John Gregg Fee was born in Bracken County, Kentucky on September 9, 1816, the first child of John Fee, Jr. and Sarah Gregg Free. The community was founded with the help of his grandfather, John Fee, Sr., a native of Maryland, who moved to Kentucky in 1791. His mother and her brother, John Gregg, came from an antislavery Quaker family. He was called "Gregg" by his family and close friends.
When his paternal grandfather, John Fee, Sr., died in 1822, his father, John Fee, Jr. inherited a bondsman who was indentured until the age of 25. His father began to buy slaves, owning thirteen by 1823. John Gregg Fee later wrote in his autobiography:
In my boyhood I thought nothing about the inherent sinfulness of slavery. I saw it as a prevalent institution in the family life of my relations on my father's side of the house. These were kind to me, and occupied what were considered good social positions. I was often scolded for being so much with the slaves, and threatened with punishment when I would intercede for them. Slavery, like every other evil institution, bore evil fruits, blunted the finest sensibilities and hardened the tenderest hearts. By false teaching, unreflective youth can be led to look upon moral monstrosities as harmless; as even heaven-approved institutions. Vivid now is the impression made on my youthful mind on seeing a Presbyterian preacher, who was a guest in my grandfather's house, rise before an immense audience and select for his text, "Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren." Of course the drift of the discourse was after the plea of the slaveocracy - "God decreed that the children of Ham should be slaves to the children of Shem and Japheth; that Abraham held slaves, and Moses sanctioned such."
|Cincinnati, Ohio in 1841|
|Lane Theological Seminary, Cincinnati, Ohio|
Although it was a part of the free state of Ohio, Cincinnati mostly shared the pro-slavery sentiments of its Kentucky neighbors. During the 1830s and 40s, Cincinnati held numerous religious anti-slavery conventions, creating an active Underground Railroad to help slaves seeking freedom in the North. Among other abolitionists from nearby communities, John Rankin of Ripley, Ohio frequently visited Cincinnati to promote antislavery ideals. In August 1832, The Liberator, a national antislavery journal, published a series of Rankin’s letters on the evils of slavery. He was invited to Philadelphia on December 4, 1832 to inaugurate the National Anti-slavery Society. This exposure catapulted him into national prominence and led to Rankin’s work with Theodore Weld in 1832-33, two years before Weld led a group of students from Oneida to Lane Seminary. Rankin became acquainted with Cincinnati’s antislavery leaders, including Lane seminary president Lyman Beecher and trustee Asa Mahan. Rankin even spoke at the 1834 Lane debates, urging immediate abolitionism. John Rankin also became a longtime collaborator with John G. Fee.
These brethren became deeply interested in me as a native of Kentucky and in view of my relation to the slave system, my father being a slaveholder. They pressed upon my conscience the text, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and thy neighbor as thy self," and as a practical manifestation of this, "Do unto men as ye would they should do unto you." I saw that the duty enjoined was fundamental in the religion of Jesus Christ, and that unless I embraced the principle and lived it in honest practice, I would lose my soul.
I saw also that as an honest man I ought to be willing to wear the name which would be a fair exponent of the principle I espoused. This was the name Abolitionist, odious then to the vast majority of people North, and especially South.
For a time I struggled between odium on the one hand, and manifest duty on the other. I saw that to embrace the principle and wear the name was to cut myself off from relatives and former friends, and apparently from all prospects of usefulness in the world. I had in the grove near the seminary a place to which I went every day for prayer, between the hours of eleven and twelve. I saw that to have light and peace from God, I must make the consecration. I said, "Lord, if needs be, make me an Abolitionist." The surrender was complete. I arose from my knees with the consciousness that I had died to the world and accepted Christ in all the fullness of his character as I then understood Him. Self must be surrendered. The test, the point of surrender, may be one thing to one man, a different thing to another man; but it must be made, - all given to Christ.
"Love thy neighbor as thyself" rang in my ears. I also considered the condition of the slave-owner. I knew he was willingly deceived by the false teachings of the popular ministry. I knew also that the great part of the non-slave-owners, who were by their votes and action the actual slaveholders, did not see their crime; that they despised the slave because of his condition, and that these non-slave-owners were violently opposed to any doctrine or practice that might treat the slave as a "neighbor," a brother, and make him equal before the law. I knew also that the great body of the people were practically without the fundamental principle of the Gospel, love to God and love to man; that, as in the days of Martin Luther, though the doctrine of justification by faith was plainly written in the Bible, yet the great body of people did not then see it; so now the great doctrine of loving God supremely and our neighbor as ourselves, "on which hang all the law and the prophets," though clearly written in the Bible, was not seen in its practical application by the great mass of the people.
. . . I had kept up correspondence with my father, and told him my convictions and purposes. He was greatly incensed, and wrote, saying, "Bundle up your books and come home; I have spent the last dollar I mean to spend on you in a free State."
At the end of my second year of theological study, I returned to my home, intending to do what I could for my father's conversion and that of the family. I spent ten months with my father and the community around. I felt during this time a great burden of spirit in view of the condition of society and the work which lay before me. . .
It became apparent that my work in trying to convert my father to sentiments of justice and liberty was ended. He had supplied himself, from every possible source, with pro-slavery books and pamphlets, and became violent in his opposition to all efforts for the freedom of the slave. He still hoped to efface my convictions and lure me from my purpose. He offered to pay all bills if I would go to Princeton, New Jersey, and spend a year in the Theological Seminary in that place. This offer I declined.Though he attended Lane only one-and-a-half years, Fee had become another Lane Rebel in his radical abolitionism. Fee spent the next ten months on his father's farm. He attempted to convert his father, but the senior Fee resisted his arguments, and supplied himself and his family with pro-slavery literature. Fee did convert some Greggs, Hamiltons and Hansons to abolitionism. John Gregg Hanson was a first cousin once removed of John G. Fee, who later collaborated with him in Berea.
