Returning Stephens Lee to the Black Community

stephens lee 1950
Stephens Lee High School, 1950. North Carolina Room at Pack Memorial Library.

Stephens Lee High School opened in Asheville in 1923. Known as the “Castle on the Hill,” it was the only high school for black students in WNC. “The school became known for its excellent faculty, and curriculum, as well as for music and sports. The school also became a center for culture and arts for the black community” (quote from The Faculty of Stephens-Lee High School: A Tribute, North Carolina Room at Pack Memorial Library). Students, faculty, and the African American community as a whole took great pride in Stephens Lee.

When the school was closed in 1965 as a part of desegregation, much was lost. (See my post, History of Desegregation in Asheville.) Those losses reverberate to this day. There was more grief when most of the building was knocked down without warning in 1975. As some point the remaining part of the building became a City of Asheville recreation center.

This history is relevant to this announcement from YTL Training Programs:

“On Tuesday, July 24, at the Asheville City Council meeting which begins at 5 pm, YTL Training Programs will be speaking during public comment about proposal we submitted requesting a ten- to fifteen- year lease agreement at $1/year for the Stephens Lee Recreation Center, and for demonstrated commitment to communities of color through creative place-making and financial investment in programs.

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Stephens Lee Recreation Center. Photo: Hyperallergic

In addition to using the center for YTL’s youth programming, it would be shared with the Youth Elevation Collaborative, which includes Positive Change Youth Ministries, My Community Matters, My Daddy Taught Me That, and My Sistah Taught Me That, as well as YTL. All of these programs are led by African Americans who are Asheville natives. Given the historical significance of Stephens Lee to the African American community, we consider it an ideal location for programming aimed at improving outcomes for youth of color in Asheville.

Our organizations provide services for many Asheville City Schools students including afterschool programming, academic tutoring, ACT and SAT Prep, mentoring, and in-school and out-of-school advocacy. Asheville City Schools has the largest racial achievement gap in the state of North Carolina. We know that trauma in and out of school impacts the ability of students to grow, emotionally, socially, and academically. Our programs are working to combat the effects of the trauma that is prevalent in the lives of students of color.

We are asking the City of Asheville to approve this proposal to allow us to lease Stephens Lee for $1/year as part of the process of healing necessary to combat the detrimental effects of institutional racism in Asheville. In addition, we are asking the City to collectively reimagine and reinvent public spaces at the heart of every neighborhood, honoring the cultural and social identities that define these shared spaces. Finally, we are asking for a financial commitment to rejuvenating programing that provides opportunities for youth.

You can express your support for this proposal by contacting City Council (you can email them all via AshevilleNCCouncil@ashevillenc.gov), and by joining us at City Hall on July 24.”

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Stephens Lee Class of 1964 reunion, 2014. Photo: Urban News
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Youth Transformed for Life – YTL summer campers and staff, 2018

My Statement to Council

I plan on speaking at the City Council meeting, and I went ahead and crafted a statement, which I will share with you. The public comment slots are only 3 minutes long, and it was difficult to decide which points I wanted to make in that short time frame. Anyway, here it is:

Members of City Council, I begin by honoring the fact that we are on the ancestral land of the Cherokee people.

Tonight I am speaking in support of the proposal submitted by YTL Training Program which requests a 10 to 15 year lease of the Stephens Lee Community Center at $1/year, and asks the City to demonstrate commitment to communities of color through creative place-making and investment in youth programming.

It is significant to note that this proposal comes from African American leaders who are native to Asheville. Those who are most impacted by the effects of oppression are most qualified to lead us towards solutions and liberation.

To allow Stephens Lee, with its historical significance, to once again be managed by African Americans would be a move towards atoning for the injustice, pain, and losses caused by slavery, Jim Crow, desegregation, urban renewal, and gentrification.

Our city owes an incredible debt to African Americans.

Asheville, and our tourism industry, was built using the labor of enslaved people and unjustly incarcerated black men.

The old-time music that is a key part of our region’s cultural identity would not exist without the black musicians who were essential to its creation.

During urban renewal, the City of Asheville unfairly took property from black families. The city still owns some of this property and benefits from its increasing value. 

Throughout our history, Asheville’s African American leaders have shared their great creativity and resilience, creating innovative initiatives for the greater good.

Yet, while Asheville has been positively enhanced by African Americans, our current economic boom is not benefiting that community proportionally.

Racial disparities are rampant here, and many African American families are trapped in the public housing complexes they were forced into around the time of urban renewal.

The violence occurring in public housing is a result of the much greater violence of systemic racism. Young people are shooting each other out of desperation and hopelessness.

As a community that has allowed this hopelessness to fester, blood is on our hands.

Please approve YTL’s proposal which has real potential to effectively address trauma, foster healing, and generate transformative outcomes.

Triangle Park Mural - Stephens Lee High band
Stephens Lee High band in the Triangle Park Mural. Photo: Denise Carbonell.

Update from YTL on July 24, 2018: 

“We want to clarify that the Stephens Lee facility will be used for YTL programs and additionally shared with other programs led by people of color, including members of the Youth Elevation Collaborative. While they are in support of this proposal, My Daddy Taught Me That. and My Sistah Taught Me That will still need permanent space that may not be available to them in Stephens Lee and will continue to seek their own space for programming.

We love our community and our youth and we are grateful for all of the enthusiasm that has been generated around our proposal.”

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5 thoughts on “Returning Stephens Lee to the Black Community

  1. This is a powerful vision that feels right in many ways, but I wonder what you think should happen to the Parks & Rec programs currently operating at Stephens Lee and the people employed there?

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    1. If this goes forward, those logistics will be worked out. I doubt any programs or jobs will be lost, though they may be moved to other rec centers. Thanks for reading!

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  2. Thanks, Ami!
    Do you have any resource for how to make emails to city council as effective as possible? To the point or lots of details, what info to include, etc? And if it is appropriate for those of us not living within city limits to contact them?

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    1. Great questions! I would think, since Council members get a ton of emails, a short, to the point email expressing your support of YTL’s proposal would be best. You are part of this community, so yes, I’d say it would be appropriate to write. Onward!

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