Visit to Berea, Kentucky Review – Destination for History Buffs, Well Worth the Detour


As you approach the small college town portion of Berea, Kentucky where the absence of big box stores is conspicuous, you will likely be charmed by its quaintness and be glad you came.



Perhaps you came seeking the arts and crafts for which the area is known, timing your visit with its famous Spoonbread Festival in the fall or similar events.  Or, that lovely Boone Tavern and its gourmet restaurant with recent addition of wine and bourbon in this otherwise dry town may have lured you.   Travelers from as far away as Alaska en route to points south do make it here.  Many more from Kentucky’s cities and contiguous states make the journey for the charm.   A third of the US population is within 300 miles of Berea and its historic Boone Tavern has seen its share of them.



But for any lover of history, Berea is not a mere detour.  This is a destination spot where you can marvel at how an Abolitionist created a bold experiment in education that continues to make a mark today.  This experiment, Berea College, has a compelling story that should be known to all Americans, especially at a time when President Obama has put free community college education on the agenda. 



Today, more than 1600 students attend Berea College and pay zero tuition.  They are a select group from Greater Appalachia, with smarts and academic scores that qualify them for entry as well as low family incomes. (Berea college students come from families with an average of $27,609 income a year—some of these families with many children.)  Every student is required to work 10 hours a week.  That helps pay for room, board and books.  The work ranges from labor in furniture and crafts workshops, to working in the school’s farms and orchards that help supply the school’s food, or in school administration program positions of all types, to hotel bellhops and other hotel/restaurant staff positions where the students get a healthy dose of exposure to the wider world by interacting with hotel guests.



Other grants big and small help Berea’s students get a world class education.  International scholarships are on a rapid growth track, e.g. in 2013 128 students studied abroad and that increased to 226 by 2014. 



Picture this too—the college president, an avid runner, invited the students to join him on the running path twice a week but found that many of the students who signed up didn’t own a pair of sneakers.  Or, the marketing coordinator of Boone Tavern shares the tale of her student intern showing up to work without a coat when it was below twenty degrees because she didn’t own a coat.  It’s those type problems that are solved by faculty and staff committed to their cause and whom one can see are richly rewarded by seeing students blossom over their four years at the school.



If you are nostalgic for the time when going to college was an endeavor meant to broaden a student’s world view and not merely a ticket to a job, even the shortest of interactions with Berea students will excite you.  Predictably the freshmen seemed unusually shy and without worldly ways, while the Seniors seemed more than poised to conquer missions in fields as diverse as art, nursing, computer science, industrial engineering, psychology and more.  60% of Berea students continue on to graduate school.  It’s a one generation college, because except in rare circumstances of hardship, their education transports them into the middle class.  Unlike other graduates today, the average Berea College graduate has only $6,652 in debt.



Top tip:  When you visit Berea make sure to allot an hour or so to take a student-led tour of the Berea College Campus.  On this tour you will learn how Cassius M. Clay invited abolitionist John Fee to establish the school and how it was initially 50-50 black and white and also coeducational. 


Fee’s religious world-view that inspired his abolitionist stance and commitment to the idea of an interracial coeducational college that was inviting to all.  His sayings are scattered about the campus.   While it is a secular non-denominational school, it has a tagline of “God has Made of One Blood All Peoples of the Earth”.



You’ll also note that the school’s Carter G. Woodson Center for Interracial Education is named for a famous alum who is credited as the father of Black History Month.  You’ll see historic photos of students in Selma and learn that recently there was a significant Berea contingent in Ferguson, Missouri.  You’ll see signs for the campus TRUTH talks (True Racial Understanding Through Honesty) and learn too that there is much campus concern about modern slavery in the sex trade –in our case, during the Superbowl that week but also at the Kentucky Derby, a sad fact that made our student Kentucky-born guide seem to wince with shame.   You’ll learn how the campus has contended with religious right protesters in various ways, most recently deciding that they should be given berth to express their views as any others would.



In short, you see a historic campus of Higher Education, infused with a culture of openness that could teach our entire nation a thing or two. 


You can start your tour of Berea College online visiting their Crafts Center or calling 800 347 3892. 


Read these articles about historic Boone Tavern and its gourmet restaurant. 




Photos:  Peter Kachergis unless otherwise indicated.


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