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Berea College. Encyclopedia of American Folklore

Private liberal arts college founded by abolitionists in Kentucky in 1855. Berea College makes use of folk culture in addressing the intellectual, social, and spiritual needs of the people of Americas Southern Highlands. Christianity provides the unifying belief at Berea, and folk culture provides a basis for different people to collaborate with one another, each enriching the life of the other. There were also economic considerations in the founding of Berea College. Early emphasis was on the handcrafts of America’s Southern Highlands, from which the college takes 80 percent of its students. Weaving and woodworking were developed as student “industries” through which some students could earn their college expenses. Broomcraft, pottery, and wrought iron were added later, along with many other types of work opportunities. Enrollment is limited to those from low-income situations, no students pay tuition, and all students are required to contract for a labor assignment. The college even has a dean of labor. A Homespun Fair, Appalachia’s first craft fair and model for many others, ran concurrendy with commencement in 1896 and is portrayed in a PWA (Public Works of Art)-sponsored mural by Frank Long in the Berea post office. The college became instrumental in marketing efforts and in the formation of the Southern Highland Handicraft Guild in 1928–1929 and the Kentucky Guild of Artists and Craftsmen in 1961. Members of Berea College’s Music Department took an early interest in ballads and regional music. Cecil Sharp (1859–1924), the English collector, visited the campus in 1916 and 1917 while collecting English ballads and folksongs in the United States. The Mountain Collection of the Hutchins Library at Berea College has extensive material on Appalachian music. Recent additions of sound archives of traditional music from field and commercial recordings and radio programs dating to the early days of country music are in the process of being made available to scholars and the public. Interest in other folk arts, especially dance, developed in cooperation with the Council of Southern Mountain Workers and the University of Kentucky in a program that supported itinerant recreation leaders. In 1936 Berea College undertook full responsibility for Recreation Extension, and the Mountain Folk Festival was organized. Christmas Country Dance School was opened in 1938, and the Berea College Country Dancers, a performing troupe, was organized in the same year. The college dancers feature Kentucky Set Running, a democratic, peasant, or “country” dance from 16th-century Britain. The dance was well preserved in eastern Kentucky and other Appalachian communities from whence it evolved into the American square dance. Leonard Roberts, a 1939 graduate of Berea College, did pioneering work in contextual collecting of eastern Kentucky folktales, riddles, and songs. A robust craft industry has grown up in the city surrounding the college, and the State Legislature of the Commonwealth of Kentucky passed a joint resolution in 1988 designating Berea as the “folk arts and crafts capital of Kentucky.” John M.Ramsay


Alvic, Phylis. 1993. Weavers of the Southern Highlands: Berea. Murray, KY: Published by the author. Barker, Garry. 1991. The Handcraft Revival in Southern Appalachia, 1930–1990. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press. Peck, Elizabeth Sinclair. 1982. Berea’s First 125 Years, 1855–1980. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

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