On September 16, 1844, John married his cousin, Matilda Hamilton. He had known her and her mother, whose maiden name was Gregg, for many years. He thought Matilda was attractive, but his proposal hinged on her conversion to Christianity, which he witnessed at a revival at Sharon Church.
Fee was only one of two Southerners to attend the Liberty Political Convention in Cincinnati held on June 11-13, 1845. Salmon P. Chase was one of the organizers, and it was the largest anti-slavery convention that had been held in the United Statues up to that time. Even though Fee agreed with Arthur Tappan that evangelical Christian rebirth was the best way to end slavery, both men supported the Liberty Party’s attempt to address slavery at the ballot box.
When Fee returned home, a Cabin Creek parishioner asked him to preach on slavery, and his church, which supported his reasoning, became a leader of abolitionism in Kentucky. Cabin Creek was the first church among the major denominations in the South to exclude slaveholders and to argue for the full equality of blacks and whites.
In the spring of 1847, the New School Presbyterian General Assembly met in Cincinnati; Beecher, Stowe, and Fee were active participants. This meeting deepened Fee’s connections at Lane and solidified Cincinnati as a place that would support his work in Kentucky. When Kentucky’s Presbyterian synod met again in 1847, it voted to censure Fee. They instructed the Harmony Presbytery to take action against Fee’s antislavery activities. When Fee met with his Presbytery, he offered to end his formal relationship with them. They released him in good standing—save for what his colleagues viewed as his misguided abolitionist views.
Fee abandoned his ecclesiastical roots for a Biblical gospel of “impartial love.” Fee came to believe that Christianity had to be non-denominational and non-sectarian. He opposed all dogma except baptism.
He began writing about abolition, and some of his work was published by the American Missionary Association (AMA), established in 1846. At this time, he thought slavery could be abolished through moral suasion and religious conversion of slaveholders. During 1845-47, Fee published 14 articles in The True American journal, published by controversial Kentucky abolitionist Cassius Marcellus Clay, a cousin of Henry Clay. He addressed the question “Is Slavery Right?” He argued for an immediate end to slavery and for equal rights and status for freed blacks. He based his appeal on Constitutional and Biblical grounds.
|Cassius Marcellus Clay|
Devoted to nonviolence, Fee often relied upon Clay, arguably the most famous antislavery Kentuckian, for protection. Fee was assaulted more than two dozen times, and was left for dead twice. At one time he was reading by a window at home when a sniper shot at him, but missed. For the rest of his life, he carried a bump on head where a slaveholder broke a club over it.
|John Gregg Fee|
In the following letter from the Edward C. Thurman Collection, Fee discussed his antislavery work in Lewis, Bracken, and Fleming Counties and describes both his tactics and local sentiments toward him and other abolitionists:
Cabin Creek, P.O. Lewis Co. Ky., Feb. 22d. 1848
John E. Benton
Dear sir, I have just received your interesting letter of 9th inst. You and other friends of Gods poor propose to give them the word of life. “He that watereth shall be watered.” You ask can it be done to give the Bible to the slaves as well as to the poor white man. I answer I have done it, and I never have heard of a master or masters refusing that their slaves should have Bibles. I do not know what they may do when they are fully tested by a systematic work which can accomplish something . . . I feel very anxious that you may go on and make a full trial of what can be done. That is an end of responsibility.
I am willing to cooperate with you. I have agreed to receive [Bibles] from friends like you and as far as I can give Bibles to the slave. My work though will be limited compared with that of a colporteur. You ask for a field in Ky. I know of none more favourable to commence in than in Lewis and Fleming and Bracken counties. Bracken County is my native county. I am now living in Lewis near the Edge of Mason – ten miles from Maysville and not far from Fleming County. I expect there is a good field in Barren County Ky. . . .
For the portion of Ky with which I am acquainted I know of no field more destitute and more favourable for the proposed work than that round about me, taking a part of Lewis, Fleming and Mason. True I am near a rich, wealthy portion of our state and where it is to be expected that destitution would not be found but in slave states as among European aristocracies there may often [illegible] destitution in sight of prodigal abundance.
Let the proposed work be done by all means. Let it be entered upon with resolute determination to carry it through. When I commenced here there was opposition. The mobs assembled. They waylayed me. Our fellow attempted to slow on the highway. God delivered me. The smell of fire is not on my garments. With the threatnings [sic] and false accusations that have been p[r]oclaimed & published against me yet no violence has been done to my person. I met false accusations with truth & over came them. The violator of the peace of society I arraigned before our courts of justice, was successful in having him punished. We have now [illegible] liberty to speak and circulate what we choose. I know my being a native of the state has given me great advantages but I believe the proposed work can be done by a discrete God fearing man from Newyork. One from Kentucky would not be so likely to be mobbed have [h]is person violated and his books burned. And I can find a man in my own congregation a native of the state, who is willing to make trial of the work. . . .
If you can find a man in Newyork who is devotedly and ardently pious, who will “take his life in his hand” for God & the poor seen him along – better come from Newyork than Ohio – less prejudice from a man from Newyork & more intelligence expected. . . . I would love to see one in this region who would work, hold prayer meetings, and could exhort sinners. Also I would like to have a man in the fie[l]d who would not be afraid to talk with all men on the subject of slavery – know their sentiments – know who would cooperate. We are now forming small antislavery societies in Ky. We have but little to hope for a permanent & pure gospel until slavery is removed. Its removal is “sine qua non.” The public mind is anxious on this question now. The people are asking for something to read on the subject. Nothing is seized with more avidity. I expect to distribute thousands of tracts on this subject. Expect to print in a few days (say 8 or ten) a manual on the subject, showing its moral & social wrongs. Would to God we had more means and then men to scatter the printed truth. Much can be done in this way when the public speaker could not yet get a meeting. Send us, Oh! Send us a working man or else commission the one we have here.
