrowing from it, including culture, technology and social attitudes, Bush maintained. “Sometimes, what we borrow can reshape and reinvigorate our faith commitments in very positive ways. In other instances, however, the borrowing has more negative effects.”
   For example, he cited “a progressive and idealistic group of Mennonite professors” in Bluffton’s early years who “were preaching a thorough acceptance of the mainstream culture of progressivism.”

Tarnished Tolerance

   A reform movement at the time focused on such issues as child labor and basic workplace safety laws, as well as women’s suffrage.  “In absorbing this progressive culture, Bluffton professors argued, we can maintain our identity as Mennonites, refashioned now to serve the times, and share our Mennonite values—of peacemaking, of freedom of conscience—with an outside society which desperately needed them,” said Bush. “It was an agenda that had real promise; absorbing social justice commitments later bore much fruit for the Mennonite churches.
   “But these Mennonite progressives borrowed too uncritically from mainstream progressive culture,” he continued. “They accepted, for example, much of its racism.”
   That group included Mennonite historian C. Henry Smith, who, in a 1911 issue of “Christian Monitor” magazine, warned of “ignorant and inferior” races eventually outnumbering whites in America.

Change for the Better

   But Smith later changed, said Bush, the author of Bluffton’s centennial history, “Dancing with the Kobzar.” In the mid-‘30s, Smith spent some time in Hitler’s Germany, where he was “deeply troubled by the routine, extreme anti-Semitism he witnessed,” Bush pointed out. “By the World War II years and up to the end of his life, he began to speak across the Mennonite churches with denunciations of racism.”
   At the same time, the college was changing as well, led by Lloyd Ramseyer, Bluffton’s president from 1938-65. Ramseyer recruited black students and was “extremely upset” by an “Amos ‘n’ Andy”-like skit by Bluffton village residents in blackface at a Lions Club show, said Natalie Nikitas, a senior history major from Jeffersonville, Ind. Ramseyer asked, she said: “How can we as Christians look on this field with serenity when the God whom we serve has made us as one all nations and races of men?”

A Proud Moment

   In the late ‘50s, Elbert Dubenion dominated on the football field for Bluffton. In 1956, he and Willie Taylor, the other African-American on the team, were also at the center of a racial incident in Kentucky that was recounted by their then-teammate Ron Lora.
The 1956 football team was undefeated through eight games before a season-ending loss to Centre College in Danville, Ky. On the way home, the 35 players were filling their plates at a cafeteria in northern Kentucky when Dubenion and Taylor were told they couldn’t eat there, prompting their teammates to set down their trays and leave.
   “We were not civil rights heroes; we were just teammates supporting each other,” said Lora, noting that the incident predated most major events of the civil rights movement.
   “There was a lot of silence and embarrassment on the bus trip home,” he recalled. While “we didn’t have the language,” he said, what had just happened “allowed us to see” that Jim Crow laws weren’t right.

More Change, and Concerns

   By the late ‘60s, a national wave of student activism reached Bluffton. Baldemar Velasquez founded the Farm Labor Organizing Committee—which he still leads—as a junior in 1967. And African-American students successfully campaigned for creation of an Afro-American Studies course and the Black Student Union, then called for other changes—including the addition of black faculty and a black admissions counselor—that led to a brief boycott of campus activities in 1971.
   Race relations remained complex on campus in the ‘80s and ‘90s, said Hillary Crawford, a senior history major from Carey, Ohio, who related racist episodes from both decades.
   Throughout the period, “there were welcoming students, staff and events that allowed minorities to feel welcome,” Crawford said. “Unfortunately, this was not the case many times,” she added, citing, for instance, an incident on one Martin Luther King Jr. Day when a student was accused of mockingly reciting King’s “I have a dream” speech while dressed in a Confederate flag and carrying a noose.    The incident helped prompt a subsequent student, and faculty, protest outside Marbeck Center against racism.    
   While borrowing from many aspects of society can “render us better servants of Christ,” Bush reiterated, “we all need to be very careful and discerning about what we borrow.”

Forum Info

   The 19th U.S. Poet Laureate will deliver Bluffton University’s annual Keeney Peace Lecture at 11 a.m. Tuesday, Oct. 15, in Founders Hall.
   Trethewey will read from her work—including the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2006 collection “Native Guard”—during her presentation, titled “On Poetry and History.” The event is free and open to the public.
   The Gulfport, Miss., native is also the current Poet Laureate of Mississippi and the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University in Atlanta. In addition to “Native Guard,” her poetry collections include the award-winning “Domestic Work” (2000); “Bellocq’s Ophelia” (2002), which was named a Notable Book for 2003 by the American Library Association; and “Thrall” (2012). She also wrote the 2010 nonfiction book, “Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.”
   She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, among others.