Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Sonia Sanders, February 14, 2022

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries


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00:00:00 - Introduction and early childhood

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Partial Transcript: Hello. My name is Jay Wells. I'm an assistant professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies at the University of Kentucky. I am also an affiliate faculty member of the African American and Africana Studies Program. Today is February 14th, 2022, and it is my pleasure to be here with Sonia Sanders as part of the Black Women in Bourbon Oral History Project which is funded by the United in True Racial Equity (UNITE) Research Initiative. Thank you so much for joining me today. I would like to start by hearing about your family background.

Segment Synopsis: JWells introduces Sanders and explains the context of the interview. Sanders discusses her childhood in Madisonville, Kentucky, where she grew up around farmland. She talks about her curiosities as a child and how she explored the land around her with her childhood friends. She also details the importance of education and how her mother instilled that in her from a young age.

Keywords: Farmland; Fishing; Grandfathers; Mothers; Uncles; Weather

Subjects: Childhood friendship; Education; Families; Madisonville (Ky.)

00:05:56 - Family background and childhood experiences

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Partial Transcript: Hmm. Okay. Tell me a little bit more about your parents, because you mentioned your uncles as well. What did your parents do? Were they working on the hog farm?

Segment Synopsis: Sanders talks about her experience growing up with a single mother. She explains how she was raised by her great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother. She also talks about early life lessons that she learned, such as not playing with fire. Sanders reminisces on early childhood memories and trying beer at a young age.

Keywords: Childhood; Craft beer; Great grandmothers; Hog farms

Subjects: Alcoholism; Families; Life lessons; Nurses; Single mothers; Stepfathers

00:13:42 - Early experiences with alcohol and personal anecdotes on harsh words

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Partial Transcript: You said a little bit earlier that you learned the smell of alcohol early on when you were younger and so what was, how did that come about?

Segment Synopsis: Sanders recounts times in her childhood where she would try different types of alcohol such as beer and whiskey. She talks about finding these bottles in barns and buildings at night with her childhood friends. Sanders also discusses how harsh words and phrases such as "lie" and "shut up" were off limits in her household growing up, as well as in the household she built for her children.

Keywords: Alcohol; Barns; Beer; Daughters; Grandfathers; Movies; Sons; Whiskey

Subjects: Bourbon whiskey.; Household safety.; Life lessons.; Whiskey industry.; Whiskey.

00:19:48 - Middle and high school experiences with segregation

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Partial Transcript: That makes sense. So you talked a little bit about elementary school and walking there with your mom and how they didn't have snow days or delays back then. What high--what about middle school and high school? What were those experiences like?

Segment Synopsis: Sanders recounts her experiences with segregation during her middle and high school years. She talks about how she was the first black female majorette and drum major at her high school. Sanders discusses how even though she was a minority at her school, she felt comfortable in her own skin and never allowed anyone to make her feel any different.

Keywords: Band; Black Americans--Social conditions; Majorettes; Middle school

Subjects: African Americans--Social conditions.; Black people.; Civil rights.; High school.; Race discrimination.; Racism.; Segregation--United States.; Segregation.

00:29:53 - Growing up with Sanders' mother and Sanders becoming a teenage mother

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Partial Transcript: Did your, because you mentioned that your mom had, you know, she, she went through something similar being a Black nurse. Did she ever have, do you remember having explicit conversations with you about what it is like to be a Black woman in a predominately White like field or industry? Or like, you know, when you were going into middle school and high school, did she ever talk explicitly about that?

Segment Synopsis: Sanders talks about how her mother never explicitly talked about racism or segregation, but always told Sanders to never let anyone "bother" her. Sanders discusses how she discovered that she did not want follow her mother's career path and be a nurse. She also talks about how she became pregnant at the age of seventeen and how that experience led her to go to Madisonville Business and Technical College located in her hometown.

Keywords: Community college; GED; Madisonville Business and Technical College; Nurses; Pregnancy; Teenage pregnancy

Subjects: Community college students--United States.; Racism.; Segregation.; Teen pregnancy.

00:38:44 - Membership in the Kentucky Business and Professional Women organization and continuing education

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Partial Transcript: What was your major or program of interest there? My, uh, my major program of interest at that time actually was science in the STEM program, you know, but it drastically changed to just a business administration because I became a social butterfly.

