21 NOVEMBER 2003


“Stephens-Lee was and still remains in the hearts of a lot of people as one of the greatest things that ever happened in Asheville for black people.”[1]  Stephens-Lee High School served for many years as a symbol of pride for the African American community; however, in 1965, the Asheville School Board closed the school in the name of integration.   By the time Asheville fully integrated, the African American community found that several of their community schools had been swept away by social changes which were supposed to help them.  Integration effectively ended a century of educational heritage which the black community called their own.

The study of integration and its affects spans from the time of the first Brown v. Board of education of Topeka decision to today.  Many scholarly works, particularly earlier ones, have focused on the response of the Southern states.  Hubert Humphrey scrutinized varying ways in which the leaders of these states defied the federal court.[2]  Though the response to Brown was certainly not homogenous in the South, C. Vann Woodward summed up the overall response when he stated that “all over the South, the lights of reason and tolerance and moderation began to go out under the resistance demand of conformity.”[3]

Many parts of the South succeeded in delaying integration en masse for over a decade.[4]   Betsy Levin and William Hawley studied the long duration of desegregation and divided the phenomenon into three periods of implementation.  From 1955 to 1963, resistance was at a fever pitch and many states and governors openly resisted the court’s call for integration.  Southern political pressure also silenced any presidential or congressional maneuvers to speed up the process.  In the second period, 1963 to 1967, African Americans moved from silent hope to activism and sparked a new wave of litigation.  Little progress transpired, however,  as cases were retried again and again in the courts. Even when decisions were made, little enforcement occurred.  Only after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Supreme Court’s involvement in 1968 did the final stage and the movement toward full integration begin.[5]

Within the past decade, research has shifted from the widespread response of the South as a whole to specific case studies on state and local levels.[6]  In the past five years, local interest from surrounding universities and the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill ignited a flurry of research activity focused on Asheville and its experience with integration.  These works have looked more at individual aspects of integration.  These range from a broad look at the span of the public school system in Asheville, by W. H. Plemmons, to Kristina Taylor’s research on the racial clashes at a single school.[7]

Most recently, researchers have turned their attention to the African American community’s perception of integration.  The Voices of Asheville Collection of the University of North Carolina at Asheville and the Southern Oral History Program at the University of Chapel Hill have both worked diligently to gain the black community’s perspective.  This community suffered and lost much in the process of integration and many now wonder if what was lost was worth what  has been gained.  Asheville City Schools also recently launched a project searching for an objective look into its own past.  As a result, interns from these universities pulled together both primary and secondary sources on Asheville’s integration.  One of the papers they discovered focused on Stephens-Lee High School.  Using primarily oral histories, Sarah Ramirez delved into the school’s character.[8]  Stephens-Lee stood as the epicenter of the black community’s rich educational history.   The closure of that school as a direct result of integration and its eventual destruction marked the end of a unique and valuable heritage.  This paper has attempted to present several aspects of this heritage to better understand the importance and means of its demise as it became absorbed into the integrated school system.

The heritage of African American education spans back to the beginning of public education in Asheville and beyond.  Before the Civil War, North Carolina slaves and free blacks alike depended on philanthropic individuals and organizations to provide what little education they received.  The freedom, which emancipation brought, came with little increase in educational opportunity.  The Freedman’s Bureau offered some education for black people during its short tenure in the state, though it never organized any type of mass education for the newly freed people.  Instead, black people found themselves at the mercy of churches and organizations for their sorely needed education. [9]

Asheville, North Carolina, proved no different.  Missionary schools and religious organizations played the only significant role in the education of black people.  Trinity Chapel conducted the first known official black education in Western North Carolina 1865.  Gen. and Mrs. James S. Martin gave religious instruction to freed blacks there.[10]  After 1870, several individuals and churches opened schools in Asheville for African Americans.  A. L. Chapman, a woman from Rochester, N.Y., began a school in the basement of an Episcopal church.  Two churches, Calvary Presbyterian Church and St. Matthias Episcopal, started schools around the same time.[11]

In 1875, a white couple from New York City began a school in a livery stable near Beaucatcher Mountain which later became the first accredited high school for black people in the Asheville area.  Mr. and Mrs. L. M. Pease operated the school, charging no tuition, until failing health caused them to donate the school to the Woman’s Home Missionary Society.  Within the first year, enrollment reached 200 with as much as three generations, including married couples, in the first grade.  In 1897, a home for girls was built by the school and named Allen High School in honor of Marriage Allen, who helped fund the project.  It focused on the education of girls, although boys attended as well.  In 1924, it became a state accredited high school.[12]

Public education for both white and black people came late to Asheville.  During the 1870's, a revival in public education swept across the state.  The state legislature passed a bill allowing communities to levy taxes to supplement state funding for schools; however, Asheville tarried behind other cities in the state in implementing publicly funded education.  The ruling elite in Asheville saw no need for public education since private schools were readily available for those who could afford them.  For African Americans in particular, many believed that it was up to the federal government to provide for their educational needs.  The individual citizen should not be burdened with extra taxes to ensure education for all.[13]

