Growing up black in rural Maryland in the 1930s wasn’t easy, but Twitty J. Styles had about as good a role model as you could find in his father, Peter Styles.
“When I was a little boy, my father used to tell me, ‘you want to grow up to be somebody,'” remembered Styles, a 92-year-old retired Union College biology professor and Clifton Park resident whose new book, “Son of Prince Edward County,” chronicles his life story. “When I was young I was never sure what my father meant. But the three things he always taught me was, get the best education you can, save your money, and don’t let anybody piss on you. If was pretty good advice.”
Styles’ book addresses his young life in rural Maryland, his service in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, his college experience as a student, and then the last half century of his life as an educator in upstate New York. He never had a strong desire to write a book about it all until some of his former students and colleagues at Union put the idea in his head.
“They suggested that since I had such a hard upbringing, I should write about it,” said Styles. “I’ve had some struggles in my life that they thought I should share so I decided to go ahead and do it. Once I started, it was like a spigot I couldn’t stop. So many things came back to me it was like they happened yesterday.”
Early in the book, Styles writes a lot about his family, his father in particular.
“My mother died when I was 3, I had seven siblings, and I was the youngest,” said Styles. “We lived on a farm, but my father worked on another farm that was 10 miles away near town. He’d work in town and then come home on the weekend and look after us. But we lived in such a rural area, he knew we were never going to get a good education there, so he decided to move us all into a small town named Farmville, which was the seat of Prince Edward County.”
Styles, who is the last of his siblings to survive, was also the only one to get a college education. Like most of his five brothers and two sisters, he went to Moton High School in Farmville, where Dorothy Vaughan, the “colored computer” played by Octavia Spencer in the 2017 movie, “Hidden Figures,” was his math teacher. He remembers her as a “good teacher and a good person” and has remained in touch with Vaughan’s daughter.
He went to Virginia Union University in Richmond and got a degree in biology before returning to Moton from 1948-50 to teach science. Styles was inducted into the U.S. Army and assigned to a medical lab in Tokyo where he served throughout most of the Korean War.
“Going in the Army was the best thing that ever happened to me,” said Styles. “I was on the way to Korea with the rest of my brothers and one of the captains said he noticed that I had an education. The next day I was on my way to a medical lab in Tokyo. It was the only lab in the Far East that studied exotic diseases. I became an expert on infectious diseases, and I was really stimulated by the work and all the wonderful people around me.”
Styles returned to the U.S. and went to New York City where he began pursuing a doctorate in biology.
“I applied to Columbia and didn’t get in, but then NYU took me,” remembered Styles. “I lived with my sister, worked full-time and then would head down to NYU at night. They were offering classes for GIs and people with families to take evening courses. It took about 10 years, and then I headed to Mexico City because I was offered a post-doctoral fellowship at a medical school there. After I was there for a while I accepted an offer to teach at Claremont College in California, but we didn’t stay long because my wife wanted to be closer to her family.”
It was in New York City that Styles had met his wife, Dr. Constance Glasgow Styles, still an active pediatrician in Clifton Park. They came to Union College in 1965 and after experiencing some difficulty finding a place to live, they built their own house in Clifton Park and raised a son and daughter, who both went to Shenendehowa High School and then Princeton University.
As a young professor at Union, Styles didn’t have as much time as he would have liked to participate in Civil Rights demonstrations throughout the turbulent 1960s.
“I went to the March on Washington in 1963, but then as a young professor beginning a job at a college you feel trapped a little bit,” he said. “You’re so busy, you’re worried about your future and your family, and I was so wrapped up in my students and my research problems. You just feel like you don’t have time to reach out into other areas.”
Styles did get involved in his church, Shenendehowa United Methodist in Clifton Park, and he did volunteer some of his time at places such as the Carver Community Center and the Hamilton Hill Arts Center in Schenectady. Then, in 1997, when he retired from Union, he a former geology professor Carl George created UNITAS, an organization designed to help promote diversity on campus and more interaction between the college and the city.
“We wanted to welcome foreign students to our community and help Union students explore other cultures,” said Styles. “We want to be more welcoming, and we wanted to see the city embrace the college more, and that can go both ways. Carl and I didn’t just want to retire. We wanted to do something to really bring more diversity to Union.”
George, who is white, also retired in 1997 and remembers when he and his wife, Gail, first showed up on the Union College campus in 1967.
“We arrived here in August of ’67 and Twitty and Connie more or less adopted us,” said George. “Twitty was this tall, handsome guy, and he and his wife really reached out to us. We’ve been close ever since, and we very much agreed that our students should experience more diversity, travel abroad and develop a world view instead of just an American view.”
Jason Benitez, Director of Multicultural Affairs at Union College, said the contribution Styles and George made to the school is still deeplyl felt today.
“I heard the story about how they wrote 1,000 handwritten letters to former students asking them to endow this scholarship,” said Benitez, who is in his eighth year at the college. “There were few faces of color at the time Twitty showed up here, but the organization he and Carl started continues to have an impact on Union. Those two gentlemen made a huge contribution to campus life, and it really is a lasting legacy they’ve left us.”
For Styles, it was dissecting a frog in high school that help create his interest in science. He loves helping his students pursue their own passions.
“I was intrigued by all the different parts of the body, and now I have several surgeons out there doing very well that used to be my students,” said Styles. “All from being exposed to that frog by my biology teacher in high school.”
Along with sparking the love of science in his students, Styles has strived to create better race relations between all people. It’s something that came naturally to him.
“I just don’t see color,” said Styles, who has members in his family that “are as white as the White Cliffs of Dover, and others who are as black as black obsidians,” a very dark stone found in Mexico.
“We’re all related, and when you grow up in that kind of family you have a tendency not to look down on other people,” he said. “That’s why what I try to do is build bridges between people. You’re all part of one family, and that’s how you see people. You’re not gonna love everybody, and they might not love you, but respect is all we’re looking for.”
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