Editor’s note: I’m sorry I’ve been so lax about posting! I’ve gotten very busy with freelance work, which is great. But my blog has suffered.
Here is an excellent guest post written by LouisvilleCentric’s Eastern Kentucky correspondent, Samantha. Enjoy!
By Samantha Sayre Taylor
There are six regions of Kentucky: Jackson Purchase, Western Coalfields, Pennyroyal, Bluegrass, Eastern Mountains and Coalfields, and the Knobs. The Bluegrass and Eastern Mountains and Coalfields are the best known on a national level: the land of fast horses and the mountains and hollers that were the target of the War on Poverty. My husband is an Eastern Kentucky boy, born and raised in Harlan County in a small town called Cumberland. He could tell you far more about it than I ever could.
But this article isn’t about that region; this article is about the last of those six regions – the Knobs. I know the name is a little weird and funny, but it refers to the rolling foothills at the base of the mountains and the Bluegrass. My hometown, and where we live now, lies snug in the embrace of these foothills. Berea is a small town of about 15,000 people in Madison County and is the arts and crafts capital of the state. We are also home to Berea College, which was founded by the Rev. John G. Fee in 1855. Berea College is a small liberal arts school that caters to first generation, low-income students; students receive work-study positions that pay for their only expense: room and board. You read that correctly, Berea College only makes its students pay for room and board and not the classes themselves. The goal is to provide a quality education for students who might otherwise not have the opportunity to go to college. The college’s rich history provides the framework for this diverse, liberal town.
Cassius Marcellus Clay was a hard-headed politician in his youth and eccentric in his old age. Both were useful to Fee when was looking for somewhere to build the college of his dreams. Fee wanted a college based on Christian principles and served anyone who wanted an education, regardless of their sex, race or economic status. Considering the times, this was a very progressive idea and one for which Fee had some difficulty finding backers.
Fee was a native of Bracken County, in the northern part of the state, but wanted his school somewhere more remote. His determination sparked the interest of Clay, and in 1853 Clay offered him a 10-acre homestead if he took up permanent residence there. This land was a small portion of Clay’s personal holdings, a gift given due to Clay’s own anti-slavery beliefs and support of gradual emancipation and forward thinking. Fee took Clay up on his offer and in 1854 built a permanent residence and small church of 13 members on a ridge they named Berea after the Biblical town whose people were receptive and open-minded to the gospel (Acts 17:10).
Clay had made one other stipulation in his granting of land: if the school got off the ground and more settlers moved there, plots had to be sold in a checkerboard pattern. Two white or two black families couldn’t live next to each other; the town had to be mixed like a checkerboard. In 1855 when a one-room schoolhouse was built, Fee hired both black and white as well as male and female teachers. These educators were heavily recruited from Oberlin College in Ohio, another anti-slavery area. Fee wanted Berea to be the Oberlin of Kentucky and sought people who felt the same. As people trickled into Berea and assumed holdings in the checkerboard pattern Clay had wanted, Fee and Principal J.A.R. Rogers created the infrastructure of the Berea College that exists today. They decided that students would be given a labor job to help pay for their expenses as well as build character. This is especially significant because manual labor and slavery were strongly intertwined in the minds of most Southerners at the time. That year, 1859, proved to be the most challenging one for the town and school when the articles of incorporation for the school were adopted. Fee and his family, along with Berea teachers, were run out of Madison County by pro-slavery Southern sympathizers.
The checkerboard city that Fee and Clay had created was no longer. As the Civil War quickly approached, anti-slavery towns like Berea. In the better scenarios, black families were given a warning and time to leave. In the worst, people came in the night and forced them out. Berea’s checkerboard layout was erased as black families were driven out and the white families who supported them forced to leave or watch their town become the opposite of what it was supposed to be.
Kentucky and other border states faced the issue of every town being different in which side it supported. Though Kentucky remained loyal to the Union army on paper, the reality was that it was a mixed bag, and there were heavy Confederate leanings. Among the various Civil War memorials and monuments located in Kentucky, only a small handful are Union. I’ll go ahead and say it: we have many amazing and wonderful thi
ngs to be proud of Kentucky for, but this particular point in our history is not one of them. The Civil War tore Kentucky, and the nation, apart and the Berea that Fee and the others returned to was very different from the checkerboard city they had created.
Fee had spent the war years fundraising for the school and, upon his return in 1865, he and his followers set to work continuing the mission the war had interrupted. The enrollment for the 1866-67 academic year was 187 students – 91 white and 96 black. The faculty that year was both black and white as well as male and female. Women would not get the vote until 1920, but that did not keep Fee from employing them as teachers right alongside men. The images from this time are amazing to look at now, black and white as well as male and female faces gaze back at you from the faculty photographs. Female teachers were very limited at that time, and some would say still are, and to see the evidence of this forward thinking brings a swell of pride to my heart.
The bright spot after the war was again dimmed when, in 1904, the Kentucky Legislature passed the Day Law which made it illegal to educate black and white students together. Once again, the checkerboard city took a hit. When the Supreme Court upheld the Day Law, Berea sent resources to Louisville to start the Lincoln Institute, a school for black students. If they could not directly educate black students, Berea decided it would support those who could. The Day Law was not amended until 1950, and Berea was the first Kentucky college to reopen its doors to black students.
In addition to serving black and female students, Berea also focused heavily on serving the mountain region of Kentucky. The school recognized education as a step toward a better life and offered it to those who otherwise would not have had access. There are a few humorous stories that resulted from the student population mainly being from the mountains. One such story is that of the campus swimming pool. When trustees gave money to build an Olympic-sized pool, Berea was thrilled. However, after the pool was finished and had been open for a few months they noticed no one was really using it. The trustees wanted to know the reason so the school asked students what they thought of the new pool and why they weren’t swimming. Come to find out, students loved the addition of the pool but the problem was almost none of them knew how to swim. This is the point where the social studies teacher in me has to come out. In the mountain regions of Kentucky, there aren’t really bodies of water large or deep enough to learn to swim in. I’ve been back to my husband’s hometown and let me tell you I now completely understand that part of the story. Once Berea figured out the issue, they instituted a new required course for all freshman students: a swimming class. That class is still mandatory for all freshmen at Berea College and still takes place in the same pool (don’t worry, it’s been updated).
The Berea that exists today is a mix of its history; filled with hippies and liberal thinkers as well as good ‘ol boys who display Confederate flags on the backs of their jacked up pickup trucks. We are a town of artists and educators with the college still at our center. A place where you can buy handmade brooms from the college workshops, amazing fresh bagels from the new bagel shop off of the main street, fresh baked bread from the new bake shop, and listen to the sweet sound of dulcimer music from the dulcimer maker’s shop on the corner. Our farmer’s market is great and we have some really cool food trucks that add an urban vibe to the stalls of handcrafted jewelry, pottery, organic produce and crepe stands.
There is still a constant tug of war between the two sides of the town, the forward thinkers and those stuck in a past that never happened. I have had students who drew swastikas on their assignments that they turn in to me, but I’ve also had students make me necklaces with Star of David pendants as gifts. A little bit of salt and a little bit of sugar – that perfectly sums up the history of Berea College and the checkerboard city to me.