Published Originally in the Winter/Spring 2012 Issue of Berea College Magazine
Robert Moore, ’13
The life of a Lincoln Institute founder, Kirke Smith, Berea College class of 1894, was dedicated to upholding the ideals expressed in Berea’s motto, “God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth (Acts 17:26).” On the ninety-ninth anniversary of the founding of the Lincoln Institute, President Larry Shinn presented the John G. Fee Award to five of Smith’s grandchildren at the twelfth annual Berea College Founders’ Day Convocation at Phelps Stokes Chapel. The award was accepted on their behalf by Kentucky State University sociology professor Alvin M. Seals, one of Smith’s grandsons.
Born in 1865 in Christiansburg, Virginia, Kirke Smith earned his master’s degree from the University of Michigan after graduating from Berea. He began his career as an educator with the Lebanon, Kentucky, school system, going on to become Superintendent of the Lebanon Colored Schools and then Superintendent of Principals, a post he held for 15 years.
After the Day Law of 1904 which ended interracial education in Kentucky for the next 50 years the Berea board of trustees employed Smith and James Bond, class of 1892 and grandfather of civil rights activist Julian Bond, to raise funds for a new school for black students. As a result of their efforts, the Lincoln Institute opened in 1912, in Simpsonville, Kentucky, to provide segregated education for African Americans. Smith served as Dean of the Normal Department and Dean of Men.
The John G. Fee Award honors African American alumni who attended Berea College between 1866 to 1904 for their distinguished service in communities and especially for contributions in the field of education. The event, which featured choral performances by the Black Music Ensemble, was not the only celebration of Smith’s memory. The Berea College Archives presented an exhibit honoring Smith and his wife Sallie Johnson, also an 1894 Berea graduate. The exhibit included attendance cards and student records, an 1894 Commencement Program, and a 1909 copy of The Lincoln Institute Worker discussing Smith’s role in founding the Lincoln Institute.
Alvin Seals, a former visiting professor at Berea, is currently writing a book about Smith and the Lincoln Institute. He told the audience that the Institute was unique for black schools in offering a classical curriculum in addition to an industrial education. However, the Institute struggled financially, and in 1933, Lincoln was converted to a trade school. The academic staff was fired, including Smith, who had been with the school for over 20 years. The Lincoln Institute closed in 1966, and the campus is now the home to the Whitney Young, Jr. Job Corps Center, a Department of Labor facility that provides students with workplace skills at no cost.
Kirke Smith died in 1935. “We think he died of a broken heart,” Seals said. However, Smith’s legacy as an educator continues. A member of his family has been teaching in Kentucky schools from 1890 to the present. “This award helps to heal the pain that he experienced in spirit,” said Seals as he looked out at the sea of young faces, many of them training to become the next generation of educators. “His spirit now is revived again.”