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

John G Fee

Rev. John G. Fee, Berea College founder

Berea College’s founding is steeped in the uncompromising faith and courage of its founder, Rev. John G. Fee.  He started a one-room school in 1855 that would eventually 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. Fee preached the gospel of Christ from the perspective 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 believed Fee was somebody 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. He and Principal J. A. R. Rogers insisted the constitution should ensure 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. This would help them pay their expenses and 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, pro-slavery sympathizers drove Fee and the Berea teachers from Madison County. 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. In 1869, the College Department became a reality.

The first catalog, issued for 1866-67, used the corporate name “Berea College,” but the publishers printed the title “Berea Literary Institute” on the cover. The reason for this was that it was thought to better convey “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, white and black students made up an equal part of Berea’s student body. Many of these students went on to teach in schools established for African-Americans only.

Berea’s commitment to interracial education suffered a setback in 1904, when Kentucky’s Legislature passed the Day Law. This law 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. Lincoln Institute was a school designated for black students, located near Louisville. Lawmakers amended the Day Law in 1950 to allow integration above the high school level. At that time, 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. Rogers identified the region as a “neglected part of the country” after a trip through the mountains.

Curricular offerings have varied at Berea to meet changing needs. In the early 1920s, on top of its College Department, Berea had a high school. It 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. The tradition of educational innovation continues today as Berea College implements a new scenario plan: “Engaged and Transformative Learning.” At its core is 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. Berea has gained attention as one of the best by:

  • U.S. News & World Report
  • The New York Times
  • The Chronicle of Higher Education
  • The  Philadelphia Inquirer
  • The Times of London
  • and the “Solutions” segment of ABC World News.

These organizations focused national and international attention on many aspects of the Berea experience:

  • Full-tuition scholarships provided to all students
  • the effectiveness of the work program
  • and students’ involvement in community service projects, to name a few.

Presidents of the College

Fee was the first president of Berea’s Board of Trustees, serving from 1858-92. Rogers was the first principal, serving from 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