The wealthy thwarted public education in Asheville in the beginning.  On April 30, 1887, the city’s aldermen resolved to have an election on the implementation of a tax for the purpose of organizing and maintaining a municipal school system.  Though the election had been set for the fifteenth of June, the actual election did not happen until July due to the inability to secure a registrar for the election.  Six prominent men refused the post.[14]  Finally, an ex-congressman and U.S. Ambassador to Persia brought money and influence to the case for public education.  Hon. Richmond Pearson campaigned for the black vote by promising to place a black man on the school committee.[15]

With the election, African American citizens produced one of their finest moments as a community by helping to establish not only their own public education, but that of the entire city.  With their votes, the tax for public education passed by an extremely narrow margin.[16]  As promised, Isaac Dickson was among the newly appointed six-member school board and was probably the first African American in the United States to serve on a school board.[17]  Asheville earned this milestone thanks in part to support of the black community.

The school system in Asheville started as a segregated system, as did most of the public school systems throughout the South.  North Carolina’s Constitution, ratified after the Civil War in 1868, required the state to provide free education to all children.  Though the constitution required “a general and uniform” system, it said nothing about whether this was to be done separately by race or together.  The Asheville system, however, began well after an amendment to the constitution in 1875 set up the segregated system which educated white people, black people, and Native Americans separately.[18]

The way the state funded public education also hindered black education.  In the early years of public education, the state left the funding of public schools to the counties, which would often exhaust their money in the mere building of schools.  The state later made funds available for building schools, but it was not until 1910 that black schools began receiving regular funding from the state.  In 1911, the state created the Division of Negro education, of which Nathan C. Newbold became the first director.[19]

Disparities between white and black education began immediately.  Soon after the opening of school, a lack of funds caused the school committee to threaten to close the schools earlier than the target date of 14 June unless volunteer funding could be secured to keep them in operation.  Outside funding was found for the white schools, yet the board required that black teachers sacrifice half of their salary to keep the black school open.  Due to teachers’ personal sacrifices, the black school remained open the entire school year.[20]

Despite a segregated and unequal school system which set odds against them, the African American community built an educational heritage that became quite unique.  Their progress could not be told without reference to its greatest tragedy.  The African American community bore the worst school related disaster in Asheville’s history upon its shoulders.  On 16 November 1917, Catholic Hill School, which stood very close to Stephens-Lee High School’s future location, caught fire while school was in session.  The fire began in the boiler room and spread very quickly, giving the children little time to evacuate.[21]  Seven children died in the blaze.[22]  A newspaper editorial the following day pointed out that the fire was “all the more tragic when we dwell on the fact that most, if not all of the families thus affected, are Negroes of the poorer class to whom small comfort can be given.”[23]

Out of the ashes of Catholic Hill School, the pinnacle of African American education in Asheville arose.  Under the administration of W.L. Brooker as superintendent, the Asheville school system launched an aggressive building campaign.  In April, 1921, the citizens of Asheville approved the use of bonds for the building of public schools.  The first building to be completed under the bonds was a new nineteen room building to replace Catholic Hill School.[24]  Fortunately for the black community, the school system chose a location near the destroyed school which allowed its spirit to continue in some respect.[25]  The new school received the name of Stephens-Lee School in honor of George Stephens, the first black principal in Asheville’s school system, and Walter S. Lee.[26]  Grades were added in the next few years and, in 1924, the first fully accredited students graduated from the new school.[27]

In the following decades, Stephens-Lee became the embodiment of the rich educational and cultural heritage of Asheville’s black community.  It garnered a reputation in the surrounding area and throughout the state for its educational excellence.  It did so, however, as the underprivileged member of a segregated system.  Even decades after the Jim Crow system took root in the South, North Carolina showed little progress towards ensuring equal education for African Americans.  According to the 1950 census, black people made up 47 percent of un-educated North Carolinians though they only made up a quarter of the population.[28]  Even prior to the Brown v. Board of education of Topeka decision, a North Carolina court noted in Blue v. Durham Board of education that the environments of black schools were unequal to white schools and thus created a disadvantage.[29]

Stephens-Lee students suffered from these disadvantages as well.  For instance, these students rarely received new school books.  Instead, the books issued to these students were mostly discontinued ones from the white schools.  Regardless, students paid rent for them.  Lettie Polite, a 1947 graduate of Stephens-Lee, remembered her father bought new books for her at a book store so she would not be forced to use “those old ragged dirty books.”[30]  The segregated library for African American students in Asheville also proved inadequate for students to complete their assignments.[31]

