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Stephens-Lee teachers had a sense of collective pride that students, parents, and the black community could share. A major source of pride was the academic degrees the teachers held. Black high school students sometimes boasted that their teachers were better educated than the teachers at the all-white Lee H. Edwards High School.
As the first two posts in this tribute to Stephens-Lee teachers explain, the school closed in 1965 as part of the desegregation process. Two-thirds of the teachers and all of the students were reassigned to South French Broad High School, a brand new but segregated facility. Four years later, in 1969, South French Broad merged with Lee Edwards to create the racially integrated Asheville High School—one school for all the public high school students in the city. About half the teachers who were at Stephens-Lee when it closed made the transition to Asheville High.
Zoe Rhine’s study of Stephens-Lee teachers, the first of three posts in this tribute, shows academic credentials that look as impressive today as they did half a century ago. Of the 33 faculty members in 1964, 17 including the principal had earned a master’s degree, and three of the 17 had done graduate work beyond the master’s. In interviews with retired teachers from the school, several recalled an up-or-out policy that required new faculty members to earn the master’s within four years or else lose their positions. This unusually rigorous policy, which appears to have been set and enforced by the principals of Stephens-Lee rather than the city school system, shows the school’s strong commitment to high qualifications.
All the teachers at Stephens-Lee in 1964 had earned undergraduate degrees at well-established black schools, more often private than public, including Shaw University, Bennett College, Howard University, Fisk University, Wilberforce University, Barber-Scotia College, and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. These schools are known today as Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
Mrs. Dennison graduated from Stephens-Lee and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from Barber-Scotia College in Concord, North Carolina, “the first HBCU to educate Negro women.” She studied further at several universities, including Columbia University. Over the course of her 38-year career in the Asheville City Schools, Mrs. Dennison taught Business Education and Vocational Education at Stephens-Lee, South French Broad, and Asheville High. She was a member of the NAACP and an elder and deacon at Calvary Presbyterian Church.
It is important to remember that African Americans had to choose colleges and universities within the limits set by legalized segregation. Because the laws and policies of every southern state barred blacks from attending the flagship state university and other white state universities, college-bound blacks usually enrolled in one of the HBCUs, all of which emphasized racial pride and uplift as part of their mission. Looking back, we can see that these segregated colleges gave black future teachers an ideal preparation for teaching black students in segregated elementary and secondary schools.
It was a different story at the graduate level, although southern segregation laws played a part here, too. Most Stephens-Lee teachers had earned their master’s degrees at white universities outside the South, including the University of Michigan, Ohio State University, University of Illinois, New York University, and most notably Columbia University. If this accomplishment seems unusual, consider the political context of the times.
Since the late 1930s, black attorneys for the NAACP had been filing lawsuits against southern states in an effort to desegregate higher education. Their first goal was getting black graduate students admitted to white universities. North Carolina, like other southern states, was fighting to keep its universities segregated at every level, but it also wanted to avoid lawsuits. So North Carolina tried the tactic of paying for black teachers to attend graduate schools of education in the North and Midwest. This practice, remarkable even in historical context, had the effect of providing Stephens-Lee teachers with high-quality graduate programs in an integrated setting and exposing them to a wider range of influences and viewpoints than they encountered in Asheville—all at an affordable cost.
Twelve of the 17 teachers at Stephens-Lee who held a master’s degree had done some or all of their graduate work at Teachers College, Columbia University, which at the time was considered the top school of education in the nation. Teachers College (TC) became popular with Stephens-Lee teachers for two main reasons: The school showed a sincere interest in African American teachers, and it made graduate programs accessible to them.
A history of TC written during the 1950s explained that the college’s faculty had been developing a strong social orientation since the 1930s, including an interest in international education and what was then called “Negro education.” The faculty made an institutional commitment to helping solve “Interracial and Intercultural Minority Problems in America.” Some professors went so far as to “dare [public schools] to build a new social order,” envisioning teachers as the vanguards of social change.
The close relationship between black teachers from the small city of Asheville and white professors in New York City probably began during the 1930s when a small number of black teachers went North to study at TC, made a good impression there, and came home with positive reports. By 1942, TC was coming South to teach them. Professor Arthur V. Linden made regular trips to Asheville to conduct courses that met for eight weekends, an arrangement that turned into a lasting relationship. Almost a decade later, Linden was the speaker at the school’s 1951 commencement. He taught white as well as black teachers in Asheville—almost certainly in segregated classes given the racial climate of the era.