Yours in behalf of a pure Gospel,
John G. Fee
In January 1849, Fee and Clay participated in an ‘emancipation’ convention in Frankfort. There Fee argued strongly against supporters of colonization, saying that the gospel of impartial love demanded freed slaves who had an equal opportunity for education and could lead productive lives—in America. Fee and other Kentuckians used the term ‘emancipationist,’ rather than ‘abolitionist,’ to set themselves apart from their Northern allies who could state their views and take action in the free states.
Fee was one of the few abolitionists from the South who dared to practice his convictions openly in a slave-holding state. At the end of an antislavery convention in Cincinnati in 1850, the members set forth a statement extolling Fee’s work in the South. Fee’s report to the Tappans in New York in 1851 said that his Cabin Creek Church was fully integrated.
A short time after he wrote this, the small church was burned to the ground. Fee reorganized with a new “Union Church” that merged the congregation of Cabin Creek with another small congregation in Lewis County. He encouraged blacks and whites to sit together—perhaps the first church in the South to do so. At a time when even most Northern abolitionists felt reluctant to grant equality to blacks, Fee clearly acted on his egalitarian beliefs—in slave-holding Kentucky. There were no "Negro pews" in his churches.
This woman had lived for years with her husband in the same family and was then the mother of mothers in the same family - the mother of daughters who were mothers. This grandmother, yet comparatively young, was a member of the same church where my father, mother and sister were members. Here, slaves, though members with their masters, were not allowed to sit in the same part of the church house nor at the same time partake of the Lord's Supper with their white fellow Christians. The slaves at this time sat in a gallery at the end of the church house, and when white Christians had been served, one of the elders would say: "Now you black ones, if you wish to commune, come down." This they did by an outside, uncovered rough stairway, and then around outside the house came on to the doors of entrance, and facing the congregation came to the seats vacated for them, and thus ate the Lord's Supper.
. . . Intelligence came to me that my brother had advised my father to sell the woman referred to, for the reason that there were more women in the family than were needed. I said to my wife: "I cannot redeem all slaves, nor even all in my father's family, but the labors of Julett and her husband contributed in part to the purchase of the land I yet own in Indiana, and to sell those lands and redeem her will be in some measure returning to her and her husband what they have toiled for." My wife said: "Do what you think is right." I took my horse, rode twenty-five miles to my father's house and spent the night. In the morning of the next day I sought an opportunity when my father was alone, and having learned that he would sell, asked what he would take for Julett. He fixed his price. I said: "Will you sell her to me if I bring to you the money?" He said yes. I immediately rode to Germantown and borrowed the requisite amount of money by mortgaging my remaining tract of land for the payment. Whilst there I executed a bill of sale, so that without delay my father could sign it, before he even returned from the field at noon. I tendered to him the money and the bill of sale. He signed the bill of sale, and took the money.
I immediately went to "Add," the husband of Julett, and told him I had bought Julett and should immediately secure by law her freedom. I said to him: "I would gladly redeem you but I have not the means." He replied: "I am glad you can free her; I can take care of myself better than she can." I went to the house, wrote a perpetual pass for the woman, gave it to her, and said, "You are a free woman; be in bondage to no man." Tears of gratitude ran down her sable cheeks. I then told her that at the first county-court day I would take her to the clerk's office, where her height could be taken and she be otherwise described, and a record of her freedom made. This was just before the amendment to the State Constitution that forbade emancipation in the State.
At noon my father came in and told my mother of the transaction. My mother was displeased, - did not want to spare the woman from certain work for which she was fitted. My father came to me and requested that I cancel the contract and give up the bill of sale. I said to him, "Here is my horse, and I have a house and lot in Lewis County; I will give them to you if you so desire; but to sell a human being I may not."
He became very angry and went to the freed woman and said to her, "When you leave this house never put your foot on my farm again, for I do not intend to have a free nigger on my farm." The woman, the wife and mother, came to me and said, "Master says if I leave here I shall never come back again; I cannot leave my children; I would rather go back into slavery." I said, I have done what I regarded as my duty. To now put you back into slavery, I cannot. We must simply abide the consequences. The woman was in deep distress and helpless as a child. Although I had my horse and was ready to ride, I felt I could not leave the helpless one until a way of relief should open. After a time Julett came to me and said, "As long as mistress shall live I can stand it; I would rather stay." I said, "You are a free woman and must make your own decision. If my father will furnish to you a home, and clothe and feed you, and you shall choose as a free woman to stay, all well; but to sell you back into slavery, I cannot." To this proposition to furnish a home to the freed woman my father agreed. There was now a home for the freed woman, and this with her husband and children and grand-children. That day of agony was over and eventide had come. I spent the night.
The next morning just as I was about starting back to my home, my father said to me, "Julett is here on my premises, and I will sell her before sundown if I can." I turned to him and said, "Father, I am now that woman's only guardian. Her husband cannot protect her, - I only can. I must do as I would be done by; and though it is hard for me to now say to you what I intended to say, yet if you sell that woman, I will prosecute you for so doing, as sure as you are a man." I saw the peril of the defenseless woman. I would gladly have cast from me the cup of a further contest, but I saw that to leave her, though now a free woman, was not the end of obligation.. . . I mounted my horse and rode twelve miles where I could get legal counsel, - counsel on which I could rely. I found that if I left the woman on my father's premises without any public record of her having been sold, the fact of her being then on his premises would be regarded as "prima facie" evidence that she was his property and that he could sell her. I also found that in as much as he had sold her to me, I could, by law, compel him to do that which was just and right, - make a record of the fact of sale. I rode back twelve miles, told my father what was his legal obligation, and asked him to conform to it. He said he would not. I then said to him, "It will be a hard trial for me to arraign my father in a civil court, for neglect of justice to a helpless woman, and also for a plain violation of law; but I will do so, as sure as you are a man, if you do not make the required record of sale." After hesitancy and delay he made the record.