These inequalities certainly communicated to these children that they were somehow second hand pupils; yet, it did not stop there.  Though Stephens-Lee High School certainly looked impressive enough to garner the nickname, “Castle on the Hill,” the school suffered from severe overcrowding and other interior problems.  In the late 1950s, a ten member committee toured the schools and reported their findings to the school board.  Their report on Stephens-Lee High School found major shortcomings.  At that time, five hundred and ninety-three students attended the high school, yet the only lunchroom in the school had a maximum capacity of fifty students.  The school contained only one bathroom for each sex and an outdated science laboratory at the point of being non-functional.[32]  A student committee, lead by student council president James Ferguson, made similar findings in 1960 when they surveyed the needs of their school and sent their findings to the board of education.[33]  Deplorable conditions, which would not be tolerated in white schools, served as these children’s place of learning.

Regardless of the conditions at Stephens-Lee, the school garnered a stellar reputation both in the community and across the country as a first class school.  In every area, from academics to athletics, students and teachers excelled.  The most popular aspect of Stephens-Lee was the high school band.[34]  Samuel Camp, a former member of the band, reminisced that “people would lean out of windows . . . when our band came down the street.”[35]  Although they donned ragged, second-hand uniforms, the band was so popular that they had to play at the very last of any parade.[36]  The band impressed audiences in Asheville and throughout the region at football games and parades throughout North Carolina and in other states.  They even had the privilege of being the first African American high school band to march down the main street of Knoxville, Tennessee.[37]  Other groups at Stephens-Lee, such as the drama department, also traveled across the region and spread the school’s first rate reputation throughout the Southeast.[38]

The soul of the school came from the education received there, which many believed  surpassed that of the white schools.  The core curriculum at Stephens-Lee consisted of English, Social Studies, Mathematics, and Science.  In this respect it matched every other school in the city; however, the intensity with which the school focused on responsibility to the community set it apart.  Freshmen looked at their community.  Field trips included touring other black schools in Asheville and studying enrollment patterns there.  Sophomores dwelt on citizenship in their country as well as the world, holding debates about types of government.  In a time when the two dominate ideologies of communism and democracy played tug of war with the world, black young people debated on them.  Instead of demonizing communism as many did at that time, students reached the conclusion that democracy served as the best form of government “though the form we have is far from perfect.”[39]  Indeed, a commitment to citizenship permeated the curriculum.  In a society which treated them unfairly, the African American community turned to education as a way to work within a democratic society.  The focus was very much on becoming self-reliant and to create  “well-balanced, socially mature individuals.”[40]

The success of Stephens-Lee as an academic institution came not only from the curriculum but from the teachers who built the curriculum and administered it daily.  The connection between pupils and faculty has played a recurring role in the memories of former students as the primary force behind their education.  Phyllis Sherrill recalled that the teachers strongly encouraged any student that had the potential to take college preparatory classes whether he or she might want to or not.  In Sherrill’s case, this prompting paid off when she received a scholarship and decided to go to Knoxville College after graduation.[41]  Lettie Polite’s teacher, Ruth Carolina, took her and her classmates on a tour of black colleges in the state since none were available in the Asheville area.[42]  Instructors often sacrificed their own time and money to promote the education of their students.

These teachers gave so much because they felt that so much was at stake.  Lucy Herring, a local educator who gained a large amount of respect in her long years of service, knew she wanted to be a teacher very early in life.  For her, it was the best way to help her people better themselves.[43]  The black community held teachers in the same regard with which they held ministers.  Mrs. Herring recalled a principal of a school she attended in her youth who motivated her to follow the teacher’s path.  “Teaching, like preaching, is a HIGH CALLING,” he said, “and we need more well-trained teachers and preachers to help lead our people out of bondage.”[44]

The African American community regarded teaching as a higher calling and required teachers to meet a high standard.  Stephens-Lee was one of the few black high schools in the state to be a member of the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools which required principles to hold a masters degree.  Most of the teachers held them as well.[45]  Due to the absence of graduate schools which accepted black students in the area, all teachers and principals either came from out of state or had to leave while getting their education.  Harriett Haith, a teacher at Stephens-Lee, noted that what might have seemed to be a curse turned out to be a blessing.  Going outside of North Carolina, usually north or west, gave these teachers an advantage.  It exposed these individuals to other cultures and ideas than those that existed locally, which helped to put them ahead of white teachers in educational advances.  They brought this experience back to the students who in turn prospered.  Mrs. Haith was the first to bring “new math,” an experimental concept in arithmetic which she learned in college, to Asheville.  At the time, none of the white teachers had ever heard of it, but within a few years it was standard curriculum.[46]  Teachers also continued their education throughout their career.  Principals of Stephens-Lee, such as Albert Manley and Frank Toliver, pushed heavily for progressive education.  Professors from Columbia University in New York routinely came to Stephens-Lee to instruct the faculty on various subjects.[47]

