Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Special Edition by this year’s Craft Archive Fellowship cohort, organized in collaboration with the Center for Craft in support of new work by emerging and established researchers in the field, with a focus on underrepresented and non-dominant histories.
In the struggle for African-American education, historically Black colleges like Howard, Hampton, and Tuskegee readily come to mind. These schools were key sites during the Jim Crow era, credited with producing some of our nation’s greatest Black minds.
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Tucked away on 444 acres in Simpsonville, Kentucky, the little-known Lincoln Institute (now the Whitney M. Young, Jr. Job Corps Center) fought for African-American education on the collegiate level and in learning trades or “industrial education,” such as woodworking and blacksmithing, and domestic arts (like sewing and cooking) that are crafts in their own right.
Berea College established Lincoln Institute in 1911. The relationship between the schools, and their place in Kentucky’s Black craft history, is a convoluted story — one marked by racism, “benevolent” White donors, and Black educators determined to equip Black youth with skills in industrial trades.
It Begins With Berea
Founded by abolitionist minister John G. Fee, Berea College opened in 1855 as the first coeducational and interracial college in the South. As with Hampton (1868) and Tuskegee (1881), manual labor formed the core of a Berea education.
This focus stemmed from the founders’ belief that “education cannot be gathered primarily from books” and that students’ hands “must be trained to obey the mind and the eye to distinguish between things which differ.”
The earliest college catalogue never mentioned industrial education, but the 1889–1890 edition proclaimed that Berea’s “students engage in manual labor to a large extent,” that “plans for Industrial training in the line of trades are under discussion,” and that “an encouraging beginning has been made this year with our printing press.” This training preceded Berea’s Student Craft program, founded in 1893. Not neglecting women, the 1892 catalogue noted that “young ladies also receive special instructions in the making and repairing of garments.”
Students played active roles in campus life, from bricklaying to farming, and at the request of a wealthy donor, they helped build the Phelps Stokes Chapel. According to former Berea art professor Robert Piper Boyce, with over 30,000 feet of timber sourced from Berea’s forests, “students employed in the Woodworking department produced all the dressed interior woodwork” (Building a College: An Architectural History of Berea College).
Since Black and White students attended in roughly equal numbers, Black craftspeople are a significant part of Berea’s history. But their stories are hard to find. Early records list “trade course” offerings like printing and carpentry and “industrial training” like cooking and sewing. Sometimes, the yellowing pages detail student enrollment, categorizing students by race but rarely by name.
The college’s Teaching Archive Collection, housed at the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center, contains material artifacts like textiles and furniture. Some objects, like baskets and pottery — perhaps representative of Black or Indigenous crafts traditions — are not identified by student or cultural origins.
Given the college’s focus on interracial education and its failure to document specific Black craftspersons over time, evidence of Black crafts can be hard to locate. As Tim Binkley, head of Special Collections and Archives, notes, “direct links to documentation at the intersection of Berea crafts and African Americans pre-1950 are not plentiful or very obvious.” This presents a conundrum for researchers. But it makes researching Berea and Lincoln Institute even more important to understand Black craft traditions.
The Road to Lincoln: The Day Law Ousts Black Students
Berea’s commitment to interracial education remained intact until 1904, when the Kentucky legislature passed the Day Law, prohibiting Black and White people from attending school together. The law forced Black students out, and Berea’s Trustees set out to open a separate school for them.
The Lincoln Worker, a publication of the new school, described Lincoln Institute as “a child of Berea” and “the only endowed school for negroes in Kentucky.” Then-Berea College President William Goodell Frost looked to Berea and Hampton Institute (present-day Hampton University) as models. He wanted to emphasize industrial education, particularly bricklaying, carpentry (woodworking), and blacksmithing. The institute would also house a “normal school” to train a new generation of teachers.
Granted, Frost protested the Day Law and vigorously raised funds for Lincoln Institute, successfully securing a $200 matching grant from Andrew Carnegie. But Frost and other supporters also reflected a historical reality that is too often downplayed: Though advocates for the Institute, they also expressed anti-Black ideologies.
Addressing a crowd of potential Black donors in Louisville, Frost stated his intentions for the school. The Lincoln Worker, written by White and Black supporters and printed by Berea College, reported on the event. Though it’s not clear whether Frost uttered these words or the writers editorialized, their commentary on the capabilities of Black people is unmistakable:
“What the colored people need more than anything else is to have uplift that will benefit all the members of their race. Justly, or unjustly, every colored man is blamed more or less for the faults and shortcomings of every other colored man. We all know that there is a larger proportion of colored people who are unfortunate or criminal than there ought to be, and that the proportion of those who are prosperous and well-to-do is a great deal too small.”
Despite Frost and other White (and even some Black) supporters holding unfounded racist beliefs, Lincoln Institute hired a Black architect as well as several Black educators and skilled tradespersons to continue Black craft tradition.
Black Educators Build: Geo T. Corderey and Seaton Baldwin
Industrial training grounded the vision of Lincoln Institute from the beginning. The institute’s Board of Trustees hired Hampton Institute graduate Geo T. Corderey as the superintendent of woodwork. He assisted in building repairs and taught carpentry when the school opened. Seaton Baldwin, a graduate of the Agricultural and Mechanical College (now North Carolina A&T State University), served as superintendent of power, heat, and water and taught ironworking. Together, they shaped the school and helped develop what we can acknowledge today as fine craft instruction.
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Before Lincoln opened, Corderey and Baldwin worked on buildings and infrastructure to ensure that the facilities would be fully operational. Baldwin coordinated with the building contractor to install the power and heat plant for the campus. Corderey also took part in construction by rebuilding the barns that would house horses and cattle. Experts in their fields, the two men utilized their skills to make Lincoln Institute self-sufficient.
Lincoln Institute’s Crafts Curricula
Lincoln Institute provided crafts curricula that incorporated woodworking, ironworking, dressmaking, cooking, and more. The carpentry curriculum showcased fine woodworking in the course descriptions. The first year required training in mechanical drawing, while the second year focused on joinery and building construction. This training indicates the high level of craft expertise that the teachers maintained and passed on to students.
Laying the Groundwork
When Lincoln Institute opened in 1912, it offered Black students an education that most of the country prohibited. By the 1930s, the school fell into financial hardship due to the Great Depression. The hardships continued into the 1940s, and Lincoln was deeded to the state and became a high school.
Black craft at Berea College and Lincoln Institute are examples of the underrepresented figures in American society and the development and continuation of craft traditions. It is worth noting that Lincoln emerged only 47 years after enslavement. The craft traditions that its early students learned were very possibly traditions within enslaved communities. This history must be further researched to truly understand the contributions and impact of Black people in craft traditions.