These were hours of distress to me, to my father, to my mother, and to the ransomed woman; but the only way to ultimate peace, was to hold on rigidly to the right; though in so doing I had, in the Gospel sense, to leave father, mother, brother, sisters, houses, lands, - all, for Christ's sake. . . .The legal process ended, the woman was then secure, and in a home, for the time being, with her husband and children.
Not long after this my mother died. The services of the freed woman were the more needed where she then was. To her were born, into freedom, three more children. About this time her husband, through a friend, found the record of the time of his bond service. He, by legal process, secured his freedom and recovered several hundred dollars, as compensation for services rendered beyond the time he should have enjoyed his liberty. After a time the freed woman decided to take her three free children, and go to Ohio, where she could have better opportunities for herself and her little ones. . .
|Berea in Madison County, Kentucky|
|"Old Glade Meetinghouse" (left) and first college building at Berea (right)|
from The History of the American Missionary Association
John Almanza Rowley Rogers, (J.A.R. Rogers), received his M.A. from Oberlin College in 1855 and became an ordained Presbyterian minister affiliated with the American Missionary Association. He came to Berea in 1858 to teach, along with his wife, eighteen-year-old Elizabeth Embree Rogers, from a wealthy Pennsylvania Quaker family, who had also attended Oberlin. Fee and Rogers, who acted as principal of the elementary school, drew up a constitution for the school, and pledged their own support with more than 100 acres of land for the college's campus.
|John Almanza Rowley Rogers, (J.A.R. Rogers) |
and Elizabeth Embree Rogers,
later in their lives
Pleasing music was introduced which seemed to have a magic effect. And those songs! The sweet refrains, the merry jingles and the deeper notes of the gospel hymns all made melody in the hearts.Rogers's wife Elizabeth was perhaps the first to teach music at Berea. She said the songs
set the countryside afire. The songs were something new; they sang them not only at school but on the hillsides and in the valleys. They entered every home.The songs she remembered included "We're Journeying on Toward Zion" and "Dare to be Right, Dare to be True, You Have a Work That No Other Can Do." She acknowledged that these songs were not great poetry or music, however, she had no regrets over using them "when I remember the power (of the songs) over these people's lives."
In September 1858, John Gregg Hanson came to Berea; he and his wife, Ellen, became teachers in the new school. Hanson was one of the original Board of Trustees for Berea College. In 1859, Hanson set up a steam-powered saw mill. The saw mill brought money to the abolitionist community, and provided lumber for Berea’s early classroom and employment for the students.
|John Gregg Hanson|
Information came to her that my brother, whose home was in New Orleans, La., would, on his return from New York, take all the slave children South. This mother determined to try to save her children from such a fate, and get them, if possible, into freedom. She came to Kentucky to the old home. In the night season she gathered together two sons, three daughters and four grand-children. (Another son had previously been sold, another slave had gone "to parts unknown".) One of these daughters and three grand-children had to be gathered from an adjoining county. Monday morning the mother, with five children and three grandchildren, appeared on the banks of the Ohio river. The sun had already risen and the friends on the other side had gone. The mother, her children and grand-children were captured and put into jail for safe keeping.
My father immediately sold all but the freed woman to a slave trader, who shipped all of them to the South. From these we have never heard even a trace.
At the time of this sad occurrence I was eastward, attending a meeting of the A. M. Association. On my way home, and whilst at Cincinnati, Levi Coffin said to me, "John, Julett is in jail, and thy father hath sold all of her children to the slave trader."
Instead of going home to my family then out in Madison Co., and, as I had reason to believe they were not in jail, I went up to Bracken County to my father's house. I enquired into the facts. He said, "Yes, I have sold them and have the money in my pocket."
I immediately went to see that faithful man, John D. Gregg, and asked him to bail the woman. He agreed to do so. He went to the county judge and offered to be security for the woman's presence at the time for her trial. The judge accepted the offer, and was preparing an obligation for Brother Gregg to sign, when a young attorney came up and served a writ on the woman for stealing slaves (her own child and three grand-children) from another county. The woman was immediately remanded to prison.
|Old Augusta Jail, built in 1811|
where Julett Miles and her family were imprisoned
My wife was in Bracken County at the time. She went to the prison and asked the privilege of seeing Julett and her children. The wife of the keeper told my wife that no one was allowed to go into the jail but the keeper himself. My wife then asked if she could speak to Julett. The wife of the keeper said, "Yes, you can speak through the floor," and turned aside a piece of carpet that covered a crevice in the floor. My wife approached and called. Julett knew her voice and cried out, "Oh, Mis' Tilda; where is Master Gregg?" (Gregg is my middle name; I was known by that name in boyhood days.) My wife said, "He is eastward, - in Massachusetts." Then she cried out, "Oh, Mis' Tilda, what will they do with me?" My wife replied, "They can do no more than send you to the penitentiary; don't be distressed. You have committed no crime; for what mother would not try to get her children out of slavery?" My wife said she could then hear the young mothers and their children crying and sobbing below. My wife again said to Julett, "They can only send you to Frankfort" (the place of the State's prison). "We will come to see you there." By this time white men at the door were cursing, and the jailer's wife was manifestly uneasy. My wife left.
As previously stated the children and grand-children were sold and shipped South. The mother had her trial, and was sentenced to the State's prison. Here, let me say, the torture of the body is terribly cruel, and yet it is the smallest part of the crime of human slavery. I have seen women tied to a tree or a timber and whipped with cow-hides on their bare bodies until their shrieks would seem to rend the very heavens. I have seen a man, a father, guilty only of the crime of absenting himself from work for a day and two nights, on his return home whipped with a cow-hide on his bare flesh until his blood ran to his heels. Thousands of slaves have been whipped and beaten to death even for trivial offenses, as that of a slave in a county adjoining to this, whipped to death for going, in the hour of night, to see his wife, in violation of the master's commands. Yet this torture of the body was the least part of the agony of slavery. The acme of the crime was on the soul. The crushing of human hearts, sundering the ties of husband and wife, parent and child, shrouding all of manhood in the long night of despair, - the crime was on the soul! The agony of our Lord in Gethsemane was that of the soul, not that of the body.