Teachers also made themselves part of the community.  This, perhaps, was the greatest contribution they made and the one most often remembered by former students.  The entire faculty not only knew each child in their classroom but often knew their parents as well.  Students recall this as being very important.  It created a sense of community inside the school which helped buffer students from the unfair realities of segregation.  “I think we knew that it was segregated,” recalled Norma Scott Baynes, a graduate of Stephens-Lee, “but we had such togetherness.”[48]  This closeness also created a nurturing atmosphere which gave students a sense of self-worth and prepared them for success.  Everette Parrish stated that “we had something instilled in us that was unusual . . . we didn’t feel inferior to anybody.”[49]

African American teachers brought much to their students, yet they did so in as much of a segregated system as their pupils endured.  Lucy S. Herring held a unique position in Asheville as being the first black person to serve in the administrative offices of the Asheville Board of education.  In her memoirs, she recounted how Asheville had a racial divide between the teachers, which impeded educational progress.  Fortunately, this broke down somewhat over time.  The changes came largely in segments under different superintendents.  Until 1934, black teachers attending city wide meetings sat in the balcony of the auditorium where they could barely hear the speaker.  Mr. Latham, who took office in 1934, immediately moved them to the main floor but kept them restricted to the back rows.  J. W. Byers made the most progressive changes of any superintendent she served under.  When he took office in 1945, he made a concerted effort to consolidate teachers and principals in meetings.  During his tenure, he conducted the first integrated meeting of school principals.[50]

Though some intermingling occurred between teachers and principals at certain times, the school system remained completely segregated and showed little sign, if any, of a move toward future voluntary integration.  Instead, outside forces motivated Asheville to move in a new direction.  In 1954, the U. S. Supreme Court made a landmark decision which sent shockwaves throughout the country.  In Brown v. Board of education of Topeka, the court invalidated the philosophy of “separate but equal,” which fueled the segregated system in the South.  The legacy of that decision greatly affected both the white and black community.

White people, who unarguably held the advantage in the segregated system, reacted in fear and moved collectively to protect the only system they knew.  Throughout the South, state and local governments moved, in varying degrees, to find ways around the decision.  This feat proved to be quite easy because the court gave no deadline, only the guideline of “all deliberate speed.”  North Carolina found interesting ways to delay integration.  At the request of the governor, the Institute of Government at the University of North Carolina presented a report in August of 1954.  In it, C.N. Paul and Albert Coats proffered three possibilities for a statewide response to Brown: resistance, whether passive or aggressive; immediate compliance; or delay with the appearance of compliance.[51]  In that same month, Governor Umstead assembled his own advisory committee.  The committee stated in their findings, called the Pearsall Plan, that the “mixing of the races forthwith in the public schools throughout the state cannot be accomplished and should not be attempted.”[52]  The plan was accepted by the governor and approved overwhelmingly by voters.  Thus, the state simply removed any responsibility for integration and placed it on the local school boards, thereby making a uniform, state-wide integration plan impossible.[53]

The fate of Asheville’s integration then rested with the city’s school board.  It’s initial response was a hopeful one.  In a school board meeting on May 12, 1955, after the Supreme Court handed down its second decision on Brown, the school board outlined its understanding of the decision.  It understood that the Supreme Court “said in effect that racial segregation in the public schools must end as soon as practical” and felt that the responsibility of finding a way to make this happen fell upon the school board itself.[54]  Without higher guidance, the school board advanced no immediate plan but merely asked for time and cooperation from the community.[55]

Later that fall, the school board further expressed the need for a patient attitude from the public and made a token move toward compliance.  It formed a fourteen member committee, made of white and black citizens, to study a plan of integration.  In the meantime, the school board decided to make no changes to the segregated system.  In a statement presented to the press, the school board offered that “its expression of willingness to obey the law - given reasonable time to solve the complex problems involved - was in itself a step in the direction of compliance.”[56]

Five years passed before Asheville took any significant action.  As other North Carolina cities, such as Greensboro and Charlotte, integrated, Asheville missed its opportunity to be noted in history as a progressive city by dragging its feet.  The city had no type of integration plan in place until 1961.  Dr. Michael Keleher, who joined the school board in 1949, stated in his personal notes that the delay should not be contributed to any type of “subterfuge” to sidestep the 1954 court decision.  “I feel that the ACSB [Asheville City School Board] has been sincere in their efforts to live up to the spirit as well as the letter of the law.”[57]   The 1961 plan spanned five years.  The first two years, 1961-63, integrated the elementary schools.  The last six grades would take three years to integrate due to the additional time necessary to prepare for construction of a new school, which would later become South French Broad.

