For years, Dr. Arthur Dunning has seen a worrisome tendency among youth in Alabama’s Black Belt region: the best and brightest leave.
That’s a trend that Dunning, former president of Albany State University (ASU) in Georgia, seeks to change. To that end, Dunning and Taylor Jones are partnering with the Black Belt Community Foundation (BBCF) to create the William Curry Scholarship for Academic and Community Leadership.
“Thinking about this scholarship, Alabama lost a lot of talented people who left and gave their talents and intellect to other places,” said Dunning, ASU president from 2013 to 2018. “This is something we want to prevent in the future, because we must build up our people, our industries and the economy.”
The winner will be a student who meets the BBCF’s “two-dimensional expectation”: he or she will excel in school, will volunteer in projects to benefit the community and be civically engaged.
The BBCF is assembling a scholarship committee that will meet twice yearly to select and present a $10,000 scholarship to a worthy student, who will invest his or her skills and talents back into the community, said BBCF President Felecia Lucky. The BBCF requests nominations by high school principals and guidance counselors from throughout the Black Belt.
Dunning said that Curry personifies integrity, work ethic, service and a belief that youth can lead and become extraordinary contributors to improving the quality of life throughout the Black Belt.
“We want this to be a perpetual scholarship in honor of William Curry,” said Dunning, who earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Alabama. “How do you celebrate a man’s life at the highest level of civic engagement?
“Mr. Curry’s passion to uplift the youth of Marengo County was unwavering,” Dunning added. “He never minced words when confronting some of our society’s most challenging obstacles to success. We want to make his name, his work and his legacy remembered.”
Curry was born in Linden, in Marengo County, and was the valedictorian at Linden Academy. During an era in which many Blacks migrated away from the South in search of better opportunities, Curry was a servant leader to Linden. After high school graduation, Curry entered the military, but returned to serve on the Linden City Council, the school board, as a little league coach and as a minister in A.M.E. Zion Church.
Working to strengthen the Black Belt
Once sought after for its rich soils, the Black Belt has become a region defined by its dire socioeconomic situation. Nine of the 10 poorest counties in Alabama are in the Black Belt.
Dunning said the area cannot move ahead without more investment.
“We’ve got to find a way of lift and nurture the community, and you do it by lifting the people,” said Dunning, who, as an educator, has long been wary about the state’s skills deficit. “We must keep the best and brightest in the community instead of going anywhere else.”
He believes there must be serious discussion and strategic planning to help transition the work force in the Black Belt, to “bring businesses and industries to small-town Alabama and shift efforts from agriculture to technology.”
At a time when leadership and academic opportunities for youth in marginalized communities are a rare commodity, Lucky hopes that the scholarship will counterbalance the unfortunate norms.
“We are honored to carry forward the torch that was lit by Reverend Curry, Dr. Dunning and Mr. Jones,” said Lucky, who has served the BBCF for 16 years. “We plan to work with several foundations nationwide to raise funds for an endowment.”
“One of my favorite things to experience with the Black Belt Community Foundation is when someone approaches us with a passionate and inspiring idea of how to make the Black Belt better,” Lucky said. “We were thrilled when Dr. Dunning reached out to share his love of Reverend Curry and how he wanted to translate Reverend Curry’s shining example into the reality of actively helping and encouraging students in the Black Belt.”
Dunning and Jones seeded the BBCF scholarship program with a $10,000 gift and will match an additional $10,000 for contributions made during 2020. The BBCF encourages contributions to the scholarship program – click for details about how to give.
“I plan to reach out to classmates and talk to foundations that I’ve engaged with for the last 40 years,” said Dunning, who is writing a book about the coming of age in the Alabama Black Belt, to be published by the University of Georgia Press.
Lucky said the new BBCF program will enhance the lives of youth in the Black Belt by rewarding scholarships, creating internships and opportunities for students to return to the Black Belt, and “continuing the legacy so brightly established by Reverend Curry.”