. . . We arrived at Frankfort on Saturday afternoon. We went to the prison and saw the keeper, Mr. South. We inquired for Julett. . . "Yes," said he, "she is at my house. I took her out of prison to help my daughter. I thought she looked like a Christian woman." . . . The keeper of the prison having assured us that we should see the woman at the prison the next morning, we then repaired to our hotel.. . . The next morning, about 10 o'clock, we all, as a family, went to the prison. Julett was there. She was overjoyed at seeing my children. She had always manifested much affection for them. We were privileged to sit down and have a very free and extended conversation with her about her nine children, their unknown destiny, And her own future.
. . . I had procured for her a pair of spectacles and a New Testament, with large type. Giving these to her, we bade her farewell for all time. Not long after this she died, - disease said to have been of the heart. Thousands of slave-mothers have died with broken hearts, whilst political parties catered to the slave-master, and professing Christians heeded not the wailings of the bereaved.
|Elijah Currans, the slaveholder in Mason County, |
was Fee's brother-in-law, the husband of Fee's sister, Adazalia. Currans was a cousin of Ulysses S. Grant.
John Gregg Fee's younger brother, James William Fee, a cotton merchant in New Orleans, inherited their father's estate when their father died on September 3, 1859. Fee took his wife and five children to Bracken County for the funeral; in a letter dated September 16, 1859, he wrote, "I learn I have no share in my father's estate. I shall be straitened to get my family back home." James Fee and his son, Charles, became wealthy and prominent as cotton brokers in New Orleans. Their youngest sister, Sallie, inherited the family home and farm. She continued to be in contact with her brother James, but refused communication with their brother John until just before they both died.
|Grave of Fee's Parents|
With social tensions increasing in the years leading up to the American Civil War, and especially after John Brown's Raid, a band of armed pro-slavery men came to Berea in December 1859 while Fee was still away in the East. They delivered notice to J.A.R. Rogers and others to leave the state within 10 days, because of the group's opposition to Fee, their church and college.
Chairman of the committee of prominent white men
who confronted and evicted the Berea Community & School
A committee of sixty-five, composed of the "wealthiest" and "most respectable" citizens of the county, was commissioned to visit Berea and deliver the demand of those who had decided to take into their control the liberty of white men, as well as that of black men.
I had not yet returned from my trip eastward. The committee, on the 23rd day of Dec., 1859, proceeded to the house of Bro. Rogers, then principal of the school. The leader of the clan delivered to Bro. Rogers a document, demanding in the name of the committee, that he should leave the State within ten days. He attempted to reason with the committee, setting forth his claims as a law-abiding citizen, to the undisturbed exercise of his rights. The committee turned abruptly away, and delivered a like demand to ten other families, most of whom were native Kentuckians. These thus warned to leave the State, and others interested in the work of building up the school and church, met together for prayer and deliberation. These friends decided at once to make their appeal to the Governor of the State, for protection. This they did, in the form of a short address, borne by two of their number to the Governor, setting forth their obedience to law, and their devotion to the highest interests of society, and as such asked for protection.
The Governor replied that the public mind was deeply moved by the events in Virginia, and that he could not engage to protect them from their fellow citizens, who had resolved that they must go. Many of these thus threatened saw that they must yield before an overwhelming force.
~ John Fee
Governor of Kentucky in late 1859
Such a resolve against men unconvicted of any crime, present or past, and now in their native county, in the midst of relatives and life-long acquaintances, was as dastardly as it was vile.
But the slave power was in its very nature one of oppression and outrage; and the great mass of the non-slave-owners had become servile; and, though not slave-owners, had consented to be slaveholders, and joined with or consented to the demand of the slave-owners.
A committee of sixty-two men, of "high standing," was appointed to warn John G. Fee, John G. Hanson and others associated, to leave the county, "peaceably if they would, forcibly if they must." On the day appointed, the committee of sixty-two rode up to the yard fence in front of the dwelling-house of Vincent Hamilton, my father-in-law, where with my wife and children I was then stopping. These men then sent in a request that I come out. I did so, and listened to their resolutions. The committee then demanded from me a reply. I said, as my custom was on such occasions, "I make no pledges to surrender God-given and constitutional rights to any man or set of men. If I shall be convicted of crime, before an impartial jury, then I will submit to adequate punishment." I then proceeded with further defense of my claim to citizenship and free speech . . .
At first I thought I would not go from Bracken County, though it was not then my home. . . . Two members of the church there, John D. Gregg and John Humlong, men whose courage, fidelity and piety perhaps no man questioned, said, "Our first impulse was to take our rifles and stand with you; but other friends warned to leave have decided to go, and we find that we will be utterly overwhelmed by the opposing power, and if you stay we shall all be driven away." My father-in-law made the same remark.
This put a new phase on the issue. I might peril my own home, and had done so. I might not peril the home of another, especially when he had expressed his fear. A day of fasting and prayer was appointed, and a meeting of brethren and sisters in Christ was held at the church-house. The conclusion was, "There is now such a reign of terror all over the State that you cannot get a hearing anywhere in the State." The same was the response from friends in Madison County. . . . Therefore, John G. Hanson, myself and others, retired with our families for a time to the North and took up our abode in the suburbs of Cincinnati, Ohio.
Notwithstanding the intense excitement in the country, my wife believed she could get back to our home and get out our household goods. Accordingly, taking a carriage and our eldest son, then ten years old, she started, and on the third day, after overcoming severe difficulties, reached her home. She boxed up our goods, shipped them to Cincinnati, and returned to her father's house. From thence, with her children, she came to me, into a house I had secured near to Cincinnati, Ohio.
