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Desegregation at Stephens-Lee High School

Asheville’s Stephens-Lee High School, built in 1923, was for many decades western North Carolina’s only secondary school for African Americans. The school drew students from throughout Buncombe, Henderson, Madison, Yancey, and Transylvania counties, and represented a focal point and key source of pride for the extended African-American community in the state’s western region. In 1965, however, the all-white school board closed Stephens-Lee as a part of its desegregation plan, and in 1975 the entire multi-building campus, save for the gymnasium, was bulldozed. As part of the Southern Oral History Program’s “Listening for a Change” initiative, historian Kelly Navies interviewed former faculty, administrators, and students of Stephens-Lee to collect memories of the school and assess the impact of desegregation and the school’s closing on the black community in western North Carolina. The interviews were archived in the Southern Historical Collection.

 

Despite the many difficulties imposed by segregation, Stephens-Lee’s graduates were proud of the school and its educational program. The school’s famed marching band reflected this fierce pride, as Richard Bowman, class of 1951, recalled:

“We were the raggediest [marching] band in Asheville, because our uniforms were hand-me-downs from the white schools. We didn’t have money in the budget to buy nice, new uniforms. In fact, some of the students didn’t have uniforms. They had only a hat. Maybe a uniform hat, but no uniform pants or clothes. But we had rhythm, and we would always get more applause coming down Patton Avenue than anyone, I think, because of the rhythm that we had. Miss Chappell taught the majorettes when I was in high school, and I have not seen a band to this day that marched with the rhythm in the form that she had the majorettes doing.”

Stephens-Lee Alumni Association member Everette Parrish remembered the excellence of the school faculty. “Just about all our faculty had their masters degrees, and a few were working on their doctorates, which means we got the benefit of the latest in education.” Through the Alumni Association, Navies has organized community outreach efforts including oral history workshops for Asheville youth, a forum celebrating the opening of the Stephens-Lee Community Center, and a presentation on her work at UNC-Asheville. Take a look at the interviews here.

Listening For a Change

This project’s name was inspired by Hugo Slim and Paul Thompson’s Listening for a Change: Oral History and Community Development. This influential volume emphasizes oral history’s power to make possible participatory documentary projects that are enriched by active community involvement. The SOHP’s “Listening” initiative reflects this spirit.

The “Listening for a Change” initiative encompassed eleven sub-series, including one overview examination of North Carolina in the post-World War II era, and various thematic, community-based projects exploring such themes as race, the environment, demographic change, and the many impacts of a changing global economy. The SOHP-affiliated historians and folklorists coordinating these projects worked closely with community groups to identify interview candidates, and to develop and present outreach events and materials to share research results with the communities in which the work has been completed.

The statewide project sought to generate a fresh understanding of twentieth-century North Carolina history. “We’re in a moment of such rapid change,” said Jacquelyn Hall as she kicked off the effort. “We’re moving into the new millennium, and the old industries and ways in which the economy has worked are beginning to disappear. Unless we document the stories of people who have lived through this history, we’re likely, within another generation, to have lost a whole piece of our history. We see ‘Listening for a Change’ as the kind of project for which we’ll continue to seek funding so that we can build on this important work in years ahead.”

The project was launched with a $150,000 grant from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, which provided an additional $75,000 in 1999 to fund “Listening’s” second year. The hundreds of interviews generated through “Listening for a Change” have been deposited in UNC-CH’s Southern Historical Collection.

LISTENING FOR A CHANGE SUB-SERIES

Race and Desegregation: West Charlotte High School

Race and Desegregation: Asheville’s Stephens-Lee High School

Tobacco, History, and Memory: Storytelling and Cultural Grieving in Eastern North Carolina

Environmentalism: Forests and Communities in Western North Carolina

New Immigrants and Labor: The Case Farms Strike in Morganton

New Immigrants and Neighborhood Change: Northeast Central Durham

Voices after the Deluge: Oral History Investigations and the Great North Carolina Flood

Whole Lives: The Durham HIV Life Review Project

The Brown Creek Correctional Institute Life Review Performance Project

Chatham County at the Crossroads