A bit progressive for a Southern state, Berea, Kentucky, was founded on the principles of emancipation and furthering the abolitionist cause. It became a place where culture thrived and cultivated its roots. Before there was a Berea, there was the Glade. The Glade and a vision.
Cassius Clay owned more than a bit of Madison County, Kentucky. This area in the southern part of the county was known as the Glade. With a successful career in politics, Clay sold parcels of land in the Glade to affluent citizens that shared his vision of a slave-free world. Although he had been born into a prominent slave-holding family, Clay had changed his views while away at Yale after hearing a speech from abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. His simple turn of thought led to a community where equality was a goal long before the Civil Rights Movement.
In 1853 Clay gave a piece of the Glade to the Reverend John G. Fee. The reverend and abolitionist named the settlement Berea, after the Biblical town known for being “off the beaten path.” He opened a one-room school that come to be known as Berea College, aiming to give equal educational opportunities to blacks and whites alike, male or female. In no time, Berea became the center of the abolitionist movement in Kentucky, albeit a small one. But as tensions began to mount throughout the country, the South had little tolerance for opposition and drove Fee and nearly one hundred of his supporters out of Kentucky around 1860.
The War did not diminish the dream of an interracial community that Clay and Fee had set in motion. Following the War and the threat it had posed, the Rev. Fee and his family returned to Berea along with some of his supporters. In 1866 Berea College sent out its first catalogs under the name “Berea Literary Institute.” The opposition claimed the black community would destroy the school, but it thrived. By 1889 more than 450 students were enrolled, and former slaves made an almost pilgrimage-like trip to Berea, their dreams and hopes with them as they embarked on a path that had never before been open.
But an educated black populace wasn’t the only goal for Berea. As churches and employers welcomed all races, Berea sold plots of land on the condition of interspersing the races throughout the town. Then a bold, progressive move, blacks and whites lived side by side, worked together, and worshiped on Sundays together. It seemed the dream was fulfilled.
But Berea was still a small fish in a big pond, as some may say. And the Kentucky legislature had no intentions of seeing the city’s acceptance spread throughout the state and forbade interracial education in 1904. Frustrated and discouraged, many of the blacks that had sought Berea like the Holy Land left, and Berea followed suit with the rest of the South and was segregated once more. Berea College helped to fund the Lincoln Institute for black students near Louisville, but Berea was not the same.
The dream was diminished, it seemed, but the town was not. Although the Day Law wouldn’t be reversed until 1950, Berea College grew, as did the city with it. On April 4, 1880, Berea became an incorporated town. The focus began to shift away from its past and look toward the Appalachian people, particularly the west-European culture that existed in the midst of poverty and isolation. Along the same time, an arts and crafts revival was beginning across the pond in England under the leadership of William Morris and other craftsmen. As much of the population experienced fear and trepidation over what industrialization would bring, many began to promote the superiority of traditional handmade goods and their place in modern culture.
While the U.S. movement didn’t gain the momentum it did overseas, there did seem to be a growing appreciation of these traditional crafts. Berea College President William Frost was quick to recognize the opportunity. During his Northern travels to seek funding for the college, Frost took with him traditional Appalachian overshot coverlets (a type of bedspread) he had received from Berea students. The coverlets had been made in the North during the colonial period and were a coveted item. This experience led Frost to pursue another dream. He envisioned a place where Appalachian craftspeople could come to profit from their work. That place was Berea.
Frost established the Berea College Fireside Industries that would help to market citizen’s handmade crafts. Perhaps most importantly, Frost established the Student Craft Industries, which allowed students to earn their tuition while learning. Frost aimed to preserve the heritage of the Appalachian people, while giving them a chance to move out of poverty and provide an education for their children. Not long after, the Student Craft Industries was established as a way for students to work for their tuition.
Today, numerous traditional crafts are represented in the Student Craft Industries, from woodworking and ceramics to weaving and broom making. Berea has come to be known as the arts and crafts capital of Kentucky—not surprising, with the city motto “Where Art’s Alive.” While the revival might have been short-lived elsewhere, in Berea it’s still going strong. Artisans throughout the country flock to Berea each year for the Berea Craft Festival, and the 25,000-square-foot Kentucky Artisan Center right at home within the city.
Berea has grown in more ways than one since the Glades. Roughly one third of Berea College students belong to an ethnic minority. The people of Berea embrace their heritage as Appalachian people, and learning is a way of life in this arts-and-crafts-centered town that offers yearlong opportunities to display and teach most any trade—mirroring a dream in a much different world than Clay lived, but offering the same goal of education and equality for all, side by side.
See More “Off the Beaten Path in Berea” Photos Here