The Kinship of All People
The Kinship of All People
Berea College commits itself to assert the kinship of all people and to provide interracial education with a particular emphasis on understanding and equality among blacks and whites as a foundation for building community among all peoples of the earth.
The “gospel of impartial love” moved Berea College’s founders to set up a school open to everyone in need of education regardless of color, gender, or “caste” in the 1850s. The Reverend John G. Fee staked his mission on the scripture above, a proclamation of the inherent equality of all within the human race. This was a dangerous proposition, and remained controversial until well after the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
The movement to make education available to all saw violence, rebellions from even within the school, a Supreme Court case, a long hiatus from interracial education, and the eventual 20th century realization of a school for all people.
Today, Berea College’s commitment to interracial education is stronger than ever, and it evolves to be continuously more inclusive as programs and curriculum seek to promote understanding between races and to emphasize the common dignity of being human. As we move further into the 21st century and racial dynamics of our service region change, that “common dignity” implants deeper and deeper into the heart of all we do at Berea.
A Contested Origin
Berea College was founded by ardent abolitionists, led by the Reverend John G. Fee, who—at great danger to themselves—sought to create a school that welcomed “all peoples of the earth.” It's mission naturally included freed slaves, and the College would educate black and white students together. The years leading up to the Civil War were socially and politically intense, and Fee, along with his supporters, repeatedly faced hostile elements within Madison County.
One harrowing account of the situation comes from Fee’s autobiography. In February of 1858, although he was aware an armed posse was on its way to oppose him, Fee continued to preach “the gospel of impartial love.” When the posse arrived, they pulled him from the pulpit and dragged him outside the church along with a colporteur named Robert Jones. The following excerpt from his autobiography describes what happened next.
From there, their situation grew more and more perilous, and eventually, despite Fee’s plea to the state government for protection, they were forced to leave. Returning to the area in 1864 while the Civil War was still raging, Fee arranged with the quartermaster of an African American regiment at Camp Nelson to preach to and provide basic education to the troops. By that summer, he and 13 volunteers were actively teaching at the camp. After the conclusion of the Civil War, Berea College reopened and was officially incorporated in 1866. As the “Berea Literary Institute,” it admitted 187 students, with 96 freedmen and 91 white students. In 1870, Julia Britton, while still a student, became Berea’s first African American teacher (Peck 1982).
The Day Law
Berea’s commitment to interracial education continued to be challenged throughout its early history. White students were not always happy that the College admitted African American students on an equal footing, and when Berea began to employ black teachers in the late 1800s, there were further protests.
Conditions continued to deteriorate in the Jim Crow era as “separate but equal” policies spread across the south. Kentucky state legislator Carl Day and allies targeted Berea College, the only integrated college in Kentucky, by passing “the Day Law” which prohibited blacks and whites from attending the same college—an act that applied even to private schools. The College pursued appeals to this law, but in 1908, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of the State in Berea College v. Kentucky.
Unable to withstand the financial and criminal penalties of noncompliance, Berea College President William Goodell Frost and the board of trustees raised money to set up the Lincoln Institute near Louisville to serve Berea’s African American students. In addition, the funds would pay the tuition for students wishing to attend school out of state.
These conditions continued until the Day Law was set aside in 1950. The Lincoln Institute later became the Lincoln Foundation, which continues to this day to provide college preparatory programs for disadvantaged students.
Until the late 1960s, Berea’s African American student population increased only slowly due to a continued focus on recruitment in Appalachia, which was populated by whites by a substantial margin. The town of Berea, also, had trouble adjusting, for though the College was integrated, the town was not. Many alumni have recounted that one of the only churches in the area they could attend, besides Black churches, were churches also established by John Fee. After the College integrated its basketball team, African American players found themselves unable to eat with their teammates, or had to sleep on the campus of the school they were playing because hotels would not admit them.
The transition to re-integration was led by Jessie Reasor Zander, who became the first African American Berea graduate after the Day Law era. Jessie graduated in 1954 with a degree in elementary education and went on to earn her master’s degree at the University of Arizona. She became a teacher, school administrator, and poet.
The 60s and Civil Rights
Berea College faculty, staff, and students were active during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. The most notable example took place in March 1965, when members of the College community joined Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery in support of voting rights, following the horrifying events of “Bloody Sunday.” Berea students, joining in the protest despite the danger, marched carrying a banner displaying our motto from Acts 17:26 (using at that time the King James version): God hath made of one blood all nations of men.
This event was commemorated in 2015, its 50th anniversary, by another journey to Selma to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Organized by Dr. Alicestyne Turley, director of the Carter G. Woodson Center for Interracial Education, the group included current students, alumni who had participated in the 1965 march, and faculty and staff. Again we carried a banner embossed with our motto, expressed via the more up-to-date translation that we now employ: God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth. Acts 17:26.
Diversity is still one of Berea’s core strengths, and we continue to develop an inclusive atmosphere organized around understanding each other by learning the ways we are the same, coming to appreciate and respect the ways we are different, and by finding ways to work together toward common goals.
In 2011, the Board of Trustees authorized funds for the Carter G. Woodson Center for Interracial Education, created specifically to support the aims of the fifth Commitment among the greater community, not only students. The Woodson Center works in conjunction with many of the Black Cultural Center (BCC) programs and sponsors its own programs, like True Racial Understanding through Honest (T.R.U.T.H) Talks, where students, faculty, and staff use social media technology to retain anonymity while asking questions about racial and other identity issues. In addition, every other year, the Woodson Center invites faculty and staff on the Civil Rights Tour, a week-long bus trip to important civil rights destinations throughout the South.
While cultural and political forces of our past necessitated that we focus much of our efforts toward blacks and whites, we have increasingly included those of other races as well. Celebrating and teaching African American culture and history remains an important part of what we do, but in the 21st century this cannot be our only focus. “All peoples of the earth” has to include all peoples, with their respective identities, cultures, and struggles. Since 2014, for example, Berea College has maintained an Appalachian Hispanic/Latino initiative, which focuses on the growing population in the region and has increased that representation of students to 11 percent. Espacio Cultural Latinx (ECL), an affinity space designed to welcome all Berea students while meeting the specific needs of Latinx and Latin American Bereans, was founded on campus in April 2019.
A Diverse Experience
It's important that we continue the legacy of the South's first interracial and co-educational college
Our students come from 45 states, one U.S. Territory and 70 countries.
While much progress has been made as a nation in terms of race relations, there are still deeply concerning incidents occurring in the United States and around the world on a regular basis—from assaults on people of color to de facto segregation—that prevents people of varying races from coming to know one another. While we have little power to affect what happens on a national level, Berea College can, as it always has, address racial issues on the local level and serve as an example of how things could be. In addition to local activism, we start with ourselves by identifying the areas where we can improve our example:
Sociology major Jackie Malone ’18 grew up in a predominantly white community in East Tennessee.
“I never had the opportunity to learn about different minority groups or anybody different than myself. Coming to Berea totally rocked my world.”
“Berea taught me I had a simplistic view of race, and focused on the shared experiences people have together.”
This focus led him to some major realizations about shared experience in the Appalachian region where he had spent his youth. The changes in how he thought about it began during a Berea-sponsored trip to Mexico.