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.