Last week I was passing through the town of Berea, doing some research on something called the Day Law. The Day Law was passed in July 1904 and I found it interesting because it is the only example I can think of of a law that was passed to force segregation on a voluntarily integrated school. It was a tragic episode and one I hope to call attention to in my next podcast. While I was researching the story, I had a few questions I couldn’t seem to find the answer to, so I stopped by the Berea College Visitor’s Center to see if they could point me in the right direction. As it turned out, the young lady who was working there was a campus tour guide who not only could answer my specific question, but offered to take me on a tour of the campus as well. I’m really glad I took her up on it, because it was a truly fascinating and inspiring place and one I think we could all learn some lessons from.
Berea College was founded in 1855 by minister, educator and staunch abolitionist John Gregg Fee on land donated by fellow abolitionist Cassius Marcellus Clay (namesake of the Kentucky boxer better known by his Muslim name: Muhammed Ali). The college ran for its first few years out of a single building which was a classroom during the week and a church on Sunday. It was founded as the first racially integrated, coeducational college south of the Mason-Dixon line. Fee named the school and the town which would grow up around it after the Biblical town of Berea, a town whose people were known for their open-mindedness and receptiveness of the Bible. He recruited teachers from Oberlin College in Ohio, an integrated, coed school which he greatly admired and which no doubt at least partly inspired Berea College. In addition to providing an education, Fee also put his students to work around campus, doing manual jobs so they would learn the value of working with their hands.
The school only operated for four years before pro-slavery sympathizers rode into town and told them they had to leave the state or there would be violent consequences. Fee closed the school down and spent the Civil War years raising money and working at Fort Nelson where he helped educate newly freed slaves.
He returned in 1865 at the war’s end and reestablished Berea College. The school’s re-founding class had 187 students in it, 96 were black and 91 were white.
Berea’s mission moved forward quietly and mostly peacefully until 1903, when Breathitt County Representative Carl Day got off of a train in Berea and saw a black student and white student hugging. That was enough for him, and he introduced the Day Law to put an end to integrated education at Berea. You’ll have to wait for my next podcast to get the whole story, but the case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the decision. Berea would be segregated right up until Brown vs. the Board of Education declared the Day Law unconstitutional. During that time, Berea College’s administration sought and accepted a $200,000 grant from Andrew Carnegie to open Lincoln Institute in Shelby County to continue educating black students.
Berea today is a quaint and idyllic school right in the foothills of Appalachia and has about 1600 students on its rolls. It is a very selective school, and only about a third of applicants are admitted each year. The school has accepted students from all 50 states and from many countries around the world, although their mission tries to favor applicants from Appalachia. Once students are admitted to the school, they will never pay a penny in tuition, as all students are given a full 4 year scholarship. In addition, they are provided with on-campus housing, a meal plan and a stipend for their books. All students are still expected to work on campus and are given a 10-15 hour per week job based on their skills and experience. Surprisingly, they are paid for this work despite their free tuition.
Our guide on our tour, Sidney, also told us that the school tries to encourage the students to study abroad and will work with them to try and defray the costs as best they can. The students are required to maintain a certain level of academic success, but each student is measured on a case-by-case basis based on where they are from and how prepared they were by their respective high schools. I also found it interesting that she told us that the school requires all students to know how to swim before they can graduate.
The school operates on Christian values, and students are required to learn about Christianity while they are there, but it is not a Christian school per-se and students of all religions are welcome and encouraged to apply. While dorms are separated by sex, there are provisions made for transgender and non-binary students to make sure they are in a safe and comfortable living space. One student I spoke with described the school and most of his fellow students as progressive but still conservative, a description I found fascinating.
In addition to the tour I went on, I had a wonderful meal at the beautiful Boone Tavern on campus. The students working there did an excellent job and my meal was equally good and paid tribute to the school’s Appalachian and Kentucky roots. I also enjoyed a stop in the wonderful Log House Craft Gallery on campus which displays and sells student-made arts and crafts made in the Appalachian tradition. There were some truly spectacular pieces there for sale, and all proceeds go to supporting the school and its mission.
The Union Church on campus also seemed like it was presenting a wonderful message. The signs out front proclaimed pro-woman messages and described the church as “A living faith, a bold witness, welcoming and affirming ALL persons” above a rainbow flag.
I was so inspired and hopeful as I wandered around Berea’s campus and talked with the students there. Each was from a very different background, but seemed incredibly well-informed and committed to the diverse and inclusive nature of the school’s mission. Berea’s motto is “God Has Made of One Blood All the Peoples of the Earth” from the Book of Acts (17:26). It is a motto they firmly believe in, which was apparent throughout my visit. I learned a lot during my brief stay on campus, and think we could all learn something from this tiny school on the doorstep of Appalachia.