Cynthia Fleming has a remarkable memory.
For an associate professor of history at the University of Tennessee, this skill of quickly retrieving historical details comes in handy.
Without notes, Fleming flawlessly lectured on the civil rights movement while speaking to students in one of her African-American studies classes last week. In fact, Fleming humorously says she never uses notes.
As an oral historian who joined the Peace Corps in 1971 and served in Liberia, Fleming had the opportunity to listen to Liberians speak of their tribal history.
“I was so impressed with their memory,” she said. “They could recite their long history without any notes. I decided at that moment that I wanted to be an oral historian.”
Born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, Fleming would later enroll at Knoxville College. The institution’s hymn had been written by her grandfather, and she became the seventh member of her family to attend the college, thus continuing her family’s legacy.
“I went to Knoxville College during the late 60s, so I am part of the Black Power Generation,” she said.
The Black Power movement, along with a fascination of history, pushed Fleming to major in the field. She continued her studies at Duke to gain a Ph.D. with her dissertation titled “History and Philosophy of Black Education in Tennessee.”
Fleming did not know it at the time, but her dissertation would be a factor in her recruitment to UT. After graduating, she went to teach at Morehouse University. She would later be recruited by UT to fill a position that offered her teaching as well as research opportunities.
Her area of focus is African Americans in the 20th century and civil rights history. Fleming has written extensively on the topic and is currently writing a book that examines the impact of the civil rights movement on an Alabama Black Belt county. (The term Black Belt refers to a county where the black population exceeds the white population, and also describes a county distinguished by the color of the soil.)
In addition to writing, she teaches history courses on black women, the philosophy of African-American education and blacks in film, among other subjects.
“I received my Ph.D. 30 years ago, which has allowed me to have a variety of experiences with students,” Fleming said.
Fleming commented on the ways students have changed over the years and says she teaches with the intention of encouraging students to meet her high expectations.
“My classes challenge them and I expect their best,” she said. “After taking my class, students come back and thank me for pushing them because they realize that they can do a lot more.”
One of her former students, Armenia Hope, a senior in English, said she found Fleming’s course work rewarding though difficult.
“Fleming’s class was a challenge, but in the end it was worth it because I learned a lot,” Hope said.
Fleming’s course work can be challenging because she anticipates her students’ mastering of critical thinking skills.
“I want students to be critical thinkers. There is so much information out there, but so much of it is useless, so becoming critical thinkers is an important skill,” she said.
In addition to hoping to inspire students to higher levels of academic achievement, Fleming also hopes the university will become more equitable in its treatment of its members.
“UT unfortunately does not always apply the same standards to everyone. This includes students, staff and teachers. We need to be more concerned with treating everyone fairly,” Fleming said.
When Fleming is not teaching, researching or writing, she is enjoying her hobbies.
“I have owned a horse for 27 years. I have been riding since I was seven,” she said.
Fleming rides five times a week. She also owns five cars, two of which are antiques.
“I used to show horses, but I no longer do that anymore. I show cars and I am responsible for all their detailing. No one touches my car. I also can do a little mechanical work,” she said.
Fleming also lists driving an 18-wheeler among her accomplishments.
“I told a friend of mine that I always wanted to drive one and he let me.”
Horses and cars may seem like an odd combination, but not for Fleming.
“It is all horsepower,” she said, smiling.
(Ed. In celebration of Black History Month, this story is the first of a series spotlighting the contributions of African-American faculty members on campus.)
Civil rights historian pushes learning
Published: Wed Feb 21, 2007 | Modified: Wed Feb 21, 2007 01:47 p.m.