History of Desegregation in Asheville

Last week I was lucky to be able to attend the “History of Desegregation” panel hosted by the Asheville City Schools Foundation (ACSF) as a part of their Racial Equity Initiative. While I have heard stories of desegregation in Asheville numerous times over the years, this panel led me to think more deeply about connections between the way that desegregation was handled and current issues in our schools including our shameful academic achievement gap.

desegregation in avl acsf panel
History of Desegregation” panel. Photo by Ami Worthen. 

Desegregation is very recent history. Everyone on the panel lived through desegregation, and the memories and emotions are still strong. Panel members shared stories of their lives before desegregation. As a young girl, Jacquelyn Hallum only interacted with other blacks. She told a story of seeing two white girls playing and thinking they were baby dolls come to life. Jennie Eblen described only knowing whites prior to desegregation. Most of the stories that were told underscored the fact that segregation was very thorough.

Al Whitesides and Marvin Chambers spoke of the great pride blacks had in their schools before desegregation. Livingston Elementary and Stephens Lee High School were known for their strong academics, with many teachers possessing Master’s degrees. Students also excelled in extracurricular activities such as band. Chambers explained how organizers had to put the Stephens Lee band at the back of the annual Christmas parade because one year they were at the front, and everyone went home after they played. To underscore the depth of this school pride, Chambers assured the audience that, to this day, ask any graduate of Stephens Lee to sing you their school song and they will.

I am not going to go into a lot of detail here about the history here. An overview of desegregation of the schools, and the activism of the Asheville Student Committee on Racial Equity (ASCORE) can be found in the Center For Diversity Education’s exhibit, “With All Deliberate Speed: Desegregation in Buncombe County.” Click here to read a PDF of this exhibit.

When the schools integrated, it was a very intense transition. Students with little to no experience interacting with people of different races were suddenly in classes and on teams together. As far as I can tell, the schools did not offer workshops or counseling or additional support to deal with the emotional challenges of this major change.

After desegregation, some things were gained by black students in terms of physical resources. Panel members also spoke of the value of new friendships and opportunities that would not have been possible before desegregation. However, much was lost, too. The loss of treasured school buildings, for one, and also there was a loss of the trophies that black high school sports teams had won over the years. I know the loss of trophies hurt greatly, as that is one of the stories of I have heard time and time again. Significantly, also lost in the years immediately following desegregation were many beloved African American teachers and administrators.

Asheville High School Desegregation 1970The tensions that were caused by desegregation led two two uprisings at Asheville High School – one in 1969 and a second in 1972. After the first, the high school was closed for a week and the there was a city-wide curfew for six months. That’s right, a city-wide curfew for six months! That speaks volumes to the magnitude of the tensions that must have been in place. After the 1972 event, eight people were hospitalized. A third significant disruption occurred in 1975. Like I stated earlier, this is all very recent history.

Hearing the speakers on the panel, it is clear to me that there is still healing that needs to happen in regards to desegregation. I can see how the painful aspects of desegregation continue to hurt students today. Something is seriously wrong with our schools in relation to race, as is evidenced by statistics compiled by UNC Asheville students for the State of Black Asheville. It is understandable that the memory of the stress families experienced during desegregation still lingers. In fact, an ACSF handout shared at the panel affirmed the fact that this history has created a distrust of the Asheville City Schools in the black community that has been passed on from generation to generation and “has not created goodwill in relationships servicing students today.” In addition, with most of the teachers and administrators in our schools today being white, black students may not be supported in all of the ways needed for them to succeed. In short, we have to look at the institutional racism that has been built into our school system.

I understand that the academic achievement gap is a complex problem, and that the legacy of desegregation is just one piece of the puzzle. It is a significant piece, however, and I applaud the Asheville City Schools Foundation for taking on this important topic.

Panel photo, pictured left to right: Lewis Isaac (moderator), Al Whitesides, Marvin Chambers, Jacquelyn Hallum, Jennie Eblen, Tyrone Greenlee, Larry Grant, Dena Parker Gettleman. Black and white photo of Asheville High School riot from the Asheville Citizen-Times, September 30, 1970.