Alumna preserving the past while creating her own legacy

Contact: Deanne Puca

A graphic showing arms of various skin tones outstretched under the words "Black History Month."

February is Black History Month, an annual celebration of achievements and a time to recognize the important role Black history plays in U.S. and Western history. This month, the University is celebrating Bronco alumni who’ve inspired change, pushed boundaries and paved the way for so many.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—As a journalist, author and mentor, Sonya Bernard-Hollins has chronicled and channeled the spirit of trailblazer Dr. Merze Tate while becoming a role model for youth in her own right.

Sonya Bernard-Hollins

A Western Michigan University alumna, Bernard-Hollins came across Tate's story nearly 20 years ago while vetting story ideas about African American firsts of WMU. The Kalamazoo Gazette reporter was immediately drawn to Tate's story as a pioneer in education and inspiration to young students of color as the first Black woman to receive a bachelor's degree from Western, which has recently named its newest college in her honor, in 1927.

Her extraordinary life experience "took a hold of me and wouldn't let go," says Bernard-Hollins. During her research, she became fascinated with a travel club Tate started when serving as the first history teacher of Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis—a school created in 1927 by the Ku Klux Klan to keep Black students segregated from their white peers. In 2008, Bernard-Hollins pursued her own travel club for young girls, now called Merze Tate Explorers.

Tate's travel club of more than 40 students visited Washington in 1932. The teacher created an experience of train rides, hotel stays and visits to the White House, U.S. Treasury and Arlington National Cemetery. For many of Tate’s students, it was their first exposure to a world outside their own; that type of experience is still significant and empowering for Black young people today, according to Bernard-Hollins.

“Merze Tate knew the importance of exposing these kids to a broader world and saw the importance of education and the part it played in civil rights," says Bernard-Hollins. "Tate believed that if you have education and skill, you have something to offer. If you have something that people want or need, you have power. And having power breaks down barriers."

Bernard-Hollins has those same hopes for the third- through 12th-grade girls who take part in her exploration program, which helps girls share their experiences through media, particularly their quarterly Girls Can! magazine. Over the years, the Merze Tate Explorers have interviewed women leaders, visited Fortune 500 corporations, traveled internationally and explored college and career opportunities.

"I want to help young women not only explore other possibilities but to have discussions about racism, mental health, wage negotiation, financial literacy and more, so young people are not blindsided when they go out into the world. We are teaching them what many call 'soft skills,' which are priceless in any area of life.”

Bernard-Hollins and the Merze Tate Explorers during a ceremony naming Western's newest college after Tate, the first Black woman to receive a bachelor's degree from Western in 1927.

Besides the travel club, Bernard-Hollins promotes Tate's experiences as the curator of the traveling photo exhibition, “The World Through the Lens of Merze Tate,” which opened at the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in Lansing, Michigan, in February 2011. And in 2019, she wrote a children’s biography, "Small Beginnings: The Photographic Journey Through the Life of Merze Tate."

"I wanted Merze Tate to be the inspiration to these young girls that she was to me," she says. "Learning about her and what she went through gives you that power and that fire and determination to shatter those barriers."

While Bernard-Hollins has become a champion of the life of Tate, her own extraordinary story is a testimony to that legacy. She grew up in a single-parent household and was a single parent herself at age 21. As a young mother, she says people made conclusions about her life based on her race and gender.

"It's demeaning and degrading when people don't see you for your potential, but they see you for your situation," she says, noting that though her life is separated by three generations from Tate, there are still racial barriers to break in the 21st century.

Pursuing her own legacy

Bernard-Hollins attended Kalamazoo Valley Community College before graduating from Western with a bachelor's degree in 1993. She persevered on her path, while challenging, to become a journalist. For more than 20 years, she has worked as a professional journalist at daily and weekly newspapers as well as served as a freelance writer for local, state and national magazines. 

During her years a reporter, she says she often was assigned stories about the African American community, paid less than her white colleagues and not supported by her co-workers as she excelled as an author. Despite getting caught in the stereotype that only a Black journalist could write stories about the Black community, it was a task she completed with pride. "I knew at least these stories were being written, and they were being covered with dignity in the media," she concluded.

Bernard-Hollins has earned awards for her writing by the Michigan Press Association, Associated Press of Michigan and others. In addition, she has been recognized for her professional and community service in the Kalamazoo area, serving as a member and board member of various organizations in Kalamazoo and Battle Creek.

She authored the book "Here I Stand: A Musical History of African Americans in Battle Creek, Michigan," and also is a playwright, contributing to the recent Von Washington Production “My Heart Belongs to You, Kalamazoo.” Bernard-Hollins is also often sought after for assistance in local history book and presentation projects throughout Michigan and is currently the editor and publisher of Community Voices online and print magazine as well as helps edit and advise others to self-publish their own publications and books.

The mother of four says her passion for Tate's legacy and relaying her story and experiences to future generations, especially through the Merze Tate Explorers, has been a driving force in her career as well her personal character and growth.

"Merze Tate was like a template that I've used to create experiences for these girls. Even though I've never met her, I've thought, ‘How do I bring her confidence in the face of gender and racial bias, world travel experiences and passion for learning to life through me?’ Her story is what inspires me and what I use to inspire young girls,” she says. "For my part, I want to keep Tate’s legacy alive, and I want to be someone she would be proud of."

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