Led by Linden and other professors who traveled back and forth to Asheville, Teachers College “adopted” the Asheville City Schools, as educators would put it today. TC made similar arrangements with other southern school systems. The history of TC explains that these extension courses carried graduate and undergraduate credit and “arose in answer to the needs of Negro teachers who felt that they could not secure the preparation they needed in the professional schools of their home areas.”
The ready accessibility of these courses put a master’s degree within the teachers’ reach. TC tried to balance its academic requirements against the many demands that in-service teachers faced from their jobs, their families, and their other responsibilities. Summer sessions became especially popular, particularly with students in programs that required a period of residency at TC. Teachers from throughout the nation flocked to TC during the summer, giving Stephens-Lee teachers the experience of living in cosmopolitan New York City and learning in racially integrated classes.
The total number of African American teachers who earned master’s degrees at TC between 1896 and 1954 is estimated at more than 1,200. This figure suggests the tremendous influence of the institution.
Most of the discussion in this three-part tribute has focused closely on the work that black teachers at Stephens-Lee were able to do behind the wall of segregation. Now, in conclusion, the focus expands to include the wall itself and the white struggle to keep it in place.
What African American teachers accomplished at Stephens-Lee High School looks all the more admirable when we consider the harsh realities of segregation by law. During most of the years of the school’s life, 1923-1965, the per-student spending on black students in the Asheville City Schools was less than the per-student spending on whites. Only after years of legislative battles and court orders did North Carolina and other southern states begin to equalize per-student spending by race. The same kind of gaps existed between the salaries of black teachers and white teachers, and these inequalities, too, took years to rectify.
Ironically, when southern states finally took steps toward closing the spending gaps, it was in a last-ditch effort to preserve segregation by showing that black schools had been made, for the first time, “separate but equal.”
As Executive Director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Mr. Marshall successfully argued the Brown v. Board of Education case before the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1967 President Lyndon Johnson appointed him the first African American justice of the court.
A decade before Stephens-Lee closed, the U.S. Supreme Court had declared unanimously in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” This unequivocal judgment rested on the court’s conviction that “even when buildings, curricula, qualifications and salaries of teachers, and other ‘tangible’ factors” have been equalized, “to separate [black students] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”
From 1923 to 1965, the black teachers of Stephens-Lee worked mightily to counteract the negative effects of segregation. By their words and their personal examples, they taught a curriculum of racial pride and uplift. Would it be possible to teach similar lessons when all the city’s public high school students were finally in one school, learning together, after 1969? As the wall of legalized segregation crumbled elsewhere in society—in restaurants and hotels, for example, and in neighborhoods—could integrated schools prepare students to lead integrated lives?
Mrs. Forney came to Asheville High School as a seasoned History and Sociology teacher with 16 years of experience at Stephens-Lee and South French Broad. She made a commitment to Asheville High and stayed there until she retired in 1990. A dynamic woman who thrived in the school’s integrated environment, she became chair of the Social Studies Department and conducted sensitivity training sessions to help teachers work more effectively with all students.
Mrs. Forney belonged to a core group of teachers, black and white, who were determined to make integration a success. They doubled down on their efforts after a confrontation broke out between a small number of black students and city police in riot gear soon after Asheville High opened as an integrated school in 1969. Reflecting the spirit of the times, the group of African American students had walked out of school to protest what they saw as disrespect for their history, culture, and traditions. Predictably, the news media sensationalized the incident.
Looking back in 1990, Mrs. Forney characterized the confrontation and the period of unrest that followed as one of the only stains on Asheville’s otherwise good record during the early years of integration. Mrs. Forney became a leader in the Asheville-Buncombe Community Relations Council, which she credited with preventing the years of racial tension that troubled other southern cities.
In future HeardTell posts, we hope to offer a variety of perspectives on school integration and other chapters in Asheville’s civil rights history.
Post by Joe Newman, Board Member of the Friends of the North Carolina Room, who gratefully acknowledges Zoe Rhine’s research skills and ready assistance. Joe began his career as a high school English teacher in the Atlanta metro area and taught in the College of Education at the University of South Alabama for 29 years.