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Berea College And Its Impact On Appalachia

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Berea College was founded in 1859, and until 1904 it successfully educated both African American and white students under the same roof in Berea, Kentucky. For an integrated college to survive during the post-Civil War Reconstruction era in Kentucky is remarkable, and in order to fathom how such a feat was accomplished, a closer look needs to be taken. In order to understand what happened in Berea, Kentucky during this time period, an examination of the history of the college must take place, including why its founders wanted to start such an institution, why they chose Berea to do it in, and what was going on around Berea during this time. Additionally, the successes and failures of Berea need to be explored, along with what it meant in the bigger picture, how its existence contributed to the development of the entire United States.

Berea College began as an idea in the mind of John Gregg Fee, the son of middle class farmers and slave owners in Bracken County, Kentucky, and a devoted abolitionist. In 1853, Cassius M. Clay, an affluent landowner with considerable power and influence in Kentucky, invited Fee to "found an anti-slavery church and school in Madison County, Kentucky" (Ealy, 1990, p. 2). Fee accepted and immediately set out to find the perfect location for such a project. He decided upon Berea, Kentucky in 1858, and in 1859, he founded Berea College. All of this was possible because Clay's considerable pull in the community enabled him to "keep many of the irate locals at bay and thus offer some degree of protection to Fee" (Ealy, 1990, p. 4). This was essential because there were very few who were willing to accept the idea of an interracial college in the heart of the slave state of Kentucky at this point in history.

After founding Berea College, Fee began writing a constitution that would provide the framework of the institution. Included in this constitution, Fee stated that "this College shall be under an influence strictly Christian, and as such opposed to sectarianism, slaveholding, caste, and every other wrong institution or practice" (Peck, 1980, p. 13). Fee then explained that opposition to caste meant an opposition to separate education of blacks and whites (Fee, 1981, p. 83).

Once Fee's expectations for the institution were put on paper, Clay and Fee realized that they had very different views on what the ultimate goals of the school's founding were to be. Fee believed that "slavery was contrary to the word of God and should be excised immediately from American life [and] once the black man was free, he must have complete civil and political equality" (Nelson, 1973, p. 14). Clay, on the other hand, argued that "slavery should be gradually eliminated and slave owners compensated for their loss of property" (Clay, 1886, p. 43). He also expressed no desire to see blacks enter the social circles of whites as their equals.

Fee and Clay's differences in beliefs were irreconcilable, and it was decided that Clay was no longer going to back the project. With the loss of Clay's support came the loss of the protection in the community from those who didn't want to see an interracial school. When word of John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859 hit Berea, those who lived in and around the town were alarmed, and "local tolerance for radical views ended. Locals could no longer accept the idea of racially integrated schools, or those among them who championed the abolition of slavery" (Lewis, 1991, p. 3). Fearing what happened in Harper's Ferry would happen in Berea if this interracial project was allowed to continue, sixty armed men attacked Berea and forced Fee and forty-eight others out of the region on October 29, 1859. Unprotected "without Clay, there was nothing to stop this group from such an action (Peck, 1980, p. 22).

Fee wasn't able to permanently return to Berea to continue his project until after the Civil War was over. Upon his return, Fee quickly picked up where he had left off six years ago. By 1866, Berea College was officially the first school in the South to admit both blacks and whites. In its first year, enrollment at Berea totaled 187, "96 were Black and 91 White" (College Catalog, 1866 - 1867; Peck, 1980).

Reaching this point was an incredible task, but Fee and his followers were determined to be successful because they knew why they were doing it. Fee had two main reasons to found a school where blacks and whites could be educated together. One was his belief that it was "impossible to educate the races separately because in rural districts where two schools could not be financed there were no schools for black people at all" (Sears, 1996, p. 86). The second was his belief that such separation was "cruel and abusive" because it taught "colored children from the very beginning that they [were] only fit [to be] servants of white people and [were] not to be tolerated in the same school-room with white children" (Fairchild, 1883, p. 83).

Fee and his followers believed that the only way to solve the racial problems in the United States was to have blacks and whites interacting as social equals in all phases of society. They believed that blacks and whites had to "ride in the same [train] cars, stop in the same hotels, sit at the same tables, attend the same schools and churches, meet in the same social circles, sing in the same choirs, and mingle as equals everywhere (McPherson, 1975, p. 224). Being educated in the same school was a step in the right direction, and the founders hoped that what they learned in the classrooms would translate to every-day life.

A good way to understand the reasons behind the founding of Berea College is to look at the description of the founders' mission that was attached to the fund-raising pamphlets the school sent out. These pamphlets declared that "Berea is in a position to do an unparalleled service to the country in opposing the spirit of caste and reconciling white and colored races." More importantly, it went on to say that "Berea is the only school which is largely attended by both white and colored students, and thus maintains the principle that character and principle worth are the sole criterion of merit" (Wolfe, 1985, p. 66). This is very telling because it shows the school's dedication making people see past color and recognize character when making judgments.

Fee and his followers were on the same page as far as the reasoning behind founding an interracial school, but in order for the project to be a success, it had to take place in the perfect location. The town of Berea was carefully chosen for a number of reasons.

Fee felt that it was "never enough...to teach quality without the

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