Soon after this my youngest son, Tappan, then four years old, from exposure in the exodus in mid-winter, took a cold, which culminated in diphtheria and death. This was an hour of great sadness. With the impression that I would yet return to my fields of labor in Kentucky, and as Joseph requested that his bones be taken back to Canaan, so with this Scripture in my mind, I decided to carry back the body of my dear boy, "bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh," and thus strengthen my purpose to return, and my claim upon this, my native soil and field of labor, chosen in sacred covenant years previously. In great sorrow I brought the dear form and buried it in the little graveyard adjoining Bethesda church-house - a place ever dear to me.
|Gravestone of Tappan Fee|
After the interment of the dear body we returned to Ohio. A few weeks later my wife and I returned to Bracken County, Ky., bringing with us head and foot stones with which to mark the resting-place of our dear boy. Soon after leaving the boat that landed us at the town of Augusta, I was surrounded by a mob, a gathering of citizens, many of whom considered themselves respectable people; and for a time I was not allowed to proceed farther. The only cause of this detention was mere hostility to me as a known Abolitionist. I had been born and reared in that county, and had preached to the people at Bethesda most of the ten preceding years. No man could prefer a charge of crime, and the object of my visit was humane and Christian. Detention under such circumstances was an outrage too gross; and after a time I was allowed to go on my way. I visited the grave of my child, preached on Lord's day, and, after a day or two, returned to my family, then in Ohio.
. . . By this time the rebellion became imminent. The enmity on the part of many so-called Union men was more intense against Abolitionists than against rebels themselves. By many undiscerning men, the Abolitionists were charged with bringing on the war - precipitating the great calamity. This charge was as senseless as that of those who, with Ingersoll, charge Christianity with the persecutions waged by paganism and the papacy.
Nevertheless, passion raged. The most that could be done was still to call upon the nation to obey God and "let the oppressed go free"; - remove slavery, the festering cause. This, neither political party then intended to do. The cry on both sides was, "a white man's war" - "let the nigger stay where he is." Even Abraham Lincoln then said, "Let us save the Union, slavery or no slavery."The Bull Run defeat came, and one reverse after another. . . . Physical disability at this time forbade my entering the army and bearing arms. I also had a conviction that there must be a change of public sentiment before there would be a vigorous change of tactics; and that therefore my work was moral rather than physical; and that I must give myself to this in the most effective way - must do what I could to change public sentiment in free and slave States. After some months I said to my wife, "Let us go out into Kentucky on a tour of inspection and see for ourselves actual condition of society there." We came to Berea. We found John Morgan raiding the country, and society in a turmoil: still we found a few friends, natives of the State, who were here, and not wholly discouraged. We decided to go back, gather up our children, and come out to Berea and resume our previously-chosen, and, in purpose, never relinquished work.
~ John Fee
Although they tried to return to Berea, violent opposition to Fee and abolitionists forced Fee out of state again. He returned to Cincinnati in September 1862, as the city worked on the defenses against the Confederate invasion. Matilda Fee had returned to their house in Berea with two of their children, although both Union and Confederate troops were in the area.
I was assured that I could not travel in Kentucky at that juncture, and that my family was safer without me than with me . .Ten weeks had elapsed since I had seen my wife and the two eldest children. These were weeks of commotion, anxiety and peril.. . . Rebel soldiers came into her house, took her borrowed blanket, her coarse and fine comb, her better shoes and Burritt's hat, and the carriage harness. The horse and carriage were hid in the woods. My daughter Laura had a very nice Union flag which her mother had made, and with this a set of silver spoons her grandfather had given to her; these she had hid up in the eaves-trough. These the rebels did not find. . .
Thousands of Kirby Smith's men were then encamped near by. With some other women my wife went to the encampment to see the complexion of the rebel soldiery. Whilst sitting with other women a rebel officer rode up, and addressing himself politely, inquired of my wife for her home, and then for the "politics" of the region. My wife said, "My home is near by; and, as for politics, we are for the Union, and believe slavery is wrong, and that the rebels are fighting for a lost cause."
The officer inquired, "Madam, ain't you from the North?" She replied, "No, this is my home and my native State." Again he inquired in a tone derisive, "Madam, are you an Abolitionist?" She replied, "I am." "Well," said he, "I have seen some men who were Abolitionists, but I never before this saw a woman who was." My wife then asked, "Why are you here with the uniform of our men on you?" He had a Union belt on him with U. S. inverted. He replied, "Madam, don't you see that is S.U. - Southern Union?" and rode off. Not long after this she heard the Cannon's roar at Perrysville. Soon this was followed by the retreating rebel army with trains of wagons laden with plunder, and herds of lowing cattle famishing for the want of water.
Three rebel officers came up to her house and asked for food. My wife had some potatoes, meal, coarse flour and milk. She gave to them bread and milk, with baked potatoes. They received this kindly, and were very respectful. Soon after they were gone my wife learned that some rebel soldiers were in her potato patch, grabbing her potatoes. Taking her son Burritt with her, she went for her potatoes. Something to live on then was an item of concern. She came to the fence and said, "Men, I have fed your officers, and now you are taking the last potato I have; this is no credit to you." One young fellow looked up pertly and. said, "Madam, credit has gone up long ago." They filled their haversacks and went on.
Scenes of privation, anxiety and toil went on from day to day. At the end of ten weeks my wife's mother came, informing her where I was, and helped her and the children back to the border of the State. In Kentucky society was in turmoil. There was no opportunity for consecutive work.
