Table of Contents
This stage was the shortest and most difficult for Berea College. In the late 1960’s, nationwide Black college students were no longer satisfied with being Black imitations of their White counterparts. They wanted their own culture and heritage remembered and taught. The status quo was unacceptable. They were no longer Negroes; they were Black or Afro-American. They wore African clothing and had natural hairstyles. They wanted all Black floors or suites in dormitories, Black Studies courses and more Black students, faculty and staff. The Black students at Berea College were no different.
In the Fall Term of 1968, Berea College responded by offering History 373, Negro History. Richard Drake, the teacher, stated the History Department offered the course “because most of us feel that Negro history is a legitimate field – in part created by a Berea graduate, Carter G. Woodson – and partly too because of Berea’s commitment to bi-racial education” (July 26, 1968).33 Drake felt that he was “well prepared in the field,” even though the Black students preferred for a Black person to teach the course. Nonetheless, Drake believed that both Black and White students responded well to the course (Nov. 16, 1968).34
The Black students continued to express their concerns. On November 7, 1968, approximately 50 students, predominantly Black, walked out of a campus wide symposium. One student said,
Drake saw the walkout as “skillfully run, and in the best of taste really” (Berea Citizen, Nov. 16, 1968).36 Louis Smith, Dean of Berea College, thought it was in very poor taste. He believed that “Negro teachers” wanted to teach Negroes in “all-Negro schools” (Berea Citizen, Nov. 14, 1968).37 Smith also stated that the college’s “first commitment is to the underprivileged youth of the Appalachian Mountains and this is the main reason for the small percentage of Negro students” (Berea Citizen, Nov. 14, 1968).38
Joseph Taylor, a member of the Sociology Department at Indiana University-Indianapolis and future Berea College Trustee, was hired on a part-time basis to assist Drake in the Negro History course. In 1968, the Negro Studies Committee, composed of students and faculty, was formed to examine the curriculum and to suggest ways to examine the racial issue in America. The committee recommended adding relevant courses and that all General Education be re-examined to be sure that race and prejudice were receiving adequate attention, that College assemblies be utilized as important avenues of communication, that the Audio-Visual Services and library holdings of materials related to Negro Studies be examined and expanded (Negro Studies Committee 2).39 Ralph J. Bryson, the Chairperson of English at Alabama State University, was hired to evaluate Berea’s efforts to achieve the interracial commitment. He recommended additional Black Studies courses, the integration of Black Studies into the present course offerings, a concerted effort to recruit Black faculty, more extracurricular activities geared to the interests of Black students, and the establishment of a chair in honor of Carter G. Woodson, the Father of Negro History (Black Consultants Folder).40
In 1969, because of the efforts of “a young black admissions counselor,” the Admissions Office initiated an aggressive effort to recruit more Black students. During the 1968-69, 70 Black Americans were enrolled at Berea; in 1969-70, this number increased to 120 (Black Consultants Folder).41 Another new face for the 1969-70 school year was “a young black counselor in the advising office,” the individual around whom a later incident would revolve.
On March 3, 1970, three Black students were harassed by some local White citizens. At the time, Berea was basically a segregated town as the majority of the local Blacks lived in predominantly Black communities on the outskirts of the town. Instead of arresting the local White citizens, the police arrested the three Black students for carrying a concealed weapon, “a big stick.” The next day, Black students staged a sit-in in Lincoln Hall, the administration building (Blacks 1924-1970).42 Eventually, the charges were dropped against the students. This incident was serious, but the events in December of 1971 shook the foundations of the college.
Willis D. Weatherford became the president in 1967. He was familiar with the history of Berea College because his father had been a member of the Board of Trustees for almost five decades. Weatherford and the college attempted to respond to the concerns of the Black students. There were at least five courses on “the books which might be called Black Studies” courses (Blacks 1924-1970).43 The number of Black students increased. There were two Blacks on the professional staff. In the fall of 1971, the institution hired two Black faculty members in History and Spanish and a campus minister. Nonetheless, trouble occurred in December 1971.
The Black counselor hired in 1969 was informed that he would not be rehired after the conclusion of the 1971-72 academic year because “the students of the college had lost confidence in his performance of duties as a counselor.” In the counselor’s opinion, another factor in the disturbance was “when a white male student who had written a letter ‘full of lies about me’ and ‘pulled out and flourished’ a switchblade knife in [my] presence” (Berea Citizen, Dec. 16, 1971).44 Rumors about “a firearms arsenal of undefined size in some of the male dormitories, and [that] there was an undercurrent of comments that white and black students were preparing for impending trouble” circulated throughout the campus (Berea Citizen, Dec. 16, 1971).45 A disturbance in a female dormitory resulted in faculty and security officers having to restore order. On Monday, December 13, 1971, a number of Black students occupied the administration building and presented Weatherford with eight demands including: reversal of the decision about the termination of the counselor; a dismissal of specific members of the faculty and staff “because of their overt racist acts”; a search for weapons; and refuge in the administration building for protection and security until the situation was rectified (Berea Citizen, Dec. 16, 1971).46
The administration closed school early for the Christmas vacation and urged all students to leave campus by 5 p.m. on Tuesday, December 14, 1971. Weatherford felt that “it [had] become evident that an academically profitable examination week [was] not feasible” (Berea Citizen, Dec. 16, 1971).47 He hoped that “closing one week earlier [would] allow passions to cool over vacation . . . and the ideal of brotherhood [would] be reasserted in the new year in this college” (Berea Citizen, Dec. 16, 1971).48
When classes resumed in January 1972, there was outward calm. During the break, the counselor left campus and reached an agreement with the college to go on terminal leave until June 30, 1972. The faculty created a project called Operation Zebra to “welcome the students back to campus in an atmosphere of friendship and conciliation” (Berea Citizen, Jan. 6, 1972).49 This brought to a close the fifth and most traumatic stage of the history of Berea College.
What occurred at Berea was not unique. Similar demands were being made at other institutions of higher learning. However, this offered little comfort to Bereans; many thought that the school’s history would insulate it from the Black Revolution, however, Berea was a community divided between two schools of thoughts. One emphasized frank discussions to confront racism and the other placed a high value on toleration, decency, and courtesy, believing the less said about racial problems the better [Self-Study 1973-1974 302].50 The fifth stage was a transitional era from the fourth stage in which the latter school of thought controlled until the sixth stage, in which the former school of thought gained the advantage.
33Drake, Richard. July 26, 1968.
34Drake, Richard. November 16, 1968.
40Berea College. Black Consultants Folder, Berea College Archives.
41Berea College. Black Consultants Folder, Berea College Archives.
42Berea College. Blacks 1924-1970, Berea College Archives.
43Berea College. Blacks 1924-1970, Berea College Archives.
50Berea College. “Berea College Self-Study Report, 1973-1974", 302.