February 15, 2017
Thomas A. Fleming knew the power of books.
In his commencement address to EMU in 1993, the former high school dropout turned National Teacher of the Year recalled a period that set his life on a new course. It was the 1950s, and he was a U.S. Army soldier stationed overseas. When depression began to tug at him, he remembered his grandmother’s words: When you’re feeling worried or lonely, read the Bible. There was only one problem. Fleming couldn’t read.
He told the graduates how fellow soldiers led him, word by word, through pages of text and how, over time, he began to understand the words. “That breakthrough was so exciting and so liberating that my thirst for reading has never left me. It was the beginning of the opening of my mind,” he said.
After his military service, and fueled by his pursuit of knowledge, Fleming finished his GED—then earned a bachelor’s degree from Detroit Bible College (now William Tyndale College) and a master’s degree from Eastern Michigan University. He devoted his career to the education of incarcerated youth, and in 1992 he was named the National Teacher of the Year. He spent the final nine years of his professional career at EMU as special assistant to the provost before retiring in 2003.
Along the way, he never stopped reading. Books had ideas that were meaningful to him, to his life and to his understanding of the world. The first author to have an impact on him was Richard Wright, whose best-known works include “Native Son” (1940) and “Black Boy” (1945).
“I read everything by Richard Wright I could get my hands on,” Fleming said in a 2006 interview with EMU’s university magazine. Through Wright’s work, Fleming began to discover black history and saw his own experiences validated. “As I read, I became a new person, a better person—more culturally aware, more intentionally seeking answers to the personal and social challenges of African American life,” Fleming said.
A voracious reader, Fleming devoured the work of W.E.B. Du Bois, Darlene Clark Hines, the Rev. Benjamin Elijah Mays—and so many others. He kept the books after reading them, often buying more through library sales and bookstores. By the time he retired, he had a collection in the thousands. Then, in 2006, he donated a large portion to EMU to establish the Thomas A. Fleming Collection.
At the time of the donation, Fleming said he “believed that future generations of students from all classes and cultural backgrounds have the potential to develop into persons of insight, purpose, and achievement.”
Most of all, he wanted us to read.
The Thomas A. Fleming Collection contains several thousand books with an emphasis on literature, education, history and religion. The collection is searchable through the Halle Library website. Scholars and researchers can use the books on site, but the books cannot be checked out of the library. Anyone interested in viewing materials in the Fleming Collection can email Halle Library Archives to request materials and schedule an appointment.
In his review of the collection, EMU Africology and African American Studies professor Ronald Woods wrote: “As one deeply interested in understanding the currents shaping his times, Thomas Fleming gave considerable attention in the selection of books to those that helped to clarify the ultimate political forces that shaped the unique moment in which he lived during his time as an active collector.”
Woods called the collection an “intellectual cache” for anyone who seeks immersion in black history.
Fleming died in 2010. His contributions to EMU live on through his donation and his desire that we all become persons who read.
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