~ John FeeAugust 30, 1862, had been a "solemn day" for J.A.R. Rogers. While working on his roof, trying to make his house liveable, Rogers heard "the booming of cannon" on the Richmond Pike. News of the Union defeat and Richmond's evacuation quickly spread, and soon Berea fell under the "dark cloud" of Confederate occupation. A "reign of terror" began on September 1st for Bereans. During the next six weeks "Union men" lived "constantly in fear." Confederate soldiers who were former residents of Madison County led squads of armed men through the community, searching for Unionists. Most Unionists fled to the woods or nearby mountains where they slept "in the open air, [or] in caves," obtaining food wherever they could. Rogers was high on the Confederate list of suspects. Friends informed Rogers that one group of Confederates, led by men who knew him, were determined to see him hang, and for weeks he believed that death was "not very far distant." Rogers managed to "keep out of sight" by moving "from house to house," though seldom far from his home. Twice he ran from his home to hide for hours in a thicket, and on two occasions he remained in the woods overnight. Later, when Rogers learned that Rebel soldiers were "searching Berea," he fled into nearby woods until after dark. Upon hearing that three bands of Confederates planned to descend upon Berea at dawn the next morning, Rogers "passed the night on a neighboring mountain." Rogers read The Aids To Faith, a book of essays which strengthened his faith "as never before," and he reviewed his Greek and Hebrew texts. Though he "suffered from fear," Rogers came to realize that his six weeks in Berea, taken as a whole, "were among the most pleasant" of his life."
The Confederate invasion had frustrated plans for Rogers' family to join him in Berea, severing contact between them for six weeks. Fear for his own safety and concerned that his family was worried, Rogers decided to leave Berea on the morning of October 8, 1862, the
same day that the hostile armies met in the Battle of Perryville, Kentucky's largest Civil War battle. Traveling on horseback, Rogers wisely chose to go east, away from Federal and Confederate troops rendezvousing in the vicinity of Perryville. That night, after traveling
fewer than eighteen miles, he arrived at the home of Lewis Cox on Station Camp Creek. The next morning, Rogers continued eastward, stopping for a midday meal at the home of a Mr. Wiseman. At Irvine in Estill County, Rogers became unnerved when he was "closely eyed" by several "rough customers and Confederate soldiers," and he departed at the first opportunity. Following an isolated "mountain path" directly northward, Rogers had not gone far before he felt threatened. First, a traveler he met questioned him about his politics, and still further northward, he passed the body of a man he assumed Rebels had killed. At the end of the day, having covered only fifteen miles, Rogers "spent a sleepless night" at the home of a Mr. Blevins on the Red River. At Blevins's home Rogers first learned of President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.
|Replica of Camp Nelson Cabin|
This was a time of thrilling interest to me. There was now not only the fair prospect that the nation would be delivered from the perils of a wicked rebellion, but with this, the freedom of the then five million of slaves. These were now, by the demand of loyal men, and the proclamation of the nation's chief executive, to go forth as free men and free women; - a consummation for which I, in common with others, had long prayed and labored.
. . . The enlistment of colored men at Camp Nelson was soon followed by the coming of their wives and children. These were at first driven out of the camp at the point of the bayonet. Thus sent back, they were exposed to the cruelty of their former masters. I saw indignation rising in the hearts and showing itself in the actions of the colored soldiers. I went to the officials and said to them, "This driving back of wives and children will breed mutiny in your camp unless you desist." The reply was, "What will you do? - will you leave the women and children with the soldiers? That will never do." I said, "No; I would draw a picket line and put the women in the west end of the camp, which is abundantly large and encircled by Kentucky river and cliffs four hundred feet high. Such a natural fortification, high, beautiful, and well-watered, was not anywhere else found in the State." "But," said the Quartermaster, "I can do nothing in the way of shelter without an order from the Secretary of War." I replied, "I know Secretary Chase personally. I will prepare a paper to be sent to his care." "Do so," said the Quartermaster, "and I will sign it." The paper was forwarded. Quickly an order came from Stanton, the Secretary of War, for the construction of buildings; and in a short time the Quartermaster had ninety-two cottages erected as homes for families, two larger buildings as hospitals for sick women and children, and other buildings as school-rooms and offices, boarding hall, and dormitory for teachers, steward and family.
Spending, as I did, a Sabbath in a neighboring city, I saw in the congregation (colored) a young woman of light complexion, whose manner, as she came to the altar to partake of the Lord's Supper, favorably impressed me. I inquired of the pastor who she was. He told me she was a member of that church, with fair education and good parentage. Immediately it occurred to me that she was the woman with whom to test the caste question among the teachers at Camp Nelson, and set the precedent of giving positions to colored persons as fast as prepared for such. Monday morning I called on her parents and told to them my wish and plan. I suggested to them and the daughter what might be the opposition; but such, I said, would be un-Christ-like, and the sooner met the better, and that perhaps the daughter was "raised up for a time like this." They consented to the arrangement, and on Wednesday the young lady was at the office of the school-building. Immediately I assigned to her a room in the dormitory, and put her in charge of a class of pupils. At the dinner hour I gave to her in the common dining-hall a chair and place at the table at which I presided. The presence of this young lady at one of the several tables in the common dining-hall, produced a sensation. A chaplain to one of the regiments, whose home was down in Maine, together with some army officials also boarding at the hall, protested against this young woman's eating in the common boarding-hall. All the lady teachers (white) sent there by the American Missionary Association and the Freedman's Aid Society, refused, with two exceptions, to come to the first tables whilst the young woman was eating. She was, in person, tidy, modest, comely. It is just to say that the secretaries of the American Missionary Association would not have endorsed the action of those teachers, who thus refused to eat at the common table with such a teacher as the one referred to.
A major, whose home was in Illinois, and the steward, whose home was in the same State, came to me and suggested that I remove the young woman. I saw the moment for decision had come, and in a quiet manner said, "I will suffer my right arm torn from my body before I will remove the young woman." And that they might see that I was not arbitrary in my decision, I said, "The young woman is fitted for her position; she is modest and discreet; she is a Christian, and as such, Christ's representative. What I do to her I do to him." Both of these men were professing Christians, and one of them a local preacher, at home.
The steward said his wife would not give the young woman a plate. I replied, "Then she shall have mine, and I will have another"; for the control had been given to me, and I meant to keep it, and use it.
~ John Fee
Often she had heard her grandmother tell that story and other stories demonstrating Fee’s “humanitarianism and great courage.” Her grandmother and grandfather, Yancey reported, became “two of the most outstanding contributors to the progress of their race in Lexington.” In his reply, Embree responded that the story remained vivid in his own family. Even as a small boy growing up in Fee’s home, Embree recalled, he had recognized he was “in the presence of greatness.”
