Phi Delta Society. 1903-1904. Berea College. Department of Special Collections. Hutchins Library. Berea College
Phi Delta Society. 1903-1904. Berea College. Department of Special Collections. Hutchins Library. Berea College

Founded in 1867, the Phi Delta Society was Berea‘s oldest campus organization. Phi Delta was soon flanked by The Women’s Literary Society. (The Society was also known as Aeolian, and later, Orio before becoming Utile Dolce in 1900.) By 1894, another rival society for men, Alpha Zeda, was on the scene. Like their off-campus counterparts, collegiate societies fostered the arts of reading, writing, and speaking. They made for comradeship, for friendly banter and good humor, but they also promised intellectual stimulation, some opportunities for genuine give-and-take. If the societies stood for values that were inward-looking or personal, they also stood for the more assertive, outward-looking conviction that eloquence had the power to renew and reshape public life.

For about a decade after 1887, which is when the Kentucky Inter-Collegiate Oratorical Association was established, the male student-orator enjoyed a brief but golden age as civic hero. Each spring, when the representatives from Kentucky University, State College, Georgetown, Centre, and Central University (the institutional forerunner of EKU) mounted the platform to compete for honors, a good deal of cheering, ribbons, and fanfare went with them. And to judge from the local press coverage, at any rate, whether the contests were staged in Lexington, Danville or Georgetown, the general public was on hand to swell the crowd of enthusiastic well-wishers. Not surprisingly, however, Phi Delta and Alpha Zeda never participated in these festivities. No doubt the costs involved were a factor — President Frost was frugal and had reason to be — but the politics of Jim Crow was decisive in this case, just as it was in all other forms of intercollegiate competition. While teams from Kentucky Wesleyan or Campbellsville might come to Berea to play football, for instance, Berea’s teams always stayed home.

Kolan T. Morlerock’s Taking the Town: Collegiate and Community Culture in the Bluegrass, 1880-1917 (University Press of Kentucky, 2008) describes the pervasive oratorical culture in which these literary societies flourished here in central Kentucky. He also documents their subsequent decline, the way student dramatic clubs replaced the literary societies in the public’s esteem, reflecting the dawning of a new “culture of professionalism.”

On oratory’s checkered history as an educational ideal, see Bruce A. Kimball, Orators and Philosophers: A History of the Idea of Liberal Education (College Entrance Examination Board, 1995). On Berea, see Elizabeth S. Peck and Emily Ann Smith, Berea’s First 125 Years, 1855-1980 (University Press of Kentucky, 1982) and Shannon Wilson, Berea College: An Illustrated History (University Press of Kentucky, 2006).

On African-American life, see Marion B. Lucas and George C. Wright, A History of Blacks in Kentucky, 2 volumes (Kentucky Historical Society, 1992).


Contact Professor Richard Angelo for more information