In 1854, Fee built his home upon the ridge. In 1855, a one-room school, which also served as a church on Sundays, was built on a lot contributed by a neighbor.
Berea’s first teachers were recruited from Oberlin College, an anti-slavery stronghold in Ohio. Fee saw his humble church-school as the beginning of a sister institution “which would be to Kentucky what Oberlin is to Ohio, anti-slavery, anti-caste, anti-rum, anti-sin.” A few months later, Fee wrote in a letter, “we…eventually look to a college - giving an education to all colors, classes, cheap and thorough.”
Fee worked with other community leaders to develop a constitution for the new school, which he and Principal J. A. R. Rogers insisted should ensure its interracial character. It also was agreed that the school would furnish work for as many students as possible, in order to help them pay their expenses and to dignify labor at a time when manual labor and slavery tended to be synonymous in the South.
The first articles of incorporation for Berea College were adopted in 1859. But that also was the year Fee and the Berea teachers were driven from Madison County by Southern pro-slavery sympathizers. Fee spent the Civl War years raising funds for the school; in 1865, he and his followers returned. A year later, the articles of incorporation were recorded at the county seat, and in 1869 the college department became a reality.
The first catalog, issued for 1866-67, used the corporate name “Berea College”, but the title “Berea Literary Institute” was printed on the cover because it was thought to convey better “the present character of the school.” Enrollment that academic year totaled 187 - 96 black student and 91 whites. For several decades following the Civil War, Berea’s student body continued to be divided equally between white and black students, many of whom went on to teach in schools established solely for African-Americans.
In 1886-87, the school had three divisions: Primary, Intermediate and Academic. Students could pursue a college preparatory course, a shorter course, or a teachers’ course. In 1869-70, five freshman were admitted to the College Department, and in 1873 the first bachelor’s degrees were granted.
Berea’s commitment to interracial education was overturned in 1904 by the Kentucky Legislature’s passage of the Day Law, which prohibited education of black and white students together. When the U.S Supreme Court upheld the Day Law, Berea set aside funds to assist in the establishment of Lincoln Institute, a school located near Louisville, for black students. When the Day Law was amended in 1950 to allow integration above the high school level, Berea was the first college in Kentucky to reopen its doors to black students.
By 1911, the number of students seeking admission to Berea was so great that the trustees amended the College’s constitution to specify the southern mountain region as Berea’s special field of service. The commitment to Appalachia, however, began as early as 1858 when Rogers, after a trip through the mountains, identified the region as a “neglected part of the country” for which Berea was founded to serve.
Curricular offerings have varied at Berea to meet changing needs. In the early 1920’s, in addition to its College Department, Berea had a high school that included upgraded classes for students who had not had educational opportunities, an elementary school, a vocational school and a normal school for teacher training. Although the general missions of serving students with financial need continued, units and divisions were reorganized through the years. In 1968, Berea discontinued its elementary and secondary programs and now focuses entirely on undergraduate college education.