In honor of Women’s History Month, I wanted to retell the harrowing stories of Matilda Fee and Elizabeth Rogers, who joined their husbands on a dangerous interracial mission in slave-holding Madison County more than 164 years ago.
Matilda Hamilton Fee grew up in northern Kentucky, where she and her mother once served tea to a slave owner while an escaped slave hid in the basement. She may have been used to a certain level of danger, then, before she married the Reverend John G. Fee and joined his “covenant with God to preach in [their] native state the gospel of love, of justice, and of liberty,” and to found a school that would admit students regardless of color or gender. Matilda, John, and three small children packed all their possessions in a two-horse wagon, and made the three-day journey into a wilderness that would become Berea.
In his writings, John describes Matilda as having a unique blend of qualities that supported the mission. It was “that affection, sympathy, courage, cheer, activity, frugality and endurance, which few could combine and which greatly sustained me in the dark and trying hours that attended most of our pathway.”
Much of what we know about Berea’s early days comes from the writings of Elizabeth Rogers, who along with the Fees, was one of Berea’s first teachers. Having grown up in privilege in Philadelphia, she was only eighteen when she joined her husband, John A. R. Rogers, on the journey to Berea, requiring travel by steamboat, train, stage coach, and livery carriage.
She writes to one of her children, “It was a rainy, March day, your father and I made our entrance into Berea. We stood on the hill, looking across through the trees at the little slab schoolhouse that was to be the beginning of Berea College. The unpainted schoolhouse with its broken windows hardly seemed a worthy field for my aesthetic, scholarly husband, but he saw the work with prophetic eye . . . On that drizzly afternoon, it needed a prophet’s eye to see in the most distant future, even a ray of hope. My vision was clouded, and the wet, drooping branches accorded with my spirit, and my heart was heavy. Once in the harness however, I never looked back, and entered upon the work with a zeal and enthusiasm second only to your father’s, and our work grew like magic.”
Elizabeth taught children at the school while J.A.R. instructed the older pupils.
By 1859, the area became dangerous for them. John Fee had gathered negative attention after an editorial passage calling for “more John Browns” was taken out of context, and the local planters believed Fee was calling for armed insurrection and slave rebellions. This is when conditions deteriorated, and talk of gathering mobs reached the Bereans.
“Daily we watched for what was to come,” Elizabeth wrote, “and we grew to fear the worst. The tension was terrible, and I believe I grew to wish the mob would
come, do their worst, and have it over….Yet all those days we never locked a door nor owned the simplest piece of firearms. We were a feeble few, entirely at the mercy of the mob when it should come.”
Though the men remained unarmed, Elizabeth took it upon herself to obtain at least some protection, keeping large sticks by her bed and “a syringe filled with a stinging chemical from her husband’s school cupboard.” (This was actually a diversion from the stores of the chemistry laboratory!) She suggests in her writing that she knew this would accomplish little.
“I have the feeling that the mob, if they had ever come, would have gone away unmolested.”
The mob finally did come, two days before Christmas in 1859. While John Fee was away in Cincinnati, 62 armed and mounted men approached the Rogers’ door in a wedge formation. Elizabeth joined her husband at the door to meet them with “our little first-born clinging to my skirts.”
The men gave them 10 days to leave town. The Bereans appealed to Kentucky’s governor for protection, but he would only provide it if they left.
Matilda, without her husband, gathered up their children and joined the caravan of wagons for the journey. Elizabeth describes a treacherous journey made difficult by rains and melting snow.
“A drizzling rain was falling, the snow had melted, and everything was dreary without as our hearts within. One old man sat in an open wagon with his arm around his aged wife as if to shield her from every storm. Mrs. Fee with her carriage full of little children, a bride and a groom in another carriage, and these, with a few men on horseback and Mr. Davis and his family, and a great white covered wagon which carried our trunks, a lady or two, and waiting for me to climb into it with our babies, formed the crowd that was ‘a menace to Kentucky’s best interests’….I took my place under the rude shelter of the wagon, and the word came to move on.”
Though Matilda lost a son to the cold on that journey north, she was the first to return to Berea to live. In 1862, at the height of the Civil War, Mrs. Fee, again without her husband, returned to Berea with her two older children in a buggy. The Union flag painted on the wagon enabled her to pass through where Union troops were stationed for the Battle of Richmond, which the Union ultimately lost. John was a day behind her, but as Matilda hid her horse and buggy in the woods so it would not be stolen on the day of battle, John and his 11-year-old son turned back. Again cool in the face of danger, Matilda hid her silverware in the eaves of the house and chatted with Confederate soldiers as they marched through town.
Without the bravery and stalwart contributions of women like Matilda Fee and Elizabeth Rogers, it seems unlikely that Berea College could ever have expanded beyond a “little slab schoolhouse” with broken windows.
Much of the information for this entry comes from Berea’s First 125 Years, by Elisabeth S. Peck and Emily Ann Smith, which tells the complete story of Berea’s founders. In the coming weeks, you can read more about the First Ladies of Berea College in the spring issue of Berea College magazine.