Monday, January 19, 2009

It's Not All Godly Golf Courses in Kentucky

I think a lot of people, especially those from the east coast tend to dismiss all southern states as backward and ignorant, not to mention racist. Are they? Well....yes, but, after having lived on the east coast (and the mid-west and the west coast as well) I would say that the east coast is as well. It's all just much better hidden and more camouflaged and more difficult to spot. Whereas in a place like Kentucky it's well...a little bit more accessible and unsophisticated. Of course, Kentucky would benefit from a more Mass. like government, but social change is nothing new to the state.

After all, Kentucky's wonderful Berea College, tucked where the Cumberland mountains meet Kentucky's bluegrass plains, has been integrated...truly integrated since the 1850's. Before that, it was anti-slavery. Not just the college but also the church. Now that is godly and bibilical in the best sense. Not just that, all students who attend the college attend it for free. Yes, if you get into Berea College, you don't pay. You have to work in the college to pay your way. So students make those wonderfully simple but creative Berea handicrafts and they work in the shops, the kitchens, the dining rooms on campus. The college favors anyone who is the first in their family to reach college.

Berea College was founded in 1850 by abolitionist, Reverend John Fee. He was helped by the American Missionary Association and anti-slavery politician Cassius Clay.

Now, I very rarely write good things about religion, but in this case I will. Or rather for good people who saw good--true good--in religion and made things happen in unfriendly and dangerous times. Berea's school and church were dedicated to the Christian principles against prejudice and racism. Fee and others were dedicated to building an inter-racial college and church based on Christian brotherhood. After armed pro-slavery opposition forced Berea workers out of the state, they slipped back in at the start of the Civil War, including Fee himself.

At the end of the war, Fee invited black freedmen to live in Berea, and started building this little interracial town. By 1870, an estimated 200 black families settled in and around Berea. The interracial church on the Berea ridge not only had black members but many also served as deacons and in committees. Contrast this to what was happening not only in the South, but also in all other parts of the US at this time.

Similarly, not only were there black students at Berea College but so were members of faculty. Again, remember this is the 1870's and 1880's when this was unthinkable in most parts of the country. Black alumni taught Latin, math and pedagogy.

By 1874, Berea had 74 white landowners and 40 black landowners. Imagine this! This is before integration anywhere else, before anti-discrimination laws. They were able to be landowners because Fee bought large holdings of land so he could sell it to newcomers, especially black residents who might be unable to buy land otherwise.

So, there is something wonderfully appealing about Berea. Every time I go to Lexington, I make the 40-minute drive up there. I walk around the pretty campus, drink a lovely and frothy capuccino at the Berea Coffee and Tea Company, and buy some wonderful handicrafts or jewelry. I sit and watch its multi-racial and multi-cultural student body bustle about and think about the inspiring history of this little town tucked away from the world, which became a haven and a stepping stone for so many, at a time when the world was especially bleak for them.

And it reminds me that sometimes you just need a little courage and an abiding belief in the equality of all to make a huge difference. And that sometimes, jaded and anti-religion as I am...even I can appreciate brave people who delved into it to find true inspiration, at a time when others were using it to justify slavery and oppression and separatism.

As much as bibilical golf courses make me shake my head in disbelief, Berea is one reason I can never dismiss Kentucky (or any other place I suppose) as just a hick, ignorant backwater. For, if you look below the surface and beyond the obvious horizon, you can see much that there is much that is hidden and wonderful. And I hope in 2009, I can do this for other places and people as well. Look beyond the obvious I mean.


Sujatha said...

What a wonderful story, Jawahara, especially for today. Thanks for telling it.

Judy Bussey said...

Beautiful, Beautiful, Meaningful, and True. There are always some of us who work against strong tradition to promote peaceful change, and Berea does that. Often society here in Kentucky is a oblivious to the "obvious" to which you allude. Thanks for getting a clear message out and I am anxious to hear more of this type of message. Our service in the Obama era can find work in these areas that truly change lives.