For years Fee had been determinedly non-sectarian. When the AMA became aligned with the Congregational Church in 1865, Fee felt that he no longer could accept their aid, as he believed the AMA, like other sects or denominations, would divide the people of the South. In later years, Fee and others went on to establish the Christian Missionary Association of Kentucky, made up of individuals rather than churches.
|John Gregg and Matilda Fee|
Laura Fee married William Norris Embree, the younger brother of Elizabeth Embree Rogers, on September 12, 1865 in Berea. Although William had been raised a Quaker, he enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War. He was in the telegraph service of the federal government and was connected with General McClellan's staff as scout with the Third Army Corps in Virginia. He was twice taken prisoner while on active duty and for the last year of the was a prisoner in Libby prison in Richmond, Virginia, where he contracted tuberculosis. When he married Laura Fee, the Philadelphia Monthly Meeting dismissed him for marrying outside the Quaker community. The Embree's father, Norris Jones Embree, also a Union Army veteran, moved to Berea as well.
William and Laura Embree were the parents of Nellie Matilda, Elizabeth Lewis, Sallie Fee, William Dean, Raymond Burritt, Edwin Rogers and Royal Howard Embree. William Embree worked for Berea before taking a more lucrative job as a telegrapher with the Union Pacific Railroad, moving the Embree family through a succession of western states.
|John Gregg Fee in his study at Berea|
In 1891, Fee published his autobiography. Fee described incidents that epitomized his experience as an abolitionist in the South, beginning with his religious conversion in early childhood. Fee continually emphasized that slavery and racism are sinful. He believed that the United States as a whole, and the South in particular, must accept and adopt a policy of true equality for all. He described the threats and acts of violence visited on himself, his family, and his institutions because of his race politics. The book ends with an address Fee gave in 1890 that outlines the religious reasons for his political opinions.
The youth of this generation cannot comprehend the enormity of human slavery, - the effect of it upon society, - how it blunted the sensibilities, outraged every element of justice, fostered licentiousness, violence and crime of almost every description.
And yet those who practiced and sustained this iniquity, often occupied commanding positions both in church and state! And here I wish to say, that the same misrepresentation of Christianity is seen in those who maintain the spirit and practice of caste - a relic of the barbarism of slavery.
~ John Gregg Fee, Autobiography of John G. FeeWhen her husband died in 1891, Laura Fee Embree returned to her parents' home in Berea with her youngest children; two daughters were married, their oldest son was supporting himself in Wyoming, and another daughter was studying in Pennsylvania to become a missionary (she eventually went to Argentina). Edwin Rogers Embree had been born in Nebraska in 1883 spent much of his early childhood in Wyoming. He was 8 years old when his family moved to Berea. Embree had a very close relationship with his grandfather. His grandfather, Embree said, was “the great inspiration of my life. The ideas for which he stood became axioms for me.”
|J.A.R. Rogers (bottom right) and Elizabeth Embree Rogers (top left) with Berea students|
|1900 Advertisement in Minnesota Black Newspaper|
|John Gregg Fee on the Berea Campus|
|Fee's Funeral Procession|
|Grave of John Gregg and Matilda Fee in Berea Cemetery|
Until the Day Law, outlawing integrated education in Kentucky, went into effect in 1904, Berea College functioned as the only racially integrated college in the South. The new legislation, which specified that black and white students could not be taught on the same campus, was specifically aimed at Berea. The college fought the law for four years, but in 1908 the Supreme Court, in Berea College v. Commonwealth of Kentucky, ruled that the state could require a private institution to segregate students of different races. 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.
Fee's grandson, Edwin Rogers Embree, completed his studies at Berea and enrolled at Yale, graduating in 1906 with a philosophy degree. In 1917 he joined the staff of the Rockefeller Foundation in New York. In 1928 he became president of the Julius Rosenwald Fund. The foundation, chartered in 1917 as a family philanthropy by the president of the Sears, Roebuck Company, was reorganized with a professional staff in 1928. In the early decades of the twentieth century, the Chicago-based foundation spent millions of dollars to improve the lives of African Americans and to eliminate the problems of race relations. It provided initiative, money, and guidance for the building of more than 5,300 schools for rural black communities in the South. It supported conferences to address difficulties between black and white citizens, underwrote efforts to reduce disease and advanced the preparation of black health care professionals. During World War II, when the War Department began training black men as aviators, it built the airstrip on which the Tuskegee Airmen trained. From this foundation came more than one-third of the funding the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP) used to combat racial segregation in the public schools, an undertaking that culminated in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
|Edwin Rogers Embree|
|Brown Americans, by Edwin R. Embree|
|The college's motto, |
"God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth",
is taken from Acts 17:26
Current full-time enrollment is 1,514 students. Berea College is distinctive among post-secondary institutions for providing free education to students. Berea College charges no tuition; every admitted student is provided the equivalent of a four-year, full-tuition scholarship (currently worth $102,000; $25,500 per year). Many receive support for room and board as well. Admission to the College is granted only to students who need financial assistance; in general, applications are accepted only from those whose family income falls within the bottom 40% of U.S. households. About 75% of the college's incoming class is drawn from the Appalachian region of the South and some adjoining areas, and about 8% are international students. Generally, no more than one student is admitted from a given country in a single year (with the exception of countries in distress such as Liberia). This policy ensures that 70 or more nationalities are usually represented in the student body of Berea College. All international students are admitted on full scholarships with the same regard for financial need as U.S. students.
|Draper Hall, Berea College|
|Statues in Berea produced by artist Stan Watts in 2005-06 |
that feature John Fee and Elizabeth Rodgers
Trust God - trust him for success, for support, for life. If in this way you will trust God, he by his word, by his Spirit and by his providence, will lead you into the highest usefulness of which, in your day and generation, you are capable.
~ John G. Fee, Berea, Kentucky, 1891.