Berea College: A Place to Have Difficult Conversations about Race

As we observe Black History Month, I have reflected on Berea College’s unwavering commitment to interracial education, interrupted although it was by the segregation laws of the first half of the 20th century. Since the beginning, this institution has been a place devoted to racial justice and a place that does not shy away from difficult conversations about race.

In July 1872, the Berea College Board of Trustees, led by founder Reverend John G. Fee, President Henry Fairchild, and J.A.R Rogers, Berea’s first teacher, honored the faculty’s request to discuss the topic of “social intimacy between white and colored students at the institution.”

The minutes of the meeting are light on detail, but suggest that faculty and trustees debated at length, with one faculty member offering his resignation. By the end of the contentious meeting, the Board resolved that white and African American students should not be prohibited from seeing or marrying each other. The resolution came with the caveat that the couples must be privately warned of the dangers that “would not arise in a different state of society” and that they must be discreet because of those dangers.

No doubt the state of society was more dangerous for students of color than for white students at the time, just seven years after the end of the Civil War. Over 146 years later, in what is certainly a different state of society, such discretion is not required or even suggested, but that does not mean dangers do not still exist for African Americans, in Berea and elsewhere. And we must talk about these issues. We must talk about how people of color still endure racial epithets hurled at them from cars passing through campus. We must talk about how white privilege means others never have to experience this. And if we are to prepare the next generation for creating meaningful change in the world, we must talk about how systemic racism smooths the way for some and not for others.

TRUTH Talks Flier There is much I am proud of here at Berea College, but I am especially proud that this institution continually seeks to address inequality, improve operations, and does not shy away from uncomfortable conversations. These are not easy issues to talk about, but they are very important issues to shine light upon. Recent events provoking national discussion of blackface, use of force by the police, and the open resurgence of hate groups that only seemed to have been driven into the shadows bring into stark relief how far we have yet to go in terms of race relations. If it still has to be explained why blackface is hurtful to African Americans or why we should care about people of color being disproportionately imprisoned or targeted by law enforcement because of their race, then we are certainly far away from where we need to be as a society. And the “arc of the moral universe” will only “bend toward justice” if we expose matters like these to the searching light of our collective attention.

An example of where these discussions take place at Berea is the Carter G. Woodson Center for Interracial Education, which hosts the True Racial Understanding through Honest (T.R.U.T.H.) Talks. Here, the entire campus can have frank discussions on not only race, but also gender and sexuality, and other topics related to marginalized groups. The T.R.U.T.H. Talks even allow participants to use modern technology to ask questions anonymously, questions people are often afraid to ask. In that space, members of the campus community ask those difficult questions, get answers and engage in challenging but enlightening conversations. In short, it is a safe place to talk about hard things. The ultimate hope is that we can foster greater understanding and affection among and between all members of our campus community.

The issues of 2019 “would not arise in a different state of society,” a state of society we aim to make a reality through frank and honest discussion and the continuance of College policies that encourage diversity among the student body, faculty and staff. I am proud of our efforts and look forward to improving more and more over time. The July 2, 1872 Board of Trustees resolution on interracial romance is printed below for reference. It is not perfect by today’s standards, but it stands as testament to Berea’s devotion to racial justice from the beginning.

We agree:

  1. That persons of opposite races and sexes should not be universally prohibited from attending each other to and from social gatherings and public lectures.
  2. That if no obstacle but simply that of complexion exists they should have permission.
  3. That if in our judgment their going together would expose them to violence, they should be prohibited.
  4. That if they seem disposed to make an offensive display of themselves, it should be prohibited.
  5. If they would be seriously exposed to the charge of impure motivations, it should be prohibited.
  6. If they seem inclined to seek intermarriage they should be privately warned of the dangers to which they will expose themselves and their parents, especially if the parties are young, should be informed of the indications, and if they seem destitute of discretion they should be removed from the school. But the mere fact that persons of different colors are engaged to be married, is not sufficient cause for removing them, provided they can direct  themselves with appropriate discretion.
  7. In case of a large preponderance of either sex of a single color special caution will be necessary to guard against such consequences as would not arise in a different state of society.
  8. As far as practicable, young ladies should be guarded against receiving habitual acts of special attention from a person whom it would clearly be undesirable for them to marry.
  9. It does not seem to us that under existing circumstances it is desirable in general for those of either race to cultivate the most intimate social relations with those of the other sex and a different race, especially where the difference in race is quite marked.