Segment Synopsis: Sanders discusses her interests during community college and switching from science to business administration. She emphasizes that she is a people person which is what drew her to pursue business. Sanders talks about her membership in the Kentucky Business and Professional Women organization and how that led her towards many opportunities and achievements. She also talks about the various training courses that she took in order to be prepared for every job available in her company.

Keywords: Business; Community colleges; Female organizations; Kentucky Business and Professional Women; STEM; Training

Subjects: Business administration.; Careers.; Continuing education.

00:46:26 - Micro-aggressions in the Transportation Cabinet

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Partial Transcript: Right, and so you mentioned, like you, you know, you got to know what you're doing. You ain't got these skills. So you could, because it's important for, you didn't ever want someone to feel, like, they didn't like you. And so do you feel like in those roles, there's a difference between like, people like you or not like you and respecting you or not respecting you? Like do you feel that the education and those extra credentials helped to gain the respect of the people that you are managing or working with?

Segment Synopsis: Sanders talks about her experience while working as the Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Vehicle Regulation for the state of Kentucky where she managed 286 employees. She details accounts of her employees doubting her abilities to run the Transportation Cabinet smoothly, even though she was qualified for the job. She touches on the idea that this was because she was a Black woman and explains that the complaints about her abilities were by her White employees. Sanders discusses how she managed these employees and the strategies she used to learn about each job in the Transportation Cabinet.

Keywords: Churches; Department of Vehicle Regulation; Employees; Managers; Micro-aggressions; Respect; Strategies; Transportation Cabinet

Subjects: Black people.; Discrimination.; Education.; Kentucky. Transportation Cabinet; Racism.

00:56:30 - Involvement with nonprofit organizations and volunteer work

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Partial Transcript: I'm listening to you talk about these micro-aggressions and how you're handling it and how, you know, you've been the first in a lot of different roles and what you've done to prepare for those roles. And it's, I admire how much of your strategy is just about being honest, that you deserve to take up space and that you're going to do that because it's your space to take up and you have earned it, and you're, you are prepared to do what you need to do. And, you know, when we talked about your childhood background, your mother and great-grandmother had a lot to helping you, had a lot to do with helping you build that attitude. Are there other support systems or networks you've been able to build or create to also assist you in navigating different roles or leadership, leadership positions?

Segment Synopsis: Sanders discusses her experiences of working with various nonprofit organizations. She talks about her involvement and volunteer work with Big Brothers, Big Sisters, United Way for All, the Frankfort Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Frankfort Inc, and the board of directors for tourism in Frankfort. She recounts a specific experience that she had with Downtown Frankfort Inc and how that changed the way that she views her volunteer work and efforts.

Keywords: Big Brothers/Big Sisters; Downtown Frankfort Inc; United Way for All; Volunteering

Subjects: Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America. Community-Based Mentoring Program; Frankfort (Ky.); Nonprofits.

01:04:32 - Beginnings with Kentucky State University and current role

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Partial Transcript: So I know, I wanted to, I'm glad you transitioned to your mom cause I wanted to go back to her because I know that she heavily influenced your perception of education and hard work, and so I'm interested, how have you carried those values over or instill the same values in your children?

Segment Synopsis: Sanders talks about how she emphasized the importance of education to her two children while they were growing up. She speaks about their accomplishments and where they are now. She then transitions to speaking about leaving her governmental job in 2008 and pursuing a position in the president's office at Kentucky State University. While the president of the university believed that Sanders would be "too bored" with this job, Sanders took the job and has now been promoted to Director of Public Engagement. Sanders discusses this position and what role it plays for the university and community as a whole.

Keywords: Children; Communities; Director of Public Engagement; Events; Land-grant institutions

Subjects: Education.; Frankfort (Ky.); Kentucky State University.; Kentucky State University. Department of Public Relations; Nonprofits.

01:14:38 - Relationship between Kentucky State University and the community

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Partial Transcript: So, a lot of the, the work that you're doing is about fostering these relationships between the university and the community. Has there been pushback on certain initiatives from like either side?

Segment Synopsis: Sanders explains the importance of fostering relationships between Kentucky State University and the surrounding communities. She talks about how many people who are from Frankfort have never stepped foot on the KSU campus. This shows how the community knows very little about Kentucky State University and the vast amount of opportunities that they provide for the people in surrounding areas. Sanders also mentions another academic organization that she is a part of, the Bluegrass Higher Education Consortium, and what they do for the educational community.

