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Eastern Michigan University Library
Thomas A. Fleming Collection & Lecture Series
A passion for learning
Thomas A. Fleming (M.A. '68) knows the power of books and has spent a lifetime transforming lives through teaching young people to share his passion
-- By Kevin Merrill
Thomas A. Fleming learned to fight before he could read. After learning to do both equally well, he chose to dedicate his life to teaching and learning. Reading became a lifelong passion that fueled his thirst for knowledge, his philosophies on teaching and his attitudes on race and the human condition.
Today, the 1992 "National Teacher of the Year" and EMU alumnus (master of arts in special education in 1968) is sharing that love of learning with future students and generations of scholars. Helped by a $50,000 W.K. Kellogg Foundation grant, Eastern Michigan University is in the process of creating the Thomas A. Fleming African American History and Literature Collection at the Bruce T. Halle Library.
The 3,000-volume collection is expected to be available to scholars this spring (none of the books will be circulated). A companion Web site is being built and is expected to go live this fall. While the books are being processed and Web site built, the University is launching a community lecture series, also funded by the grant, focused on the theme "Become a Person Who Reads."Introducing Fleming at the inaugural Kellogg-Fleming Lecture Series, scheduled for Oct. 27 at the library, will be A. Whitney Brown, a comedian and social commentator who was part of the "Saturday Night Live" cast from 1985-91. Brown, a Michigan native, had a troubled youth, and credits the teaching and commitment of Fleming and his colleague Anne Klein with giving his life purpose and focus. Brown dedicated his 1991 book, The Big Picture, to them.
Fleming, 73, spent 30-plus years as an educator, most in the Washtenaw County juvenile detention center, where he taught integrated history, government and geography and worked exclusively with youths who were in some kind of legal trouble. He retired from EMU in 2003 after serving nine years as an assistant to the provost. He still maintains an office in the library, but a heart ailment last year seriously affected his health. He has made great strides in his recovery, and he looks forward to the opening of the collection, the start of the lecture series, and the ensuing discussions that his contributions are sure to provoke.
"As I read, I became a new person, a better person ¨C more culturally aware, more intentionally seeking answers to the personal and social challenges of African American life," said Fleming. "I became a person who reads ¨C consciously taking up a life of reading that feeds and frees my mind."
The goal of the collection and related lecture series is to improve the likelihood of success for students who have been marginalized by circumstances of race, ethnicity, economics, and/or geography, and to promote a culture of intellectual and civic engagement within the community.
Ronald Woods, chairman of EMU's Department of African-American Studies, said the Fleming collection is significant for two reasons. First, many of the works are out of print and hard to find. Many others are first editions of classic works with some dating back to the late 19th century. "The collection represents an ordered gathering and collection of intellectual works that cut across the African American intellectual tradition," Woods said. But the collection has a value that transcends its individual pieces, Woods said. "It represents a statement in and of itself: the mind of a 20th century African American educator at work. If you synthesize the pieces, what you see is a mind at work."
Fleming was born poor and fatherless in 1933 in Reading, Pa., Nearly 60 years later, he shared a podium with the President of the United States, who honored him as the best among 2.5 million elementary and secondary public school teachers in America. President Bush presented Fleming with a crystal apple, the traditional symbol of teaching. The ceremony and national spotlight ¨C interviews with NBC's Katie Couric and Bryant Gumbel and PBS' Charlene Hunter-Gault followed ¨C capped an education career that had the humblest of roots.
When he was 18 months old, Fleming's mom moved him to Detroit. Unable to care for him, she wanted to do the best she could, and thought of putting him in an orphanage. His maternal grandparents, who had themselves raised 12 children, instead wanted the child. But attending then nearly all-white schools had drawbacks. Fleming's teachers didn't give him much attention, and his learning suffered. Racial prejudice also exacted a toll. He responded to the daily taunts with threats of his own. His ability to throw a punch kept him from being devoured by the system. He bounced between schools and disinterested teachers. At each step along the way, he was told he was incorrigible, mentally ill or just plain stupid. By age 16, he wanted out, and lied about his age and joined the National Guard. But Guard duty quickly became active duty in Europe with the onset of the Korean War.
