Love and Union in an Anti-Caste Community

Written by Tim Talbott on. Posted in Uncategorized

BereaBy Tim Lewis, Bronx High School of Science, Bronx, NY

In 1872, controversy erupted at Berea College. The first integrated college in the south was faced with a conundrum when a white man on campus wished to marry a black woman. Word came back to the American Missionary Association—the school’s chief funders—who did not know how to proceed.  President of the Board of Trustees John Fee wrote an open letter to the AMA to remind them that Berea College was meant to be “anti-caste” and urged them to “affirm that… [we] make no distinction on account of color.”[1]

In a later letter, though, Fee equivocated on his earlier rhetoric. In asserting the right of his cousin, John Fee Gregg, to marry a black woman, he insisted that he only asked that interracial marriage occur when both the man and woman were “of Christian character, of good family” and not of “doubtful virtue.”[2] Richard D. Sears has suggested that Fee moderated his position to try to gain support from members of the college’s staff that were hesitant to support social equality, particularly when it came to marriage.[3]

At a glance, this might not be surprising.  That many abolitionists and emancipationists were racists by modern standards is common knowledge at this point. But if Fee had been known for anything, it was that he was uncompromising against overwhelming opposition. Fee’s own father owned slaves and opposed his abolitionist beliefs. While most abolitionists published from the North, Fee bucked convention by returning to his home state, Kentucky, to preach against slavery and form Berea College. Fee fought not only for abolition, but for social equality of blacks and their full independence from the plantation elite of the South. That he equivocated on the issue of marriage, then, is a stunning moment in his career.

Fee’s response demonstrates how strong the opposition was to interracial relationships and social equality in the late 1800s. Fear of interracial relations—between black men and white women in particular—was common, as it was widely believed that wholly free and independent black men would sexually terrorize white women.

These unions were also a symbol of the loss of white male power, as they weakened the power that white men held over both black men and white women. The fight to preserve the racial hierarchy in the South, which was fought through the Democratic Party and the Ku Klux Klan, became a zero sum game.[4] 

Such racial animus was not so overt at Berea. Nevertheless, Berea’s President, Henry Fairchild, made clear to his peer that many recruits to the college were not on board with Fee’s vision of social equality, and at least one professor, left the school over this question.[5] One visitor to the school claimed to support Fee’s anti-caste vision, yet suggested that “indiscriminate mixture of the races” may not be beneficial to the school.[6]

Observers at Berea also complained that freed slaves appeared to be sexually promiscuous and “flexible” in their marriage vows.[7] It is likely that this stereotype created a great deal of fear in the strict Christian reformers, some of whom feared that Berea would turn into a free love community along the lines of the infamous Oneida community in upstate New York.[8] Finally there seemed to be a generational conflict, as visitors like John G. Hamilton feared that the youth was becoming “insubordinate” and neglecting their studies as this debate was going on.[9]

In the end the college established rules for interracial dating and marriage that allowed for dating, but also allowed the college to prohibit relationships between couples not in good standing or “when the difference in race is quite marked.” What this phrase means and how it would be enforced would be up to the board of trustees. The rules also used the language of protecting womanhood, declaring that “young ladies should be guarded against receiving habitual acts of special attention from persons whom it would clearly be undesirable for them to marry.”[10] Given the times, this rule likely focused on white women. 

Fee opposed these rules, though the board passed them. This perhaps marked the end of Fee’s radical vision for Berea. His stature in the college diminished, in part for his stubborn adherence to often controversial principles, his busy schedule of commitments across the state, his failure to train worthy successors to his cause, and the increasing racial conservatism of a state and a nation that had lost interest in quests for equality.[11] By all indications, Fee maintained his radicalism until his death in 1901, though interestingly he made no mention of this controversy at Berea College in his autobiography. Instead, he focused on his conflict with the AMA over the organization’s increasing bias towards Congregationism, and his advocacy for non-sectarianism in religious teachings.[12] 

John Fee’s story, including this incident, is useful for high school classrooms on multiple levels. His clashes with the AMA demonstrate the widespread opposition to racial equality that was in the nation. He also can serve as an example of the type of determination, sense of ethics, and advocacy that we want our own students to aspire to. His status as a Kentuckian makes his story even more compelling.

Moreover, the issues that drove Fee’s objections are still with us. A majority of American citizens did not support interracial marriage until 1997[13]. As recently as ten years ago, Will Smith was not allowed to kiss Cameron Diaz onscreen in the film Hitch, out of concern that such a kiss would alienate white filmgoers.[14] Just this year Cheerios shut down the comments section on a commercial on YouTube in response to a slew of racist comments, objecting to the casting of a black father, a white mother, and a mixed race child.[15] Opposition to interracial marriages remains an ugly undercurrent in our culture, even as it fades away. As history teachers, we must work to expose the circumstances that allowed this belief to flourish and to celebrate those who stood against it.

[1] John G. Fee to E.M. Cravath 8 June 1972, as quoted in Richard Sears, A Utopian Experiment in Kentucky Westport: Greenwood Press 1996, 131

[2] Ibid.

[3] Sears 200 n25

[4] Martha Hodes, in “The Sexualization of Reconstruction Politics: White Women and Black Men in the South after the Civil War,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 3 no. 3 (1993) p. 402

[5] Sears 131-132

[6] Sears 132

[7] Sears 128

[8] Sears 129

[9] Sears 132

[10] Sears 133

[11] Sears 141-145

[12] John G. Fee, An Autobiography. Chicago: National Christian Association 1891

[13] Jeffrey M. Jones, “Record-High 86% Approve of Black-White Marriages” Gallup, September 12, 2011. Accessed August 8, 2013.

[14] “Racism stops Will Smith from kissing Cameron Diaz” Female First, March 14, 2005. Accessed August 8, 2013.

[15] Braden Goyette, “Cheerios Commercial Featuring Mixed Race Family Gets Racist Backlash” Huffington Post, May 31, 2013. Accessed August 8, 2013.

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