Bell for Camp Nelson
In the summer of 1863 and after returning from exile, John G. Fee had a calling to begin work with Camp Nelson, where black Union soldiers were trained and newly freed refugees were housed, near Nicholasville, KY. In the summer of the next year, Fee decided the camp needed a way to call in troops from classes and worship. He wrote to Levi Coffin and Edward Harwood of Cincinnati, OH, and tasked them with finding a bell.
Harwood writes to Fee in July of 1864, telling him that a bell has been bought from iron and steel workers Sechler and Porter in Cincinnati. Harwood tells Fee that the bell was $115 and should be shipped on the same afternoon as the letter being written. The bell was sent to Camp Nelson, where it stayed until the end of the war.
At Berea College
College trustee minutes for April 12th, 1866 give a brief thanks to the donors of the bell, which would return to Fee’s personal possession should Berea College ever “cease to exist” or when the bell is no longer being used.
The bell remained at Berea College, housed for a time in the men’s dormitory, Howard Hall.
At First Christian Church
In March of 1896, Fee, along with six others, resigned from Union Church due to arguments on the requirements of baptism. Fee left with the intention of founding a new religious institution suitably called the “Second Church” (later to be renamed First Christian Church). He took the bell back from the college to be put into the new church. Fee writes of the history of the bell in an article still in possession of First Christian Church.
The bell was removed from the steeple for remodeling around 1922 and sat in the yard of the church for 20 years before a new steeple was built.
“The Freedman’s Bell” by John G. Fee, transcript:
Moved by a sense of duty I went, during the latter part of our late …, into Camp Nelson, KY for the purpose of giving religious instruction and encouragement to soldiers – white and colored.
I instituted a school for the instruction of non-commissioned soldiers. This was specially needed among the colored that they might write their names and … … The instruction was heartily endorsed by … … I also there organized an un-denominational church and secondary school. For the purpose of calling together these two classes for instruction, I needed a good bell that should be heard far and wide. I so wrote to two personal friends, Edward Harwood and Levi Coffin, old … abolitionists then living in Cincinnati, Ohio. Speedily they sent to me this bell which we properly call The “Freedman’s Bell” The bell was in no sense government property. When the war closed I removed the bell to Berea, Ky where it again rang for freedmen.
The College at Berea had the use of the bell with this promise, that when the College should secure another bell or for any reason cease to use the old historic bell, then it should revert to me. I now gladly transfer it to the “Church of Christ” at Berea here known as the Second Church. May the old bell ring loud and long and alike for all men.
Berea, Ky, March 23, 1896 John G. Fee
Even with the existence of the article written by Fee, there are still arguments about the true whereabouts of the bell. Many think the bell at Middletown School is, in fact, the real Freedman’s Bell. The “Berea College-Middletown Bell,” as it is called by some, was given to Middletown School in 1927 by the college’s trustees. Before, it had hung in Phelps-Stokes until the current chimes were donated by Olivia Phelps-Stokes. It remained at Middletown from 1927-1963 when the building stopped being used for elementary education. The bell is back at the building, which is used by various community organizations, and is on loan from the Rucker family, who owns it. There is no written evidence that the bell at Middletown School is Fee’s bell, as there is for the bell at First Christian Church. The bell at the school is unmarked and there is no evidence of where the bell was made, though some think it was made in New York by Meneely Co., as are the chimes in Phelps-Stokes.