A Courageous History

Black and white photo - 3 men in the back, one man between two middle in the front

A Bold Beginning Steeped in Faith

Berea College’s founding is steeped in the uncompromising faith and courage of its founder, the Rev. John G. Fee.  He started a one-room school in 1855 that eventually would become Berea College. A native of Bracken County, Ky., Fee was a scholar of strong moral character, dedication, determination and great faith. Convinced that slavery was wrong, he became an ardent abolitionist, preaching the gospel of Christ from the perspectiveJohn G Fee of “impartial love.” Fee dreamed of founding a school that would  advocate  equality and excellence in education for men and women of all races.

Fee’s commitment in preaching against slavery attracted the attention of Cassius M. Clay, a well-to-do Kentucky landowner and prominent leader in the movement for gradual emancipation. Clay felt that Fee was an individual who would take a strong stand on slavery.
In 1853, Clay offered Fee a 10-acre homestead on the edge of the mountains if Fee would take up permanent residence there. In 1855, a one-room school, which also served as a church on Sundays, was built on a lot contributed by a neighbor.   This school eventually became Berea College.

Fee worked with other community leaders to develop a constitution for the new school, which he and Principal J. A. R. Rogers insisted should ensure its interracial character. The College’s motto—“God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth”—finds its scriptural foundation in Acts 17:26. They also  agreed that the school would furnish work for as many students as possible, in order to help them pay their expenses and to dignify labor at a time when manual labor and slavery tended to be synonymous in the South.

The first articles of incorporation for Berea College were adopted in 1859. The same year, Fee and the Berea teachers were driven from Madison County by pro-slavery sympathizers. Fee spent the Civil War years raising funds for the school; in 1865, he and his followers returned. A year later, the articles of incorporation were recorded at the county seat, and in 1869 the College Department became a reality.

The first catalog, issued for 1866-67, used the corporate name “Berea College,” but the title “Berea Literary Institute” was printed on the cover because it was thought to convey better “the present character of the school.” Enrollment that academic year totaled 187 — 96 black students and 91 whites. For several decades following the Civil War, Berea’s student body continued to be divided equally between white and black students, many of whom went on to teach in schools established solely for African-Americans.

Berea’s commitment to interracial education suffered a setback in 1904 when the Kentucky Legislature’s passed of the Day Law, which prohibited educating black and white students together. When the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Day Law, Berea split its endowment to help establish the Lincoln Institute, a school located near Louisville, for black students. When the Day Law was amended in 1950 to allow integration above the high school level, Berea was the first college in Kentucky to reopen its doors to black students.

By 1911, the number of students seeking admission to Berea was so great that the trustees amended the College’s constitution to specify the southern mountain region as Berea’s special field of service. The commitment to Appalachia, however, began as early as 1858, when Rogers, after a trip through the mountains, identified the region as a “neglected part of the country.”

Curricular offerings have varied at Berea to meet changing needs. In the early 1920s, in addition to its College Department, Berea had a high school that included ungraded classes for students who had no educational opportunities, an elementary school, a vocational school and a Normal School for teacher training. Although the general mission of serving students with financial need continued, units and divisions were reorganized through the years. That tradition of educational innovation continues today as Berea College implements a new scenario plan, “Engaged and Transformative Learning,” that has at its core a vision for enhancing student learning within a sustainable budget.

Berea’s distinctive commitments and educational programs have brought the College national and international recognition. Above all, the excellence of Berea’s academic program earns acclaim. The College has been cited among the best by U.S. News & World Report , The New York TimesThe Chronicle of Higher EducationThe  Philadelphia InquirerThe Times of London, and the “Solutions” segment of ABC World News.   They have focused national and international attention on many aspects of the contemporary Berea experience. Full-tuition scholarships provided to all students, the effectiveness of the work program, and students’ involvement in community service projects are among the features highlighted.

Presidents of the College

Fee was the first president of Berea’s Board of Trustees, serving from 1858-92, and Rogers was the first principal, 1858-69. The first Berea College president was appointed in 1869. Berea College’s nine presidents are

  • Edward Henry Fairchild, 1869-1889
  • William B. Stewart, 1890-1892
  • William Goodell Frost, 1892-1920
  • William J. Hutchins, 1920-1939
  • Francis S. Hutchins, 1939-1967
  • Willis D. Weatherford, 1967-1984
  • John B. Stephenson, 1984-1994
  • Larry D. Shinn, 1994-2012
  • Lyle D. Roelofs, 2012-present