Remembering Gabriel Burdett

Civil War Refugee School at Camp Nelson

This photo shows Black refugees at the school at Camp Nelson.

The bell at First Christian Church in Berea is known as the Freedmen’s Bell. It first rang at Camp Nelson in Jessamine County during the Civil War to call formerly enslaved Black troops and refugees to church and to school. The Reverend Gabriel Burdett, born a slave, became a soldier in the 114th U.S. Colored Infantry. He was there to hear the bell ring, and within four years, he would be named a trustee of the newly established Berea College.

After the war, Burdett stayed behind at Camp Nelson to continue his missionary work, pastoring the Church of Christ there, and working alongside Howard Fee, son of Berea College founder Rev. John G. Fee, to set up a school for Black refugees called the Ariel Academy. Funded by the Freedmen’s Bureau and supplied with teachers by the American Missionary Association (AMA), the Garrard County native dedicated himself to the cause of education and the betterment of conditions for the newly free.

The first African American trustee of Berea College held this position from 1868 to 1878, when at the age of 49, life presented a new calling. In Tennessee and Kentucky, thousands of frustrated African Americans were moving west to settle in Kansas. From correspondences in the Berea College archives, we know that Burdett, too, had become disenchanted with the slow progress of race relations in his home state and felt African Americans could fare better out west.

“And so I go on as the pillar of cloud moves on,” he wrote to a minister at the AMA, who would sponsor his exodus to Kansas.

One can gather from Kansas newspapers that Rev. Burdett made a name himself there, not only as a preacher but as a politician. He left the Republican Party and joined with a more progressive group that favored women’s suffrage and supported labor movements. In 1888, Kansas prohibitionists nominated Burdett for state auditor. The Dodge City Times wrote that Burdett was “an able speaker, being witty and forcible. After his nomination he was called upon for a speech, and was conducted to the platform by a former slave owner. Such a thing has probably never occurred in any other party convention and probably never will.”

There’s more to Burdett’s story than I have space for. I wanted to tell you at least some of it, not just because it is Black History Month, but because here we have a remarkable person from our area—a pastor, a soldier, a missionary, an educator, a leader—and likely you have never heard of him. Sources online list Burdett as an “associate” of John Fee. But clearly he was more than that—he was a partner working toward the same goals. Yet, even in the annals of Berea College, an institution devoted to interracial community and education, he has not been given the prominence he deserves.

White privilege can be subtle that way. It’s not just who has advantages in society and who does not. It can also be who is left out of our storytelling. We hear the Freedmen’s Bell ring most mornings at 10:00 to commemorate the many Kentucky victims of COVID-19, and it can also remind us that the first interracial college in the South had Black heroes as well as white ones. Remembering Gabriel Burdett is one small way of evening the scales of attention.