From NKAA, Notable Kentucky African Americans Database (main entry)

Fee, John Gregg

(born: 1816  -  died: 1901 (see John Gregg Fee was the leading abolitionist in Kentucky and the southern part of the country. Fee founded Berea College, which opened in 1855 as a one-room district school. Chartered in 1866, it became a college in 1869 with the goals of low-cost education for all races both male and female in an atmosphere of non-denominational Christianity and support for an anti-slavery philosophy.

The first child of John and Elizabeth Bradford Fee, John Gregg Fee was born in Bracken County, KY, on Sept. 9, 1816. His father was a farmer who owned slaves; John the son would intercede for his father's slaves and receive scoldings for being so much with them. As a young teenager, he was drawn to religion, asking his father if he could go to the M.E. Church, which his father opposed. He eventually attended the Presbyterian church and felt called to the ministry.

John Gregg Fee attended Augusta College in Bracken County and Miami University in Ohio, then Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, OH, in 1842, where he decided to become an abolitionist. Cassius M. Clay, with whom he had become friends, assisted his abolitionist activities: in 1853, Fee came to Madison County, KY, at Clay's invitation, where he established the village he named Berea and formed the non-denominational Church of Christ Union. In 1855, Fee built a one-room school on land contributed by William B. Wright.

Matilda Hamilton Fee (born May 24, 1824), a Bracken County native whom John Gregg Fee married Sept. 24, 1844, was instrumental in supporting John Gregg Fee's anti-slavery efforts and the creation of Berea College. She stood up to and saved John from lynch mobs and took in Black boarders who attended Berea College.

In 1848 John Gregg Fee published the first of a number of anti-slavery and racial rights publications, An Anti-Slavery Manual. Several times taken from his home and churches, Fee was beaten, way-laid, shot at, threatened with hanging and drowning, and told to leave the county and even the state. He was often separated from his family for long periods of time. He reacted to threats by stating he was practicing his constitutional right of free speech and appealed to the courts, where he found little support. He refused to carry weapons to protect himself and refused aid from groups that supported slavery in his various churches.

Cassius Clay's support for Fee waned in 1856: Clay, who was opposed to slavery primarily on economic grounds, accepted the constitutional basis for slavery and was against immediate emancipation. Fee saw slavery as both a sin and unconstitutional. Clay called Fee a radical revolutionary.

On July 14, 1859, the Constitution for the Berea school was affirmed and by-laws adopted, with John Gregg Fee as president. Fee saw Berea College as the Oberlin College of Kentucky. However, the school was closed later in 1859, and Fee was forced out of Berea; the school did not reopen until the close of the Civil War in 1865.

During the Civil War, Fee established himself with his son, Berritt, in Camp Nelson, Jessamine County, KY, teaching and preaching there. Camp Nelson was a Union military training site for freedmen. Fee called on Secretary Salmon P. Chase to allow quarters for women and children to stay there; he also established a school and church and built living quarters for the mixed population with borrowed money. Fee and Matilda also used their own land for the freedmen's homes. The Fees returned to Berea in 1864 after Black soldiers began serving in the Union Army.

In 1866, Berea's first full year after the war, it had 187 students, 96 African American and 91 white. In April 1866, several Black soldiers recently mustered out of the Union Army enrolled in Berea, including Angus Burleigh, and Gabriel Burdette was the College’s first Black trustee, serving until 1868. But several white students left in at that time, and negative reactions to integration continued to grow.

By the end of the century, changes brought about by social opposition, administrative compromise, and an emphasis on the education of Appalachian Mountain students saw a deterioration in African American enrollment. By 1895, Berea's publications contained no information pertaining to interracial practices, and policies for admission limited the number of Blacks admitted.

Near the time of his death in 1901, John Gregg Fee saw the efforts of Berea College's President Lewis Frost turning the College into "an ordinary white school."

Berea College had been the major exemption to segregation in Kentucky until the Day Law (1904). After the new law took effect, the college did provide funds for the Lincoln Institute,  in Simpsonville, KY, a Blacks-only school. When the Day Law was amended in 1950, Berea re-integrated, returning Berea College to truly reflect its motto: “God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth.”

For more information, see John G. Fee: An Autobiography. Chicago, Ill. National Christian Association, 1891 (online at Documenting the American South); Apbasova, Sona, "Fee, John Gregg" Bereapedia (with additional sources and related guides); Johnson, Clifton H., "John Gregg Fee: Kentucky Abolitionist," Crisis, 79 (3), 1972, pp. 91-94 (online at Google Books; Warford, Malcolm L., "The Making and Unmaking of a Radical Tradition: Berea College, 1855-1904," Encounter, 38 (2), 1977, pp. 149-161; Howard, Victor B. The Evangelical War Against Slavery and Caste: the Life and Times of John G. Fee. Susquehanna University Press, 1996; Lucas, Marion B., "John G. Fee, The Berea Exiles, and the Confederate Invasion of Kentucky," Filson Club History Quarterly, 75 (2), 2001, pp. 155-180; Sears, Richard, "John G. Fee, Camp Nelson, and Kentucky Blacks, 1864-1865," Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, 85 (1), pp. 29-45; Cassius M. Clay and John G. Fee: A Study in Southern Ani-Slavery Thought, Journal of Negro History, 42 (3), 1957, pp. 201-213; Day, Richard, Roger Cleveland, June Hyndman, and Don Offutt, Berea College--Coeducationally and Racially Integrated: An Unlikely Contingency in the 1850s," Journal of Negro History, 82 (1) Winter 2013, pp. 35-46; Harrison, Lowell, "Berea: An Experiment in Education," American History Illustrated, 15 (10), Feb. 1981, pp. 8-17; English, Philip Wesley, John G. Fee: Kentucky Spokesman for Abolition and Reform, Dissertation, Indiana University, 1973; and Wilson, Shannon H., Berea College: An Illustrated History, University Press of Kentucky, 2006. Available online through UKnowledge.

Article by Rob Aken, 7/6/2020

Kentucky County & Region

Read about Breathitt County, Kentucky in Wikipedia.
Read about Madison County, Kentucky in Wikipedia.
Read about Jessamine County, Kentucky in Wikipedia.

Kentucky Place (Town or City)

Read about Berea, Kentucky in Wikipedia.
Read about Camp Nelson, Kentucky in Wikipedia.

Outside Kentucky Place Name

Cite This NKAA Entry:

“Fee, John Gregg,” Notable Kentucky African Americans Database, accessed July 30, 2021,

Last modified: 2020-08-12 14:44:36