In 1853 a Kentucky preacher stood on ten acres of ridge land on the edge of Appalachia—and dreamed big dreams. John Fee was a man of strong faith, strong character, and strong feelings about slavery, poverty, and the worth and dignity of every human being. If God could use him, he wanted to make a difference in the lives of native Kentuckians—black and white.
His fiery preaching against slavery had caught the attention of Kentucky’s Cassius Clay, who was himself a leading proponent of the gradual emancipation of American slaves. Clay invited Fee to come down to his part of the country, down below Lexington in Madison County, where the Silver Creek meets the Red Lick. Clay had then given Fee the ten acres to homestead, but Fee did more than homestead it. By 1855 there stood on that land of his a little one-room school building, used for church on Sundays. It was a seed Fee planted that would grow into a burgeoning orchard of education for people of every color, creed, gender, and nationality.
He and the first dozen or so members of the fledgling community called their new home “Berea,” named for the ancient biblical city whose inhabitants were said to be “noble-minded,” willing to entertain new and challenging ideas, including the thought that racial and social prejudices were unnecessary and harmful obstructions to the good of mankind. Fee’s dream was of establishing an educational institution that provided a good, thorough, obtainable, and practical education for black and white, for male and female, and for those who couldn’t afford it otherwise—meaning especially the disadvantaged inhabitants of the Appalachian region on whose doorstep Berea sat.
By 1859 Fee was signing Kentucky articles of incorporation for the school, but that same year pro-slavery Kentuckians ran Fee out of the county, and then the Civil War followed soon after in 1861. Fee spent the duration of the war collecting funds for his dream school. As soon as the war was over, Fee was back in Berea, and by 1866 his little school community was bulging with 187 eager and hopeful students—ninety-six black and ninety-one white—excited with their new opportunities. It was the first multi-racial and mixed-gender school in the South. The dream had been realized.
Not everyone in Kentucky, however, caught the same vision. Forty years later, in 1904, the state legislature passed a law prohibiting racially-integrated education at any level. With one stroke of the political pen, Berea’s mission was severely impeded—impeded but not obliterated. In defiance of the spirit of the law if not in overt disobedience to it, Berea’s board of trustees set aside some of the school’s funds to aid in founding an all-black college in Louisville that could provide what Berea could not in the foreseeable future. And so it was that for the next forty-six years Berea was forced by the civil government to operate contrary to the noble principles upon which the school and community had been founded. When in 1950 the law was finally altered to allow integration at the post–high-school level, Berea College was among the first to enroll students once again from any race or ethnicity.
Berea College continues that tradition to this day, and what is more, every student attending Berea receives a full-tuition scholarship. But that’s not the whole story. Every student also works their way through college, a minimum of ten hours a week, in one of the college’s 126 departments. For example, students working in the college’s crafts program have been making useful products to sell for the past 150 years, and the proceeds help to support the cost of their education—which for one student is about $23,000 a year. The school believes honorable labor, both mental and manual, leads to personal dignity, and students additionally learn the value of their education while gaining practical skills and much-needed experience in a variety of areas.
Today the school’s 1600-member student body includes men and women not only from Appalachia but from every state in the Union as well as from sixty different countries around the world. The quality of education has always been high at Berea, and the school has steadily developed a solid reputation as a serious contender among American colleges. Very serious. So much so that in 2011 the Washington Monthly listed Berea College as their pick for the top liberal arts institution in the nation.
One wonders if even Reverend Fee had that much vision for the tiny wilderness school he started on ten acres of Kentucky’s Berean ridge.