Integration began in 1961 with the introduction of five elementary students being admitted into Newton Elementary.  However, the school board took a passive approach. Most of the five students were not school board assignments but children of a few brave parents who applied to the school board.  Also, six others who applied at the same time were denied admittance.  By 1965, the slated date of completion for the integration plan, just over 400 out of 3,000 black students attended integrated, though still predominately white, schools.  Also, no white students attended predominately black schools and the high schools remained completely segregated.[58]

Though high school students remained segregated in 1965, Stephens-Lee High became the first casualty in the African American community as a result of integration.   After the city completed South French Broad High School in 1965, students made the transition from Stephens-Lee to the new school, which remained segregated.  Some former students recalled that the board presented the case that the structure of the Stephens-Lee building was unsafe for the children.  Rev. Louis Grant, who attended both Stephens-Lee and South French Broad, recalled being told that the building was condemned.[59]  The building remained standing, however, for ten more years until it was torn down in 1975.

Thus, Stephens-Lee slipped unheralded from reality into memory.  Though there was anger among the students for being moved, the African American community continued to hope that it was all for the best.  A move into a new school campus with more adequate facilities seemed to be progress.[60]   Perhaps, they would no longer be considered second class students by the school system.  Samuel Camp expressed that, at the time, he “was hoping for the best for everybody.”[61]  This optimism throughout the community would explain the lack of protest during the transfer; yet, this hope quickly failed when the students’ request to rename the new school Stephens-Lee to keep the spirit of that old school alive was denied.[62]

Fading hope turned to determination for many in the black community.  Fueled by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, African American leaders began to push the school board for a more aggressive and fair means of integration.  Jesse Ray, speaking for the Asheville-Buncombe County Citizens’ Organization, appeared before the school board in July, 1965.  He reminded the board that the city carried the responsibility to make integration happen.[63]   The board responded in usual fashion and stated that integration was a slow process.  As Dr. Keleher pointed out later, the school board carried an obligation to satisfy the entire community and thus could not implement integration very easily.[64]

The white community of Asheville certainly did not help in this matter.  Even when the Asheville City School Board took decisive action, white people proved less than accepting of change.  In August of 1966, a maelstrom of protest occurred over the board’s attempt to integrate two elementary schools.  In that case, the board actually assigned white students to Hill Street, in which they would be the minority.  Though these white children lived within the Hill Street School boundary, the parents of these children flooded the superintendent’s office to protest the change and apply for reassignment to the Randolph School.  They orchestrated a boycott of school registration.  The group said that the distance of the school, not race, was the reason for their protest. The school board reneged on their decision and allowed these children to attend Randolph School.[65]  When asked why the board reversed its decision, Dr. Keleher responded that they “didn’t think it wise. The people were not happy.”[66]

The burden of integration thus rested upon the shoulders of the African American community and the court system remained the only avenue open to them.  In a suit filed August 19, 1966, and heard on February 24, 1969, Reuben J. Dailey and Robert L. Harrell, local attorneys, accused the school board of using a trickle integration strategy to have the appearance of compliance while continually denying many students admission.[67]  The plaintiffs asked that the Asheville City Board of education have “a complete non-racial unitary school system” in place by December 31, 1969.[68]  The suit listed thirty African American children and one white school child as plaintiffs, with seventeen adults speaking on their behalf.[69]

The court found in favor of the plaintiffs and required the Asheville City School board to implement a plan for immediate integration by December 23, 1969.[70]  What should have been a victory for the African American community became one more disappointment.  In its rush to file a new integration plan, the school board decided to close two black elementary schools, Livingston Street and Lucy B. Herring Schools.[71]  This loss cut especially deep since the black community had already lost Stephens-Lee High School in 1965 to the original desegregation plan.[72]

The black community realized that the plan only served to further erode their educational heritage.  This time, they reacted in protest.  At a January 15, 1970, city council meeting, the community presented their grievances against the new integration plan.  Much like the white parents’ protests of 1966, African Americans in Asheville felt that their children traveled too far from home under the new plan and that many of the parents could not afford to pay for transportation and lunch costs.[73] Organizations, such as the Buncombe County Community Relations Council, urged the school board to reconsider their integration plan and even drafted their own integration plans which would keep Livingston and Harrison schools open.[74]

The only African American on the school board, Dr. John P. Holt, also fought against the closing of at least Livingston School.  He pointed out to other members of the board that the retention of Livingston would significantly diminish the number of children which would have to be bused.[75] However, he faced the same dilemma as the rest of his community.  He composed a minority and people with different interests surrounded him.  When the local newspaper asked him how he felt about his position on the school board, he replied that “it is uncomfortable when you take a point to the school board you think is good for the community and you know before you get there that it will be defeated.”[76]

Indeed, the efforts of the black community proved to be of no avail.  Unlike the Randolph School incident, the school board did not back down.  Instead, the school board and the community at large seemed bewildered that the black community would have a problem with integration.  Philip N. Sales, school board chairman, regretted that the African American community and its representative organizations could not grasp the difficulty of the situation.[77]  Superintendent W. P. Griffin stated that even if Livingston and Herring schools be retained, less than one hundred black students from each school would be allowed to remain to meet a 70 percent white to 30 percent black  ratio. Therefore, he deemed it better to integrate black students into all white schools as the displacement would be less.[78]  Integration was about numbers, not community.