Keywords: Bluegrass Higher Education Consortium; Communities; Engagement; Kentucky State University. Department of Public Relations; Universities

Subjects: Education.; Frankfort (Ky.); Kentucky State University.; Lexington (Ky.)

01:21:07 - Fermentation and distillation at Kentucky State University

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Partial Transcript: So you mentioned a few different organizations and nonprofits that you have been fostering relationships with, and I wanted to talk about one program specifically at Kentucky State that is very unique to the Kentucky community, which is the undergraduate Certificate in Fermentation and Distillation Science. What impact do you believe that having this program at a historically black, land-grant university will have on the bourbon industry?

Segment Synopsis: Sanders talks about the importance of the Certificate in Fermentation and Distillation Science at Kentucky State University. She talks about the growing bourbon industry and the presence of distilleries in Frankfort, Kentucky, which is where KSU is located. She emphasizes the role of Black individuals in the bourbon industry, both past and present, and how learning about the history of your field is beneficial to understanding it as a whole. Sanders also offers general advice to Black individuals, especially Black women, who are entering a predominately White career field.

Keywords: African Americans in the whiskey industry; Black people in the whiskey industry; Bourbon; Bourbon industry; Certificate in Fermentation and Distillation Science; Certificates; Chemistry; Distillation; Distilled beverages; Distilleries; Sciences; Whiskey industry--Kentucky

Subjects: Alcohol industry.; Bourbon whiskey.; Careers.; Education.; Fermentation research.; Frankfort (Ky.); Kentucky State University.; Whiskey industry.

01:29:35 - Personal journey with alcohol and bourbon

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Partial Transcript: That's awesome advice. I want to shift over to talking about you personal interests and connection to bourbon, because that is one of the reasons we decided to have this conversation on Valentine's Day, because what better thing to talk about than bourbon? (laughs) So, so you mentioned your, in childhood like your first experiences with like smelling alcohol. What was your first memory of bourbon specifically?

Segment Synopsis: Sanders tells the story of how she came to love and appreciate bourbon. Her experience with dark liquor, specifically whiskey, started at a young age because of her stepfather. Due to his over-indulgence with alcohol, Sanders explains how she did not have much of a desire to drink until she reached college. There, she began drinking wines and light liquors. Sanders walks us through her growth with alcohol, how she disassociated negative connotations of alcohol from her stepfather, and her eventual appreciation of bourbon.

Keywords: Bourbon; Childhood; College life; Family; Parties; Stepbrothers; Stepfathers; Whiskey

Subjects: Bourbon whiskey.; College.; Liquors.; Whiskey industry.

01:41:09 - Favorite bourbons

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Partial Transcript: So what is your preferred brand of bourbon?

Segment Synopsis: Sanders discusses all of her favorite bourbons from Old Forester to Eagle Rare. She also talks about what her go-to recommendation for new bourbon drinkers is, Woodford Reserve, and why that is such a great bourbon.

Keywords: Bars; Bourbon; Buffalo Trace; Bulleit; E.H. Taylor; Eagle Rare; Eboni Majors; Ezra 99; Four Roses; J.T.S. Brown; Old Forester; Weller; Woodford Reserve

Subjects: Bourbon whiskey; Whiskey industry

01:46:27 - Tips on learning about bourbon and ideas for future bourbon education

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Partial Transcript: So I'm hearing you drop all this knowledge about bourbon and it's reminding me so much of every other role that you've talked about like you go and seek out this other education and this training. And so what I want to learn more about, like what resources or text or materials have you used to help you research the art of bourbon or to get more familiar with whether it's like notes or tastings or just the industry?

Segment Synopsis: Sanders talks about how she gained her bourbon knowledge through the Kentucky Black Bourbon Guild and how that is a valuable resource. She gives a few tips on how to learn more about bourbon and various resources that you can access in order to deepen your knowledge. Sanders also touches on some ideas that she has to expand bourbon education, such as adding certificates that you can earn through the Kentucky Black Bourbon Guild.

Keywords: African Americans in the whiskey industry; Black people in the whiskey industry; Bourbon; Bourbon industry; Classes; Education; Kentucky Black Bourbon Guild

Subjects: Bourbon whiskey.; Education.; Kentucky.; Whiskey industry.