John Gregg Fee

FEE, JOHN GREGG (b. September 9, 1816, Bracken Co., Ky; d. January 11, 1901, Berea, Ky.) John Gregg Fee, a noted abolitionist and the founder of Berea College, in Berea, was the son of slaveholders John and Sarah Gregg Fee. He was born on the family farm along Hillsdale Rd. near Germantown, and Hillsdale was the location of his first church and school. Fee attended Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and obtained a BA from Augusta College before entering the Presbyterian Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati in 1842. A personal epiphany initiated his antislavery convictions. When he returned home to Bracken Co., he was met with angry mobs who did not support his antislavery teachings. He was subjected to beatings, ridicule, and finally banishment. The American Missionary Society placed Fee in charge of 15 to 20 young ministers, and Fee and these associates were often accused of and charged with enticing slaves to escape. In September 1844. Fee married Matilda Hamilton, who shared his zeal for advancing the rights and education of the enslaved.

In 1854 Fee moved to Madison Co. at the inducement of his friend and fellow abolitionist Cassius Marcellus Clay, who had given Fee 10 acres of land. However, their relationship did not endure, since the two men took contrasting positions about how to end slavery. Clay favored a gradual approach, whereas Fee maintained the need for immediate emancipation.

Fee’s belief in immediate emancipation prompted him to purchase a family slave, Juliet Miles, from his father to prevent her from being sold. A court action followed that resulted in the emancipation of Juliet and her son Henry. However, after a move to Clermont Co., Ohio, Juliet returned to Bracken Co. to attempt to rescue her other children. This daring action was unsuccessful, she and her family were arrested and she was remanded to the state penitentiary at Frankfort, where she died two years later.

By 1859 Fee had proposed an abolitionist colony at Berea in Madison Co., along with a coeducational, integrated college. Berea College, based on the New Testament principle of “open mindedness,” was intended to be similar to Oberlin College in Ohio. Just as he and his colleagues were preparing to open their new school, the abolitionist John Brown led his attack on Harper’s Ferry

in Virginia. Slaveholders from Madison Co. decided the abolitionist Fee represented a similar threat, and on December 23, 1859, a band of prominent citizens and slaveholders from nearby Richmond rode to Berea and told Fee and his associates they had 10 days to leave the state. When the governor of Kentucky, Beriah Magoffin (1859–1862), refused to help the Berea abolitionists, Fee and his associates fled to Ohio. Thus, the college at Berea failed to open as planned. It opened in 1866, one year after the Civil War (1860–1865) had ended.

During the war, Fee kept in touch with the situation in Berea by occasionally visiting relatives and churches there. Fee also returned to Kentucky during the war to offer food, shelter, and the promise of education to recently freed slaves reporting to Camp Nelson, a Union recruitment center in Jessamine Co. not far from Berea. While he was at Camp Nelson, Fee, now a Union Army chaplain, founded a trade school for former slaves, the Ariel Academy. Fee’s work with freed slaves in Kentucky and his earlier plans to build an interracial college with biblical underpinnings delivered a hopeful message to Northern abolitionists that the Berea and Camp Nelson experiences could serve as models for other such institutions in the South.

From 1866 until 1889 at Berea College, which began as both a college and a 13-grade (K-12) preparatory school, at least half of the students enrolled were African Americans. Thus, Fee’s goal of demonstrating that education should be color blind was achieved. However, there developed a period of turmoil and disagreement among the trustees about sustaining this mission. The issue was settled when William Goodell Frost became Berea’s new president in 1892. Fee, who had been concentrating for years on his work as a minister, no longer was in control, and the prevailing educational thought in America favored “separate but equal” education; Berea College was forced to segregate after its unsuccessful legal attempts to challenge the state’s racist Day Law (1904). In 1950 the college was reintegrated. Fee, who saw his noble dreams for Berea College come to an end, died in 1901 and was buried in the Berea Cemetery.

“Abolitionism,” C1, May 1, 1852, 2.

“Bracken County Marker to Honor Abolitionist, Slave,” KP. June 21, 2002, 3K.

Lucas, Marion. A History of Blacks in Kentucky. Vol. 1. Frankfort: Kentucky Historical Society, 1992.

Sears, Richard D. The Day of Small Things: Abolitionism in the Midst of Slavery, Berea, Kentucky, 1854–1864. Lanham, Md.: Univ. Press of America, 1986.

Caroline R. Miller

Above based on excerpted from page 322 – 323 of THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF NORTHERN KENTUCKY THE UNIVERSITY PRESS OF KENTUCKY ISBN 978-0-8131-2565-7

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