Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Just finished reading - The Evangelical War against Slavery and Caste: The Life and Times of John G. Fee by Victor B. Howard

Moral suasion is not an idea that came along with Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. It has been championed by many in the past that looked to change people's behavior and society's established laws by appealing to one's conscious, by seeking Divine assistance, and by turning the other cheek to enemies. Native Kentuckian John G. Fee personified moral suasion in his efforts to eradicate slavery in his home state and to make an education available to anyone who sought knowledge.

Fee was a child of the religious awakenings that had a great influence on the reform movements of the first half of the nineteenth-century. John G. Fee was born in 1816 in Bracken County, Kentucky. His father was a small slaveholder in this Ohio River border county and Fee grew up understanding the institution all too well.

Fee's views on slavery changed as he increased his education. He first studied at local Augusta Academy, then he went to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Fee returned to Augusta to finish his studies and then in 1842 informed his family he was going to attend Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati to become a minister. Lane had been fractured in 1834 over the slavery question after a series of student debates. The more radical students left the school and went to newly founded Oberlin College in northern Ohio. Oberlin became the first interracial, coeducational college in America. It was during his time at Lane that Fee became and unconditional and immediate abolitionist.

One of Fee's first missions was attempt to convert his father. His father would have nothing of it, and even offered to send the younger Fee to Princeton, which was refused. Fee turned his attention to other slaveholders in Kentucky and started preaching in churches against slavery and delivering antislavery tracts. He ministered in Lewis County, Kentucky as a base, but ranged all over northeastern Kentucky spreading the word of God's forgiveness to those that turned from the sin of slavery. On several occasions he was threatened, mobbed, and beaten for his efforts.

In the late 1840's Fee became acquainted with Cassius Clay (a distant cousin of famous statesman Henry Clay) of Madison County, Kentucky. Clay had tried his hand at publishing an antislavery newspaper in Lexington, but was forced to move the operation to Cincinnati and then it went out of business. Clay was a politically ambitious man that wanted the end of slavery in Kentucky for a much different reason than Fee. Clay wanted slavery abolished so poorer whites would not have to compete against slave labor for jobs. He felt that his best chance to attain high office was to appeal to the non-slaveholding majority of whites in Kentucky. Fee wanted slavery abolished because he thought that owning a man or placing oneself above another in any form was a sin against God's law. This higher authority was what ruled Fee's thinking and would cause a rift between Free and Clay in the late 1850s.

In 1854 Clay convinced Fee to move to Madison County to start a school to educate the youth of the area by giving him a tract of land. Fee finally relented and brought missionary friends that he had met through the American Missionary Association (AMA) with him. Many of these missionaries were Oberlin graduates and were just as radical in their thinking on race as Fee. Fee's efforts in Madison and Rockcastle counties were met with great resistance by local slaveholders. He and his men were often harassed and mobbed, and asked to leave, but they continued to persevere in their mission to end slavery in the Bluegrass state.

In 1855 Fee started Berea school. With John A.R. Rogers, who came to Berea in 1858, the school started to flourish, probably in large part to it being one of the only schools in the area. The school would be short lived though as in the aftermath of John Brown's militant raid at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, the Bereans were forced to leave the state. Many proslavery men in the area believed that Fee and his fellow missionaries were possibly just radical enough to attempt a Brown-like action. While Fee had been asked to leave the state before, the stakes after Brown's raid were too high to remain in Kentucky. He established residence in Cincinnati and waited for the opportunity to return. Fee's chance came in 1863 when Union Camp Nelson was opened in Jessamine County, Kentucky. The army base quickly was transformed into a recruiting and training center for African American soldiers and Fee was there to help their families and provide an education to many of these former slaves.

Fee continued his work at Camp Nelson until the war ended, when he returned to Berea and restarted the school, and eventually the college that is there to this day. Fee was finally able to fully offer his services of an anti-prejudice, anti-caste, integrated education to youth from across the area.

Fee would live until 1901. Fortunately he would not have to witness the "Day Law" in 1904 that legally segregated Berea's campus until 1950. But, unfortunately, Fee has largely been forgotten outside of Berea and the commonwealth of Kentucky. His story is one of love for his fellowman regardless of color or social position. He worked diligently so that the principles of the Declaration of Independence could be realized and expressed by everyone. Unlike other abolitionists that sought an end of slavery from the usually friendly confines of the Northern states, Fee worked to end slavery in a slave state. His belief in the equality of man was just as strong as John Brown's (a very rare thing for a white man to express in the mid nineteenth-century), but his tactics for ending slavery could not have differed more.

I think that everyone would benefit from learning about this courageous man that predated the much more famous Gandhi and King. The principles that he espoused are what we aspire to today, but were considered radical in his times. By standing to his convictions and trusting in God he made a difference in the lives of many people...which is another attribute that many of us aspire to today.

No comments:

Post a Comment