Ithaca College Quarterly 2005/1


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South Hill Today

First Person
One Pioneer's Legacy

by Michelle Courtney Berry

A professor and four students share in the final tribute to a local civil rights leader.

Diann Sams was a pioneering civil rights leader and loyal friend who touched the lives of countless people. She was an incredible force in our community, serving as the first African American woman on our City Council and the second African American person on the Ithaca School Board. She was honored by Governor Cuomo and was a Harriet Tubman Award recipient. Her battle with the debilitating effects of rheumatoid arthritis was courageous; her message about "erasing hate" was always present and clear. I was deeply honored that she asked me to run in her vacated seat on City Council when she became too ill to run for another term. (She had served 10 years.)

Diann Sams with her son, Bradley Nelson (right) and friend Kelsey McBean at the Wall of Tolerance; electronic names scroll down the digital wall. Photo by Ashley Fazio '05

Each semester, students in my Public Relations class work on experiential learning/public relations projects with agencies throughout Tompkins County. One of the many projects this semester involved coordinating public relations for Diann Sams's deepest wish: to journey to the Wall of Tolerance/Civil Rights Memorial dedication, which was held the weekend of October 22 and 23 in Montgomery, Alabama. The event was sponsored by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Although many thousands of names are listed on the wall, only a select few civil rights leaders received special invitations from the SLPC to attend. Diann was one.

Eighteen Ithaca-area leaders and friends journeyed to Montgomery with Diann, along with four Park students, Alyson Buck '06, Lonna Dawson '07, Chris DeAngelis '06, and Ashley Fazio '05. It was everything we could have hoped for. Community leaders and neighbors bonded with students, various age groups united -- from a newborn baby to an infant, young children, teens, IC students, young parents, the middle-aged, and the elderly. All of us shared one goal: to erase hate. Our students got to meet Morris Dees and many other activists.

The four Park students made the trip to Montgomery and helped coordinate public relations, ensure access for Diann, who uses a wheelchair, and helped secure interviews with the local media. Diann had wanted Oprah Winfrey to join us, and over the past few months some 100 community members had written to ask her to participate. Although we didn't hear back from her, we still worked to localize this national story and then to give Diann a voice on the national scene once we were in Alabama.

The Greater Ithaca Activities Center provided the money for the students to fly, and my company, Courtney Consulting, picked up their lodging fees. We didn't know until the last minute that we'd even be going, as Diann was hospitalized the same week we departed. Fortunately, she recovered in time.

Diann's sons, Bradley Nelson and Joseph Nelson, called specifically to convey to the IC students that they had touched their mother's life immeasurably. Diann herself told me after the trip that she was so proud of these students for their tremendous professionalism and maturity.

One student, Chris DeAngelis, was interviewed, along with Diann, in Montgomery. It was to be Diann's last interview. She passed away on Friday, October 28. Her fellow civil rights leader Rosa Parks, who had been too ill to journey to Montgomery, died the same week.

I am proud to know the young leaders from Ithaca College and to have worked with them on this most important project regarding teaching tolerance and celebrating diversity. Diann also wanted the IC community to know how fortunate and enriched she felt to know our students.

Michelle Courtney Berry is an assistant professor in the Department of Television and Radio.

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