Intolerance Challenges Berea Ideals

Aug 1, 2011

The small, central Kentucky town of Berea has long had a reputation as a progressive community.  Berea College was among the first southern schools to open its doors to women and African Americans. But as WEKU’S Ron Smith reports, recent intolerance raises questions about the town’s commitment to its ideals.

A social experiment put in motion by abolitionist John G. Fee in the 1850’s called for racial integration in the tiny central Kentucky town of Berea. Threats, the Civil War, and Kentucky’s infamous Day Law which re-segregated education, sidetracked progress. But Berea’s place in history is secure. For some current residents, no other town will do.

“I think this is probably greatest place on earth to live”, said city councilman Truman Fields.                   

Some residents even compare Berea to the mythical, trouble-free T-V town, Mayberry. With its low crime rate, growing manufacturing base, emphasis on the arts and culture, and the presence of a renowned liberal arts college, Berea is attractive. But to be frank, Berea is no Mayberry.  It’s a real town populated by real people with real problems. Still, Berea’s utopian heritage was behind Shane Barton’s decision to relocate from Virginia.

“I believed the story. But one thing that we all tend to learn later in life is that many things in history are romanticized, everything from the native American experience to the post-colonial experience is romanticized, and we kind of re-visit our history and tend to make it adapt to what we want to hear,” said Barton.

Barton, who is white, and his Nigeria-born wife Adanma, chose to settle in Berea because of its history and the prospects of raising an interracial family in an accepting, diverse community. The reality hasn’t lived up to expectations.

“We’ve been confronted in restaurants and been told our relationship is ungodly, or wrong, or those poor children,” Barton went on.

Other interracial couples in Berea say they’ve also been on the receiving end of unwelcome stares and worse. Just a few weeks ago vehicles belonging to a white woman and her black boyfriend were spray painted with racial slurs. 

Simultaneously, there was another challenge to Berea’s image of tolerance and inclusion. City Council is considering the creation of a human rights commission. Some residents want it to battle discrimination based on sexual orientation. The issue has divided the community. Adam Walker is the openly gay owner of Berea Coffee and Tea.  Although he’s disturbed by the sometimes negative tone of the debate, Walker finds it refreshing people are expressing their real feelings.

“I think what happens a lot in Berea is you sort of get used to it being, nobody ever wants to talk about it so it becomes sort of a non-issue, and then things like the fairness issue come up or the spray painting incident then people become vocal,” said Walker.

From that outspokenness can come understanding.  Union Church pastor Kent Gilbert likes to think of the current discord as a gift wrapped in a problem, another opportunity for Berea to live up to its legacy.

“We’re not going to be a town that tolerates racism. We’re not going to be a town that kind of treatment of anybody, white or black, young or old, male or female, straight or gay, we’re not going to be that kind of town. That’s not how we build a good community,” asserted Gilbert.

From its beginning, Berea established a reputation for ambitious social change. Sometimes forgotten is a history of resistance to that change.