The Asheville school system failed to see the humanity and delicacy involved in integration both in its initial token desegregation plans and its last minute rush to comply with the courts.  Because of this, African American students found themselves pushed into predominately white schools, leaving most of their own heritage behind.  In the case of the high school, the legacy of Stephens-Lee and its predecessor, South French Broad, fell to the predominate culture of Lee Edwards High.  The school system at least changed the name of the school to Asheville High School to better reflect the combined atmosphere of the school; however, the name Lee Edwards permeated the school even after integration, such as being left engraved in granite above the entrance of the school.  For African American students, these little things served as a reminder that it wasn’t really their school and many of them protested on 29 September 1969 during the first integrated year at that school.[79]

African American students, teachers and administrators found themselves pushed into schools different from the ones they had experienced with very little preparation from the school system or even an appreciation for the difficulties they would face.  Lettie Polite could not recall any meaningful workshops being given before integration to prepare teachers, students, or parents beforehand to help them deal with their new environments.  The only help came from principals who came up with their own methods of easing the transition, such as holding Parent Teacher Association meetings to facilitate communication between black teachers and white parents.[80]

The black community needed integration to happen.  Under the segregated system, they suffered from inequalities which threatened the quality of their education; yet, they suffered the same inequality in the process of integration and the way it was handled.  O.L. Sherrill, a former teacher at Stephens-Lee and assistant principal at South French Broad and Asheville High Schools, believed that both communities would have been better served had a single grade been integrated in kindergarten and allowed to remain integrated through their senior year.[81]   The children could best work out integration by just naturally being together.  Ms. Polite agreed that the children themselves, without interference from adults, held the best chance of effectively coming together in peace.[82]

Instead, the two cultures were thrust together in the belief that the mere cohabitation in educational facilities would foster equal status and would benefit the black community.  The court and the school system both assumed this to be true, but to assume so just further denied the black community the recognition they deserved for having their own heritage.  The community felt, and continues to feel, deprived by the closing of historically black schools which have been either destroyed or converted into recreation centers, leaving many of them to believe “that’s how things are done” here in Asheville.[83]  Stephens-Lee and other black schools cultivated a legacy to be proud of.  Their disappearance left grief in the community which can only now be soothed by remembrance.

[1]Rev. Louis Grant, interview by Kelly Navies, 22 July 1998, Southern Oral History Project (hereafter known as SOHP), #4007, “Listening for a Change,” K-515, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

[2]Hubert H. Humphrey, ed., School Desegregation: Documents and Commentaries (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1964), 108.

[3]C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, 2nd rev. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1955), 167, as quoted in James McGrath Morris,  “A Chink in the Armor: The Black-Led Struggle for School Desegregation in Arlington, Virginia, and the End of Massive Resistence.”  Journal of Policy History 13, no. 3 (2001): 345.

[4]Walter G. Stephan and Joe R. Feagin, eds., School Desegregation: Past, Present and Future (New York: Plenum Press, 1980), 7.

[5]Betsy Levin and Willis D. Hawley, eds., The Courts, Social Science, and School Desegregation (New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1975), 12-35.

[6]For North Carolina’s response to the Brown v. Board decision, see Elizabeth Seay Gillespie, North Carolina Integration: The Rhetoric of Resistance, the 1860s and the 1950s Compared (Thesis, Western Carolina University, 1996).

[7]See W. H. Plemmons, “A History of the Public School System of Asheville, North Carolina,” date unknown, paper on file at Asheville City Schools Foundation (hereafter known as ACSF); and Kristina Taylor, “Brown and Black Culture: An Analysis of the 1969 Integration Crisis at Asheville High School,” date unknown, ACSF.

[8]Sarah C. Ramirez, “The Castle on the Hill: An Oral History of Asheville North Carolina’s Stephens-Lee School Community,” date unknown, ACSF.

[9]Jeffrey J. Crow, Paul D. Escott, and Flora J. Hatley, A History of African Americans in North Carolina (Raleigh: Division of Archives and History, North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, 1992), 153-154.

[10]Lenwood Davis, The Black Heritage of Western North Carolina,  Milton Ready, ed. (Asheville, N.C.: Southern Highlands Research Center of University of North Carolina at Asheville, 1980), 56.

[11]Henry Robinson, “First Negro School Started Year After Citizen,” Asheville Citizen (?), 26 January 1969, Black Highlanders Collection (hereafter known as BHC), Folder M77.10.2.4, Special Collections, D. Hiden Ramsey Library, University of North Carolina, Asheville.


[13]George Carl Brown, A History of Public education in the City of Asheville, North Carolina (Thesis, University of Maryland, 1940), 23-24.

