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Kentucky by Heart: Bracken County native John Fee played integral role in founding of Berea College

By Steve Flairty
KyForward Columnist

That small Kentucky college located in a quaint town off I-75, just south of Richmond, has been anything but small and quaint in its influence since the early 1850s.

The Draper Building on the Berea College Campus (Photo from Berea College)

Berea College was the first non-segregated, coeducational college in the South. Such current periodicals as Washington Monthly, US News & World Report, and Kiplinger’s Personal Finance have ranked the liberal arts college highly against similar institutions across America. And, it’s ironic that in an age where higher education is priced high nearly everywhere, this institution provides full-tuition scholarships for all students and helps many with room and board. It’s a beacon of hope for many having financial challenges and who are willing to carry a job at the school while enrolled in their classes.

A great deal of credit for this institutional state treasure must go to a noble individual, John Fee, born near the community of Germantown, in Bracken County, in 1816.

He obtained a degree from nearby Augusta College before entering Presbyterian Lane Theological Seminary, in Cincinnati. After a personal epiphany, he became a staunch abolitionist, though his parents were slaveholders. For that transformation, he paid a dear price, starting in his native territory.

The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky described it this way:

“When he returned to Bracken County, he was met with angry mobs who did not support his antislavery teachings. He was subjected to beatings, ridicule, and finally banishment.”

John Gregg Fee (Image from Berea College)

Despite the terrible resistance, Fee continued his fight against slavery, and he found a supportive partner when he married Matilda Hamilton in 1844. He courageously preached in Kentucky against slavery, all the time against some form of hostility to the message. In 1854 (or possibly 1853, depending on sources), the couple moved to Madison County with the encouragement of fellow abolitionist, Cassius Clay, known as the “Lion of White Hall” for his bold, dynamic ways, who gave Fee land. With that, Fee became the founder of the town of Berea and immediately looked at it as a stronghold location to advance the rights and education of slaves. Fee and Clay later split ways when they couldn’t agree on issues about their advocacy.

Demonstrating his compassion emanating from his devout Christian faith, Fee bought a family slave, Juliet Miles, from his father and engaged in a process that resulted in court action to set free the woman and her son, Henry. Sadly, after the two former slaves moved to Ohio, Juliet came back to Bracken County to try to rescue her other children and was arrested, with the family being sent to the state penitentiary at Frankfort. She died two years later.

Fee and his followers planned to officially open Berea College in 1859, but a group of stakeholders in slavery from the nearby town of Richmond warned Fee and his associates to leave town, and Kentucky’s governor Beriah Magoffin, provided no help. Fee and the Berea group moved to Ohio, but after the Civil War, the college opened a year later, in 1866.

An historical Marker in Bracken County, the birthplace of John Gregg Fee. (Photo provided)

Fee acted nobly during the Civil War, according to the previously mentioned Encyclopedia, returning to Kentucky and Camp Nelson, near present-day Nicholasville, which was a Union Army recruitment center primarily for recently freed slaves:

“While he was at Camp Nelson, Fee, now a Union Army chaplain, founded a trade school for former slaves, the Ariel Academy. Fee’s work with freed slaves in Kentucky and his earlier plans to build an interracial college with biblical underpinnings delivered a hopeful message to Northern abolitionists: that the Berea and Camp Nelson experiences could serve as models for other such institutions in the South.”

In the period from 1866 to 1869, Fee’s dream of a “color-blind” education, with mixed-race students sitting beside each other in a classroom, appeared to be fulfilled. It was, for a while. However, there was a period of turmoil among the school’s trustees, along with pressure across America to keep schools segregated. Unsuccessful court action against Kentucky’s “Day Law” forced the school to be segregated, and regretfully, it wasn’t until 1950 that it became reintegrated.

One thing is certain. A courageous man from a rural area of Kentucky, John Fee, has made an eternally positive difference in thousands of lives—those connected to Berea College and the ones they have touched.

Sources: The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky; The Kentucky Encyclopedia; Wikipedia

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Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s latest, “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was recently released. Steve serves as a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

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