The Power of Story

Kimberly Dumpson

RIC Vice President Kimberly Dumpson reflects on the importance of personal and collective history.

Letters from Dumpson’s family archives.

From the time of our earliest ancestors, people have used stories to interpret the past, to shape the future and to pass on a sense of identity, values and traditions. In fact, the most influential book of all time with unparalleled influence on world history was simply a collection of oral narratives that eventually became the Torah and later the Christian Bible. Today, its adherents make up one third of the people on the planet. Such is the power of story. Whether the audience is a few or two billion, the impact is the same. Stories influence and inspire people. 

That is why Rhode Island College’s Vice President of College Advancement and External Relations Kimberly Conway Dumpson, Esq. is intent on telling RIC’s story more effectively and promoting more broadly the impact Rhode Island College has on its students and the greater Rhode Island community.

As she engages in story-building, Dumpson is mindful of how profoundly she was shaped by the accounts of her family history.

A native of Whitehaven, Maryland, a small, historic, river community dependent on farming and fishery, Dumpson spent her late teens and early 20s wandering through cemeteries, researching family history and unearthing stories of her ancestors who worked through challenges, provided lessons in courage and interacted with larger historical forces.

Her search took her by train to New England, where she pored through documents in archives. She learned that her grandfather’s great-grandfather, Isaac Rice Sr., was an abolitionist and friend of Frederick Douglass and that his home was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Frederick Douglass
The Rice homestead (photo left) at the corner of William and Thomas Streets, (still in possession of the Rice family), was a station on the Underground Railroad in Newport. Many an escaping slave found food and shelter under its roof and Frederick Douglass (photo right), a friend of Isaac Rice Sr., made it his headquarters in touring the state on behalf of freedom. (Image of Douglass: J.C. Buttre/Wikimedia.)

Dumpson also discovered that she is a descendant of Bristol Yamma, a former slave who purchased his freedom via lottery in the 1700s and became one of the first African Americans to attend college. In 1866 the family's first college graduate, Rev. Reading Beatty Johns, earned his degree at Princeton Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania.

“Faith, education, civic responsibility and activism literally go back to the 1700s on both sides of my family,” said Dumpson. “On those rare occasions when my two children didn’t want to do their homework, I would remind them that their ancestor [Rev. Reading Beatty Johns] earned a degree in the 1800s. I think it motivated and inspired them.”

Today, Dumpson’s 24-year-old daughter, Taylor, is a law student; while Jeffrey, her 19-year-old son, is a game simulation arts and sciences major at Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute. 

“We have a family commitment to ensure that during the time we have on this planet we do good and use each moment to make a difference,” Dumpson said. “I believe strongly, as did my forebears, that education has the power to change the trajectory of a person’s life.”

She cited two elders in her family whose leadership influenced her as an administrator – her late paternal and maternal grandfathers.

Dumpson's grandfathers
From left, Rev. James Allen Conway Sr. and Rev. Ethelbert Maddox​

“I was very close to both my grandfathers, both of whom were pastors,” Dumpson said. Born in 1898 in Whitehaven, Maryland, Rev. Conway was a farmer and a fisherman, while Rev. Maddox, born in 1913 in Newport, Rhode Island, was a carpenter.

The owner of over 30 acres of farmland, which he worked himself, Rev. Conway was the grandson of a Native American medicine woman of the Nanticoke tribe, and he would sing to young Dumpson Native American chants.

Rev. Conway’s grandmother Mary Jane Gates (1844-1924) of the Nanticoke tribe. 

“I was fascinated by his history and would constantly pepper him with questions,” she said. “From our conversations, I developed a love of history and genealogy. I also learned from him the value of hard work.”

Rev. Maddox was born in Newport but lived most of his life on the Delmarva Peninsula, where he was employed by lumber companies and built his own home. 

“I remember a sermon he gave,” she said, “titled, ‘Why Are We Sleeping in a Day Like This?’ Oftentimes pastors will weave current events into their messages. He was asking the congregation to wake up to what was going on around them. He wanted the community of faith to become active and involved civically. I took that to heart.”

“I also learned humility from him,” she went on. “He taught me not to get so caught up in titles but to be a leader of the people. He once said to me, ‘I treat the street-sweeper the same as I treat someone with a high position; and I am happy and content if I have two pennies in my pocket or if I have a large sum of money in my pocket.’” 

Dumpson learned that the power and position one holds ought not to be an end in itself. Power is only useful when it brings meaningful change to the powerless.

Today, she is a distillation of the spirit of her grandfathers, and to this day, she bends in deference to them. As vice president, she shares Rev. Conway’s commitment to hard work and Rev. Maddox’s civic responsibility.

In her role as an administrator, she is particularly passionate about supporting first-generation college students. She urges them not to limit themselves and to use their collective history to motivate and inspire them​​. 

“Too often we define ourselves by our limitations,” Dumpson explained. “To know that I came from a line of people who stood up against slavery, who stood up for women’s rights, who were able to accomplish things that the law said they couldn’t or shouldn’t do, that gender said, ‘That’s not your place,’ it gives me ​strength.” 

In the same way​, stories of the perseverance of RIC students and alumni have​ become a part of the annals of Rhode Island College history. Dumpson likens it to the Underground Railroad.

“Historically, the Underground Railroad was not a physical railroad,” she said, “but a connection of dots, a connection of points, on the way to a common end. Collectively, our students and alumni ​are those points in a continuum, a long line of success stories, that serve to inspire the next generation and to elevate this institution.”​