[14]Plemmons, “A History of the Public School System,” 1-2.

[15]Ibid.; Brown, A History of Public education, 24.

[16]Lenwood, Heritage, 56.

[17]“Timeline for the Asheville City Schools,” circa 1988, ACSF, p. 1.

[18]Crow, et. al., A History of African Americans, p. 154.

[19]Ibid., 154-155.

[20]Plemmons, “History of the Public School System,” 5-6.

[21]“Death Toll at Catholic Hill School May Be Eight Children,” Asheville Citizen (?), 17 November 1917, BHC, Folder M77.10.2.4.

[22]Robinson, “First Negro School Started Year After Citizen.”

[23]Brown, A History of Public education, p. 24.

[24]Robinson, “First Negro School Started Year After Citizen.”

[25]“New School to be Ready Soon: Interior Equipment Being Placed in New Colored School on Valley Street,” Asheville Citizen (?), 1 August 1922, Newspaper File Collection, Vol. 44, File 42.29, Pack Memorial Library (hereafter known as PML), Asheville.

[26]Henry Robinson, “Stephens-Lee High School Joins City’s Old History,” Asheville Citizen-Times, 20 April 1975, PML, Vol. 44, File 42.29.

[27]Robinson, “First Negro School Started Year After Citizen.”

[28]John R. Larkins, The Negro Population of North Carolina, 1945-1955 (Raleigh: North Carolina State Board of Public Welfare, 1957), 36.  George W. McCoy Collection (hereafter known as GMC), Folder M78.1.2.5, Special Collections, D. Hiden Ramsey Library, University of North Carolina, Asheville.

[29]Crow, et. al., A History of African Americans, 165.

[30]Lettie Polite, interview by Dorothy Joynes, 4 September 1994 Voices of Asheville (hereafter known as Voices Collection), OH-VOA P65 Le, Special Collections, D. Hiden Ramsey Library, University of North Carolina, Asheville.

[31]Richard Bowman, interview by Kelly Navies, 8 July 1998, SOHP, K-513.

[32]“School Needs - Buncombe’s Five Year Plan,” newspaper insert, Asheville Citizen-Times (?), circa 1959-60, Asheville City Schools files.

[33]Lucy Herring, Strangers No More (New York: Carlton Press, Inc., 1983), 116-117.

[34]Rev. Louis Grant interview, 22 July 1998.

[35]Samuel Camp, interview by Kelly Navies, unknown date, SOHP, K-514.

[36]Ibid.; Richard Bowman interview, 8 July 1998.

[37]Samuel Camp interview, unknown date.

[38]Everette Parrish, interview by Kelly Navies, 20 July 1998, SOHP, K-519.

[39]Stephens-Lee Alumni Association, Class of 1948, Let’s Not Forget: Dedicated to the Parents of Students of Stephens-Lee High School (Asheville: Stephens-Lee High School Alumni Association, Inc., 2002), 17-20.

[40]Ibid., 17.

[41]Phyllis Jones Sherrill, interview by Sylvia Robin, 18 April 1993, Voices Collection, OH-VOA S554 Ph.

[42]Polite interview, 4 September 1994.

[43]Lucy Herring, as quoted by Mary Ellen Wolcott, “A Lifetime of education,” Asheville Citizen-Times, 16 January 1983, BHC, Folder M77.10.3.

[44]Herring, Strangers, 46.

[45]“Arthur Manley Resigns Post as Principal Here,” Asheville Citizen (?), 6 June 1941, PML, Vol. 44, File 42.29.

[46]Lacy and Harriett Haith, interview by Dorothy Joynes, 23 March 1994, Voices Collection, OH-VOA H35 La.

[47]Lucy Mae Harrison, interview by Dorothy Joynes, 12 and 15 March 1994, Voices Collection, OH-VOA H372 Lu.

[48]Norma Scott Baynes, interview by Kelly Navies, 17 July 1998, SOHP, K-512.

[49]Everette Parrish interview, 20 July 1998.

[50]Herring, Strangers No More, 105.

[51]Gillespie, The Rhetoric of Resistance, 115.

[52]Crow, et. al., A History of African Americans, 167.

[53]Ibid., 169; Asheville School Board Minutes, no. 4, 24 May 1955, p. 336.

[54]Ibid., 12 May 1955, p. 335-336.


[56]Asheville School Board Minutes, no. 4, 2 August 1955, p. 342-343; “Segregation Will Continue Here This Fall,” Asheville Citizen, 3 August 1955, GMC, Folder M78.1.1.1.

[57]Margaret Simmons, City Clerk, memo to Michael F. Keleher, and Michael F. Keleher, handwritten notes entitled “Civil Rights - Compliance - Future,” circa 1965, Michael F. Keleher Papers (hereafter known as MKP), Folder M80.3.2.1, Special Collections, D. Hiden Ramsey Library, University of North Carolina, Asheville, 1.