"My grandmother would always say that when you find yourself in trouble, just turn to the Bible," Fleming said. It was when he got in trouble and tried to follow her admonition that he realized he couldn't read his government-issued "New Testament." His religious awakening and subsequent desire to read the Bible led him to a Bible study group of soldiers and German citizens. That experience would guide him to the decision to devote himself to helping troubled youth, first through ministry and then through teaching.
Eventually, Fleming returned to the United States, earned his GED and enrolled in Detroit Bible College. "I would tell them I would do whatever they needed me to do, in order for me to learn," he said. "It would blow me away ¨C how many Scriptures they knew in their head."
In fact, his love of books first blossomed in the late 1950s while at DBC, now known as William Tyndale College, from where he earned a bachelor of religious education degree in 1965.
His first teaching job was at the W. J. Maxey Boys Training School, a state institution for juvenile offenders, where he was hired as a social studies teacher in 1968. When one of Maxey's teenage charges was transferred to a mental facility, Fleming and a colleague protested, saying the boy, although tough to handle, was bright and did not belong in a mental institution. But their protests were ignored.
"We were told it wasn't our business," Fleming said. "But we made it our business." The two teachers went to the mental facility, retrieved the boy and returned him to Maxey. In 1971, Fleming was hired to teach in the Washtenaw County juvenile detention school program. Five years later, he became coordinating or lead teacher in addition to his teaching responsibilities, and worked with a variety of supporting agencies, including the police department, court staff, volunteers and school district personnel.
"He saw these marginalized kids, whether it was in church on Sunday or at the detention center throughout the week, and felt he could empower them," said his wife, Diane Fleming.
The 1992 "National Teacher of the Year" award brought Fleming's achievements, and the adversity he overcame, into the national spotlight. He previously had been named the 1991 "Michigan Teacher of the Year" award. His achievements were a main reason he was selected to serve on the "No Child Left Behind" task force of President George W. Bush.
After the National Teacher honor, Fleming received a prestigious Milken Award, given to the nation's top educators; toured Japan to study and report on its special education system; and gave the 1993 April Commencement address at EMU, after which he received an honorary doctorate of public service. While employed at EMU, Fleming starred in an EMU video called "Slam Dunk for Teaching." Its purpose was to get more black males to consider becoming teachers.
During her husband's recovery, Diane Fleming has played a key role in helping to identify the works in the collection for EMU. An ordained minister and former school teacher (not practicing either at the moment), she learned early on about Thomas' love of books. His first gift to her was a copy of "Soul on Ice" by Eldridge Cleaver.
Thomas Fleming acquired his books in a number of ways, including going to library book sales and looking specifically for titles by African American authors or those on the African American experience. As is often the case with library book sales, the titles had been withdrawn from circulation because too few people had checked them out.
The books being donated to EMU aren't the only ones in the Flemings' Ann Arbor home finding new owners. Fleming has donated many of his religious-focused works to a Southfield minister who is going on a mission to Ghana to establish a K-12 school and teacher-training college. Other books are going to a mission in South Africa, a Tennessee-based evangelist and to furnish several church libraries in Michigan.
A Web site is being developed to house a searchable database of the collection. In addition, the site will allow visitors to leave comments about a particular book, thereby encouraging a community of discussion.
All the bibliographic records will be loaded into WorldCat, a merged catalog of thousands of libraries and the world's largest bibliographic database, to promote the collection to researchers worldwide. An advisory board has been formed to provide direction and planning for the lecture series; facilitate the achievement of the broader mission of the Kellogg-EMU-Fleming collaboration; and explore options to sustain the undertaking.
Becoming a person through reading
The opening Kellogg-Fleming Lecture focuses on the life and works of Richard Wright, who was among the first African American writers to achieve literary fame and fiction. Among his best-known works are the novel "Native Son" (1940) and the autobiography "Black Boy" (1945).
"This is a black man that knows what he's talking about," said Thomas A. Fleming. "I read everything by Richard Wright I could get my hands on."
The works of Wright were the first to have an impact on Fleming. This discovery of black history and the validation of his own experience propelled Fleming to "become a person" through reading.
The event is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 27 at the Bruce T. Halle Library. The lecture will be preceded by events that commemorate the collection and the grant. Fleming is scheduled to appear at the event.
Three more events in the lecture series are planned.