In 1850, this area of southern Madison County was called the Glade. There was no town, just a loose community of scattered farms known primarily for its racetrack and citizens who were sympathetic to emancipation.
Since the early 1840’s, Cassius Clay, a large landowner in Madison County, had sought to build a community in the Glade which would be a base for his own high political ambitions and the abolitionist cause. Located between the solid slavocracy of the Bluegrass and the mountains, he hoped the Glade would provide a gateway into a political base in the mountains. He sold land to prominent nonslaveholders at nominal cost and encourage abolitionist missionaries to come to the area.
In 1853, Clay offered his friend Reverend John G. Fee, of Lewis County, Kentucky, a free tract of land to move to the Glade. With some reluctance, Fee decided to move, and in 1854 accepted ten acres upon the ridge. With the help of local supporters and other missionaries from the American Missionary Association, Fee established a church, a school and a tiny village. Asked by Clay to name the new settlement, Fee called it Berea after the Biblical town where the people “received the Word with all readiness of mind.” This tiny village became the center of an abolitionist missions field as Fee directed a band of teachers and preachers in Madison, Jackson and Rockcastle Counties. Although never a significant political threat, the Berea Community was enough of an irritant that prominent Madison County slave owners drove Fee and 94 other supporters from the state in late 1859 and 1860.
After the Civil War, the Fees and some other exiles returned to Berea to reestablish their vision of an interracial school and community. In January 1866, the Berea Literary Institute opened its doors. Despite predictions that the admissions of blacks would destroy the school, the founders of Berea were able to achieve their vision to a large degree during the last half of the 19th century. By 1889 the total enrollment was approximately 450 students in primary, secondary and college departments. Large numbers of former slaves moved to Berea because of the opportunity that the community provided. Berea recruited black students; Union Church welcomed blacks into the congregation; new jobs were available; and the college sold town lots on the condition that families live next to families of a different race. Maps from this period show that black residences were indeed interspersed among white throughout the town.
The former slaves took advantage of the opportunities they had. A large number of black graduates went on to distinguished careers throughout the country. The 1900 census cited 12.8% of all Madison County farms as black-owned, compared to 4.8% statewide; most of these were in the area surrounding Berea. This census also showed that most black men outside of town were farm owners, and that black women in the area were domestics.
The achievements of this noble vision made the subsequent events all the more tragic. In 1904, the Kentucky Legislature passed the Day Law forbidding interracial education, and the Berea College chose to focus on the education of mountain whites. Disillusioned and frustrated by the lack of educational and economic opportunities they once had. Most blacks moved away, and Berea became a segregated town.
As Berea College grew, a community surrounding it quickly sprang up and the college appointed a prudential committee to look after the affairs of the newly developed town. The laid out streets and sold lots, established a fire department, dug a public well and subscribed to have the railroad and public roads come through the town.
The growth of population and development of transportation created new economic opportunities. Merchants and tradesmen set up stores and shops. Farmers in the surrounding countryside came to the new town to buy and sell goods. The surrounding hills contained a wealth of timber, which passed through Berea on its way to other markets. Berea became in the words of one contemporary “a college and lumber mill town ungainly sprawled along the ridge.” Within a few years many residents were firmly established in Berea with a significant investment in the town’s stability and predictability of its leadership.
In the spring of 1890, the retirement of President Fairchild and selection of a new college president, William Stewart, created concern that the affairs of the town would be controlled by a man from outside the community. Using the strong political connections of Berea College Professor Le Vant Dodge, a group of Berea leaders acquired a city charter in a remarkably short period of time. On April 4, 1890 the town incorporated, and the affairs of town and college were separated for the first time.
In the 1890’s, there was a growing national interest in the culture and traditions of Appalachia by local color writers, academics, missionaries and teachers. These people were fascinated by richness and traditional Western European culture which still existed in the mountains, but they were also dismayed by the apparent isolation, poverty and depravation. Berea College President William Frost’s own phrase “our contemporary ancestors” reflects American’s ambivalent feelings toward Appalachian people.
On his fundraising trips to the North, Frost took traditional Appalachian overshot coverlets to illustrate his presentations on mountain people and the college’s mission. These coverlets had been produced in the North during colonial times, and they had great emotional appeal in the years just following the national centennial. Also the writings of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement in England were generating interest in the revival of crafts in America.
Perceiving that there was a national market for coverlets and other traditional crafts, Frost established the Berea College Fireside Industries to market crafts made by people at home. He also encouraged craftspeople to move to Berea to better market their crafts. In quick succession, the college built a loom house, hired a supervisor to train and maintain quality, and then established the Student Craft Industries. Frost hoped that the production of crafts would enable mountain people to earn an income and still hold on to their traditional lifestyle. Although this vision was never realized, Berea did become, along with Asheville, North Carolina, the center of the American Crafts Revival in the first part of this century.