[58]Asheville City Schools, “Plan for the Asheville City Schools for the Desegregation of its School System in Compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” Appendix 1-e, on file with Asheville City Schools.

[59]Rev. Louis Grant interview, 22 July 1998.

[60]Ilka McDowell, interview by Kelly Navies, 14 July 1998, SOHP, K-518.

[61]Samuel Camp interview, unkown date.

[62]Rev. Louis Grant interview, 22 July 1998.

[63]Asheville School Board Minutes, no. 6, 6 July 1965, p. 24.

[64]Mary Cowles, “Witnesses Outline School Actions,” Asheville Citizen, 25, February 1969, PML.

[65]“Parents Protest School Transfer,” Asheville Citizen, 20 August 1966; Laurens Irby, “White Parent’s Boycott Cuts Into Registration,” Asheville Citizen, 27 August 1966; Mary Cowles, “Pupils Permitted Choice of Schools,” Asheville Citizen, 28 August 1966, PML.

[66]Mary Cowles, “Witnesses Outline School Actions,” Asheville Citizen, 25, February 1969, PML

[67]Mary Cowles, “Integration Plan Sought,” Asheville Citizen, 16 December 1969,PML; Josie Barone, “The Desegregation of the Asheville, North Carolina Public School System, 1954-1970,” in Proceedings from the First Undergraduate Research Conference, Western Carolina University, Vol. 1: “Our Community of Scholarship in Action,” (Cullowhee: Western Carolina University, 1991), 2.

[68]Cowles, “Integration Plan Sought.”

[69]Mary Cowles, “Desegregation Plan Unveiled,” Asheville Citizen, 20 December 1969, PML.

[70]Mary Cowels, “School Desegregation Plan Adopted,” Asheville Citizen, 23 December 1969, PML.

[71]Mary Cowels, “Court Accepts Alternate School Plan,” Asheville Citizen, 30 December 1969, PML.

[72]Henry Robinson, “Stephens-Lee High School Joins City’s Old History,” Asheville Citizen-Times, 20 April 1975, PML.

[73]“School Protests Heard: Integration Plan Opposed,” Asheville Citizen, 16 January 1970, PML.

[74]Ibid.; “Relations Council Urges New Plan of Integration,” Asheville Citizen, 24 January 1970, PML.

[75]Mary Cowles, “School Desegregation Plan Adopted,” Asheville Citizen, 23 December 1969, PML.

[76]“Petitions Opposing Integration Plan Being Circulated,” Asheville Citizen, 15 January 1970.

[77]“Relations Council Urges New Plan of Integration,” Asheville Citizen, 24 January 1970.

[78]Mary Cowels, “Details Are Completed on School Transfers,” Asheville Citizen, 17 January 1970, PML.

[79]Mary Cowles, “Panel Outlines Steps to Ease Racial Tensions,” Asheville Citizen, 6 February 1970, PML; Taylor, “Brown and Black Culture,” 10-11.

[80]Polite interview, 4 September 1994.

[81]O.L. Sherrill, interview by Dorothy Joynes, 25 August 1994, Voices Collection, S543 OL.

[82]Polite interview, 4 September 1994.

[83]Norma Scott Baynes interview, 14 July 1998.





Primary Sources



Asheville Citizen.  August 1922 - April 1975.  Pack Memorial Library, Asheville.


Asheville City Schools private collection.


Asheville School Board Minutes, no. 4.  Asheville City Schools private collection.


Herring, Lucy.  Strangers No More.  New York: Carlton Press, Inc., 1983.


Pack Memorial Library Newspaper Clippings File Collection, Vol. 44, File 42.29, Asheville.


Southern Oral History Project, #4007.  “Listening for a Change.”  University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina.


Special Collections, D. Hiden Ramsey Library, University of North Carolina, Asheville.


Stephens-Lee Alumni Association, Class of 1948.  Let’s Not Forget: Dedicated to the Parents of Students of Stephens-Lee High School.  Asheville: Stephens-Lee High School Alumni Association, Inc., 2002.




Secondary Sources



Barone, Josie. “The Desegregation of the Asheville, North Carolina Public School System, 1954-1970,” in Proceedings from the First Undergraduate Research Conference, Western Carolina University, Vol. 1: “Our Community of Scholarship in Action.”  Cullowhee: Western Carolina University, 1991.


Brown, George Carl.  A History of Public education in the City of Asheville, North Carolina. Thesis, University of Maryland, 1940.


Crow, Jeffrey J., Paul D. Escott, and Flora J. Hatley.  A History of African Americans in North Carolina. Raleigh: Division of Archives and History, 1992.


Davis, Lenwood.  The Black Heritage of Western North Carolina.  Milton Ready, ed.  Asheville,

N.C.: Southern Highlands Research Center of University of North Car