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Madison County origins, segregation explored
By Walter Lesczynski   - 04/17/2008

The Eastern Progress

More Info on This Book: Berea and Madison County

Students looking for a few extra credit points this week received something else along with it - stories about the slavery, lynching and discrimination that occurred in their own backyard.

Jackie Burnside, professor of history at Berea College, presented a history of African-Americans in Madison County this week in the Crabbe Library.

The talk, and accompanying PowerPoint, was drawn largely from her book Berea and Madison County, published by Arcadia Press.

"I grew up in Berea, spent my whole life here and I never heard of any of this," said senior Jaclyn Ruebsam, a social work major from Berea. "I thought it was amazing that never once did a teacher tell me about this. I don't think I ever even had a black teacher."

Although Eastern students might think of Richmond as a quaint, typical small town, its story is not without dark chapters.

"As late as the 1870s, there were well-documented lynchings at Madison County Courthouse downtown," Burnside said.

The hangings, Burnside said, were terrorist tactics employed by white supremacists intending to coerce observation of Jim Crow laws.

Only 12 miles away, Berea had dramatically lower incidences of racial violence and lynching.

Burnside said she believes this may be because many black soldiers settled there after the Civil War, and still had their weapons, thus making them less vulnerable targets.

Many students in the audience were shocked to learn about the lynching, but the faculty who organized the talk was hoping for just such an awakening.

"People have a way of thinking 'nothing happens' where they live," said Carolyn Dupont, a history professor at Eastern. "They often don't realize that things which happen nationally also happen locally."

Dupont encouraged her students to attend the talk for two reasons: "Uncovering a hidden history of African-Americans, and gaining an appreciation of local history."

Burnside made a point of highlighting the differences between Richmond and Berea.

And students in the audience agreed with Burnside that, while both are college towns of close proximity, they feature very different cultures and atmospheres.

"Berea was a hundred years ahead of its time," said Burnside. "It evolved as an integrated community, quite different from Richmond. It's interesting that while in the same county, these very different cultures both had their origins in a slave-holding state."

Burnside said that Berea College was an integrated school until 1904 when Carl Day, after learning of the bi-racial learning environment, proposed a segregation bill.

The bill forced all schools, even private institutions such as Berea College, to operate on a segregated basis.

The bill had the immediate effect of excluding 174 black students in the midst of their degrees, and was appealed up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The court upheld the law and it remained in effect until 1954.

Burnside's book is part of the Black America series, which focuses on topics of regional interest.

Many of the photographs and anecdotes were obtained by word of mouth.

Joyce Clay provided numerous family photos, as did the EKU and Berea College archives.

Despite books and even classes on the subject, Burnside said oral tradition remains vital to keeping local history alive.

"As older generations pass on, we're here to keep telling the stories," she said.

Buy It Now: Berea and Madison County $19.99

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