By Hannah McCandless
Hannah is a second year graduate student in the Women’s History Program at Sarah Lawrence College.
Having just returned from a period of exile in Ohio, Matilda Hamilton Fee was putting together the frame of a bed in her home when she heard the firing of cannons. Subjected to nearly four years without a house, moving from place to place in Ohio with her family, Matilda finally came home. The decision, spurred by Matilda and her husband John’s ongoing religious passion for building a coeducational and integrated school, was fraught with danger. In the heart of Eastern Kentucky, Berea College sat in a utopian settlement existing inside a donation of land from Cassius M. Clay. This land became the foundation of what is now a bustling college and small town. Situated in the hills of Madison County, Berea was just far enough away from any big cities to feel rural, but close enough to Lexington, Kentucky to hear the battles of the Civil War as they moved south.
Matilda and her family fled Madison County in 1860 when her husband, Rev. John G. Fee, had been chased by a mob of 62 men out of Kentucky. A non-denominational Christian family with abolitionist values, the Fees started the long process of building Berea College from the ground up in 1853. By 1855, a small church building was raised and would be used for church services and school lessons. Initially opened as a school for primary through postsecondary education, the small schoolhouse was packed with a small and newly flourishing community. Today, the school stands as a haven for liberal arts education in Kentucky that is both high quality and free to those who attend the school. It’s history and founding are of great significance as it was the first college in the state of Kentucky, as well as the first college in the regional south, to allow black and white, female and male students to be educated together.
Though Matilda Hamilton Fee was one half of the couple and team that took Berea College from a dream to a reality, she is wildly under written about in the school’s history and the town’s history. Born to the Hamiltons, a historically Quaker family, in 1824 in Bracken County, Kentucky, Matilda was grew up to convert to Christianity. Her religious convictions were the foundation for everything she did and believed. Her commitment to building community was seen in everything she did. From active involvement in the church and Women’s Temperance Union, to her organization of the community to clean up the cemetery and to shut down the local saloon, to her role as both a teacher and administrator within the school, Matilda was a powerhouse of a woman. Her work as the President of the first Ladies Board of Care, for example. stands out as one contribution to the schooling of women which was likely used by other schools moving forward.
Though often open about her opinions, she was soft spoken and feminine – many spoke highly of her kindness, gentle demeanor, and her flower garden as indicators of her femininity after her passing. Unfortunately, this correct but limited perception of her leaves much of Matilda’s courageous side in the dark. On one occasion, John was approached and surrounded by men on horseback with the intention of harming him. Matilda, a skillful rider, mounted a horse and blocked the men from hurting her husband numerous times before a rock was thrown at John. Though no major injuries came of this, and a judge ordered in the favor of John Fee on the grounds of free speech, the experience is one of many where Matilda pulls herself out of a traditionally feminine role and puts herself in harm’s way in order to protect her husband, family, and mission.
In another instance, Matilda was forced to flee with her family over the Ohio River in the middle of winter, during which time she lost one of her sons to illness brought on by the cold. Later, when she was finally able to return to Berea, she came with just her and one of her sons. They returned while the Civil War raged on and Matilda ended up being separated from her husband and in Confederate occupied land for ten weeks. When challenged on her views about education and integration by a Confederate soldier, she responded with, “…as for politics, we are for the Union, and believe slavery is wrong, and that the rebels are fighting for a lost cause.” This is merely a glimpse into one instance of her bravery because these instances for her were more common than not.
Matilda’s bravery is remembered most by her husband and is especially documented in his autobiography. Matilda did not leave much written word behind, forcing this historian to rely heavily on the words of her peers, which often painted a picture of a doting wife. Matilda was a wonderful wife and mother, and those roles were clearly important to her, but her role as a teacher and activist and rebel are overshadowed by a skewed history. A common saying I heard growing up was some variation of, “Behind every great man is a great woman.” I would argue that in the case of the Fees, and in countless other families, next to every great man stands an equally great woman. Matilda and John were a team. I encourage you to stop looking for the shadow of a man who has done great things and start looking for the partner standing next to him, because strength in the Fee home and mission laid within the strength of a team.