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|Founded in the turbulent years before the Civil War, Berea College is a non-denominational Christian institution “dedicated to justice and racial equality.” Its foundation, the Great Commitments, “represent both a recognition of Berea’s historic purpose and its intention regarding the future” (Rewriting the Great Commitments).1 This essay will discuss how Bereans have tried to achieve one of the Great Commitments, the commitment to interracial education, from the founding of Berea College in 1855 to its sesquicentennial celebration in 2005-2006.|
Berea came into existence because Cassius Clay invited John G. Fee to Madison County, Kentucky, to establish an anti-slavery settlement (Ellis, Everman, and Sears 105).2 Fee, the son of a slave owner, viewed slavery as “the sum of all villainies” (108).3 He desired to build anti-slavery churches and “to have a good school here in central Kentucky, which would be to Kentucky what Oberlin is to Ohio, Anti-slavery, Anti-caste, Anti-sum, Anti-secret societies, Anti-sin” (133).4 These tasks would be accomplished in a county which had 1,881 slaveholding families who owned a total of 6,118 slaves in 1860 (139).5
Clay and Fee eventually parted company because of their differences over the gradual (Clay) or immediate (Fee) termination of slavery. Nonetheless, in 1855 Fee built a one-room school. The first articles of incorporation were adopted by July, 1859, but because the leaders of the community were forced to leave Kentucky in December 1859, the document was not recorded until 1866. The first bylaw stated: “The purpose of the College shall be to furnish the facilities for a thorough education to all persons of good moral character” (Peck and Smith 13). 6 The second by-law declared that the college “shall be under an influence strictly Christian, and as such, opposed to sectarianism, slaveholding, caste, and every other wrong institution or practice” (Nelson 15).7 In a letter to Rev. J.A. Rogers, the first principal, Fee declared that “opposition to caste meant the co-education of the (so-called) ‘races’” (15).8 As to whether Negroes would be admitted if any applied, Edward Fairchild, the first president of Berea College, stated, “the question was not embarrassed by legal considerations, for there was no law of Kentucky forbidding education to free colored persons, or even to a slave, with his master ’s consent” (Hall and Heckman 331).9
The constitution did not mention that the different divisions of Berea College were supposed to serve any particular race or region; however, the first catalog in 1867 mentioned two groups: recently emancipated Negroes and White people of eastern Kentucky. In his inaugural address, Fairchild stated: “We are aware that this feature of the school fails to meet the approbation of many of our fellow citizens,” but he did not “doubt that in the end this characteristic . . . will be most highly approved and popular” (Nelson 17).10 He also stated “that Negroes are to have and ought to have, the same civil and political rights as white men, and the sooner and more thoroughly both classes adapt themselves to this idea, the better for all” (Nelson 15).11 On March 6, 1866, 43 white students were enrolled in the institution; 18 left when four black students enrolled at the school (Ellis, Everman, and Sears 211).12 Like Burdett, other ex-slaves followed Fee from Camp Nelson, a Union camp located in Jessamine County, Kentucky. Fee “had determined that Berea would be the place where Black people could own property of their own. He promoted ‘interspersion,’ with blacks and whites being interspersed about the country’s side and in the town” (Ellis, Everman, and Sears 218).13 Fee stated, “I do not propose to feed him (the ex-slave) but put an axe and land within his reach and let him work out his salvation-help him to a home” (Ellis, Everman, and Sears 219).14 In addition, an 1872 Board of Trustee resolution did not prohibit social relations “between the races [as long as both parties were discrete] . . . under existing circumstances” (Burnside 12).15
Thus, in the first stage of the institution’s history the interracial commitment meant educating Blacks and Whites in the same environment. The founders believed that as Christians, they could do no less. This attitude continued from 1890-1892 during the tenure of William B. Stewart, the second president. If the composition of the student body is used as a criterion for judging the success of this experiment, then Berea was extremely successful. For most years before 1892 there were more Black students than Whites enrolled at the school, although in the college division there were more White students. However, during the second stage of Berea’s history, the story was different.
1Committee to Review the Commitments
10Nelson, 17. (on-campus full-text access via JSTOR) See also E. H. Fairchild, “Inaugural Address,” in Inauguration of Rev. E. H. Fairchild, President of Berea College, Kentucky (Cincinnati: Elm Street Printing, 1870), 11-12.
11Nelson, 17. (on-campus full-text access via JSTOR) See also E. H. Fairchild, “Inaugural Address,” in Inauguration of Rev. E. H. Fairchild, President of Berea College, Kentucky (Cincinnati: Elm Street Printing, 1870), 12.
15Burnside, Jacqueline. “Suspicion Versus Faith: Negro Criticism of Berea College in the Nineteenth Century.” Reshaping the Image of Appalachia. Ed. Loyal Jones. Berea: Berea College Appalachian Center, 1986. 975 R433