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July 22, 2014

Generous gift from college alum

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Posted: Thursday, February 6, 2014 7:16 pm

What are your college memories worth?

For a 1961 graduate of Talladega College, his time at his alma mater, the “Alpha Lyrae-Vega of them all,” is worth more than a million dollars.

A native of Brewton, Ala., Dr. William R. Harvey has certainly distinguished himself, with enviable achievements in multiple fields. He has served for 36 years as the president of Hampton University in Virginia, a historically black school with an enrollment of about 5,000 students. He served on active duty with the U.S. Army and is currently a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve. He is also the sole owner of the Pepsi Cola Bottling Company of Houghton, Mich.

He and his wife, Norma, have also become philanthropists, having given some $2.5 million in gifts to Hampton University, and this week brought the public announcement of a pledge of more than a million dollars for an art museum at Talladega College to provide a permanent home for the art treasure known as the Amistad murals.

Talladega College President Dr. Billy Hawkins said the works were appraised at $40 million several years ago, and that value has likely gone up. That is due both to about $200,000 in restorative work on the panels and the exposure they have gained through their first tour to art museums in cities across the nation. The three-year tour began at the High Museum in Atlanta, which arranged the restoration and tour details. After Atlanta they were exhibited in the African American Museum in Dallas and the Chicago Cultural Center and they are currently on display at New York University. Remaining venues are in New Orleans, Washington, D.C., Birmingham and Kansas City, Mo.

The college lists its total assets at $60 million, with the Amistad murals accounting for two-thirds of that value.

Both the murals and their creator, Hale Woodruff, are gaining overdue notice in the art world, and received high praise from New York Times art critic Roberta Smith during the opening of the exhibit at NYU.

The Amistad murals have a special place of honor for Talladega College students. Created for the lobby of Savery Library, new students were taken to view the panels and to review the history depicted there. Three panels are related to the 1839 uprising by captive West Africans who overwhelmed the crew of the Spanish ship Amistad, won their freedom in a Connecticut courtroom, and returned home. One panel focuses on the Underground Railroad. The final two depict construction of Swayne Hall and Savery Library at Talladega College.

While the murals were in relatively good condition after 70 years in the library, art preservationists strongly recommend a more controlled environment after the tour ends in 2016, with the hope that a museum will be ready by that time, one that will showcase not only the Amistad murals, but also other works of art. The dream is to have a facility that will bring pride and visitors to the campus and to the city.

The first giant step toward that goal has been taken. How appropriate it is that a Talladega alumnus, a college president himself, has stepped forward to honor the institution and the people who made an impact on his life during his time here. The gift speaks volumes about the importance the college can have on the lives of those who choose to spend their college years here.

The growth and resurgence of programs at the small private college have been impressive, and plans for the future include not only the museum, but also a new dormitory and a student activity center that will encompass a new sports arena.

The college’s heritage is critical to its future, and it’s encouraging to see such a generous gift from an alumnus coming in to help shape the college’s future for the 21st century.

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