BEREA — As part of its Founders' Day Convocation on Thursday, Berea College presented the John G. Fee Award to the grandchildren of Kirke Smith.
For the past several years, the award has been used to honor black alums of Berea who have furthered the vision of college founder John G. Fee, who sought educational access for all people.
Smith graduated from Berea College in 1894 and was the first dean of education at the Lincoln Institute, one of the few black schools in the state that offered more than a vocational education. Smith worked for the Lincoln Institute from 1908 to 1933. The institute served as Berea College's black counterpart after the state required the segregation of Berea College in 1908.
Five of Smith's grandchildren were present to accept the award from Berea College President Larry Shinn in Phelps Stokes Chapel.
One of Smith's grandsons, Alvin M. Seals, spoke at the convocation. Seals, a professor at Kentucky State University, is writing a book about Smith and the Lincoln Institute. He said the Lincoln Institute was unique for black schools because it supported a classical curriculum along with an industrial education.
"They did this somewhat in defiance of the expectations of the members of greater society, Kentucky and the nation," he told the crowd. In 1926, the Lincoln Institute began to have financial problems, and by the onset of the Great Depression, the school's future was in serious jeopardy. In 1933, a committee considered closing Lincoln but ended up converting the school to a trade school, firing the academic staff, including Kirke Smith, Seals said.
"Within two years, he died, and we think he died of a broken heart," Seals said. "But this award helps to heal the pain that he experienced in spirit. His spirit now is revived again."
Berea College staff member Tammy Clemons said Smith was chosen for the award because he demonstrated how one person could share his education with others. She said Berea also appreciated that so many members of Smith's family became educators. In fact, the family said, a member of the Smith family has been teaching in Kentucky schools since 1890.
"It's amazing how that ripple effect beyond a single person's education continues," Clemons said.
Seals' twin brother, Tay, said he was proud to receive the award, along with other family members, on behalf of his grandfather.
"It's really quite an honor," Tay Seals said.
The event concluded with a choral performance of a hymn that left the crowd clapping and singing. "Kirke Smith will be with us all," Shinn said.