Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Berea College-Coeducationally and Racially Integrated: An Unlikely Contingency in the 1850s

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Berea College-Coeducationally and Racially Integrated: An Unlikely Contingency in the 1850s

Article excerpt

The anti-slavery ministry of Rev. John G. Fee and the unlikely establishment of Berea College in Kentucky in the 1850s, the first college in the southern United States to be coeducationally and racially integrated, are examined to further understand the conditions surrounding these extraordinary historical events. The Berea case illustrates how early twentieth century legal institutions were suffused with racism and justifications for racial discrimination even to the extent that they neutered the laws intended to provide redress to Black citizens, while the court approved of racial prejudice as a natural protection from what it considered to be an unnatural amalgamation.

Keywords: social gospel, abolitionist, emancipationist, Radical Abolitionist Party, the Day Law

Introduction

In 1841, Reverend John Gregg Fee (1816-1901) received a $200 commission from the American Missionary Association (AMA). This amount was meant to help sustain Fee, an advocate of free labor, as he went about his work in Bracken County, Kentucky, teaching and preaching in the social gospel tradition. Fee lived in a "little frame house" which served as school, church, and residence. Fee's congregation soon grew to twenty-one souls and the congregation decided to build a larger church; brick-for security reasons-as Fee had come under regular attack by local pro-slavery forces.

In 1847, Fee severed his ties with the Presbyterian Church and began a nonsectarian, antislavery ministry. Fee challenged his congregation; "Shall the seats be free? If when the house shall be erected, a colored man, free or slave, shall come in and seat himself as any other man . . . will that, with you, be all right?" It was agreed to name the church the "Free Church of Christ" where all men would be invited. But some congregants warned that, while they allowed Blacks to sit at their dinner tables, "in a place of public worship . .. you cannot do this. If you attempt it one brick will not be left on another" (Fee, 1891, p. 55).

Fee was a rarity among nineteenth century preachers in the border state of Kentucky. But despite great odds, his ministry has survived in the form of Berea College. Berea College in Berea, Kentucky, founded in 1855 as a one-room schoolhouse, was the first college in the southern United States to be coeducationally and racially integrated. In close conjunction with the AMA, Oberlin College provided an existing northern model for a school built on the principles of Christian perfectionism, interracial coeducation, free speech and manual labor. Otis Waters, George Candee, and William E. Lincoln, three of Berea's earliest teachers, were Oberlin graduates as was J. A. R. Rogers. But Oberlin, near Cleveland, Ohio, existed in relative peace compared to Berea's southern experience (Wilson, 2006). By 1866, Berea had 96 Black and 91 White students but it would not award it first college degree until 1873.

Berea College went about its business in relative harmony for most of its existence. Such tolerance was unlikely in a small, largely pro-slavery, rural community in the mid-nineteenth century. Berea stood as a unique pocket of desegregation for a half century until the guilty populism of Jim Crow derailed it in 1904. It would be the mid-twentieth century before the rest of the country caught up.

The Birth of Berea

The anti-slavery message of Reverend John G. Fee had reached the ears of Cassius M. Clay of Madison County. Clay, cousin (once removed) to Kentucky Senator Henry Clay, was a controversial emancipationist and fiery orator whose speeches drew praise and violent opposition in equal measure. Clay fought many duels and narrowly escaped death at the hands of pro-slavery forces in 1843 and again in 1849. He served as state representative in the 1835 and 1837 terms before publishing an anti-slavery newspaper titled, The True American, finding fame in the Mexican-American War, and later being named Ambassador to Russia by President Abraham Lincoln (Ellison, 2005; McQueen, 2001; Richardson, 1976). …

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