Social Justice at BMC Before the Civil Rights Age:
Desegregation , Racial Inclusion, and Racial Equality at BMC
by Micah Wilford Wilkins
“Our efforts to contribute in a small way to better interracial living may not be just another one of those fads of which we were so often accused. It must be an effort as hard and consistent as the problem to the solution of which it wants to contribute” – Edward Lowinsky (Duberman 214)
If anyone at Black Mountain felt hesitant about breaching Southern customs in the 1930s—and perhaps fully understood the consequences that an act like this would provoke—it was the African-American staff members employed at the college. Their lifelong negative experiences surrounding their race marked all of their future endeavors. In this time period in the South, these staff members would have experienced rampant and lifelong discrimination. Though always present in all areas of the United States, violence committed by whites against African Americans in the South became extreme during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In addition, Jim Crow laws kept blacks and whites apart throughout the South. Bused to special schools, railed in their own train cars, and cordoned off from shared public spaces, blacks were marked by the dominant culture as inferior. Before the groundbreaking 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, school segregation became a common practice in the South. Grade schools were built for African Americans, fewer high schools and even fewer colleges existed for black students, and the small number of institutions that came into being for black students often received little funding and community support.
Some BMC faculty members expressed concerns about the institution not embracing southern culture surrounding the college, and the future initiatives that addressed these concerns led to integration. In particular, Edward Lowinsky, a music teacher who joined the college in 1942, during a faculty meeting in 1944 argued that the college lacked a proper foundation in American culture in neglecting what he termed “Negro Spiritual Music” (Edward Lowinsky faculty files). As a result of these inquiries, in the early 1940s Black Mountain College began to focus more attention on African American culture and history and race relations, especially in the school’s Southern context. In 1943, the college celebrated Negro History Week with talks on black life given by faculty members, a showing of a film by the Harmon Foundation, which served as a large-scale patron of African American art from 1922 until the foundation’s end in 1967, and a guest lecture called “The Negro in the present world crisis and his hopes for the postwar world” by W.A. Robinson, director of the Negro Secondary School Study (Duberman 174). Robinson’s white colleague, Robert Wunsch, worked extensively with the Negro Secondary School Study in the early 1940s, serving on the Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools for Negroes board. Wunsch, a drama teacher and North Carolina native, understood the climate of the region and built interracial relationships (Edward Lowinsky faculty files). His perspective proved helpful, contributing to the college’s commitment to inclusivity.
Exposing students to African American culture, engaging faculty in an ongoing conversation on African American culture and race relations, and serving as a model of what southern independent schools might become, Black Mountain College entered a prescient socio-political conversation on the dignity of the human person. While these concerns would soon be dealt with by the U.S. court system, they would not become a pressing national concern until some ten years later in the wake of the Emmett Till murder (1954) and with the Brown v. Board of Education ruling (1954), the Little Rock Nine integration crisis (1957), and ultimately the Medgar Evers case (1962), all catalysts for the civil rights movement. In this way, a small, non-accredited school in Western North Carolina joined a progressive conversation on inclusive education. Here, we find BMC espousing ideals John Dewey furthered in Democracy in Education (1916), another deliberate choice, in addition to the radical way the school granted instructors autonomy, that the school practiced what might be termed true “liberal” and independent thought.
Thus, these early faculty members were instrumental in bringing to the forefront the issue of racial inclusion, which, from January until April of 1944, dominated faculty meetings, correspondences, and discussions. Some faculty members initially expressed resistance to integrating the college. On the other hand, people like Josef Albers were not opposed to the idea itself, but rather its timing. Similar to the first episode in 1933, some faculty members and students articulated skepticism about whether the college should take on yet another far-reaching goal which might stress an already strained relationship with the local community (Duberman 178-182). In addition to some disagreements from within the college itself, several individuals outside of the community urged the college to refrain from admitting African American students. While considering the racial inclusion question, Wunsch wrote to many of his black peers and friends, asking their advice. In February he wrote to black author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, with whom he had developed a friendship while at Rollins (Hurston and Kaplan 170). “Is now the right time to make this radical departure from Southern procedure?” he asked in a letter to Hurston. “Even at this distance I see the dynamite in the proposal to take Negro students now,” she wrote back. “Confidentially, some of these Left-wing people get me down. They always want to spring some sensation that gives them great publicity but which does us no good” (qtd. in Duberman 179-180).
Even with Hurston’s trepidation and valid points about the pursuit of idealistic goals at the cost of individuals’ well-being, the Black Mountain faculty’s idea to integrate the college persisted. In April 1944, Theodore Dreier sent a letter to the college’s lawyer, R. R. Williams, inquiring about the laws of North Carolina. Initially, the faculty thought that racial inclusion at colleges and universities in the Southern states was illegal because they had not heard of any other Southern institution admitting African American students. In addition, de jure segregation laws were in place in nearly every other sphere in the South at this time. However, according to Williams, no law barred private educational institutions with white student bodies from admitting black students, but he continued in his letter by stressing both the laws and customs of North Carolinians:
This policy [of separate accommodations for whites and African Americans] is of long standing and is deeply imbedded in the habits of the people of North Carolina so much so that there is a strong feeling relative to it. . . Matters of policy, I recognize, are matters for you to determine but I feel that I would not be doing my full duty without warning you of the explosive subject with which you are dealing. (Private Collection Theodore and Barbara Dreier 1925-1988)
Despite the discouragement the college received from certain outside individuals, the determination of several faculty members led to the final agreement, by the end of April, to integrate the college. But, for “practical reasons,” the college decided to admit just one “qualified” African American woman for the college’s first summer music institute (Minutes April 24, 1944). In a sort of compromise, faculty members agreed that this black student would attend the summer institute not as a regular student, but rather as a “member of the institute” (Matthews).
Foreman held the responsibility of finding this one “qualified female,” and he decided to get in touch with Spelman College, an all-black women’s college in Atlanta. A faculty member at Spelman recommended an exceptional student by the name of Alma Stone Williams to Clark Foreman. This student already graduated from Spelman as valedictorian in 1940 and begun her teaching career, but took the opportunity when it arose. When the college invited her to the 1944 summer music institute at Black Mountain College as a visiting guest, Williams wanted to take advantage of the opportunity before applying to the Juilliard School of Music (Williams).
After the faculty decided to invite Williams to the college, it also decided to inform everyone that the African-American, Stone, would be in attendance. Black Mountain hoped to be transparent about its intentions to integrate, and, unsurprisingly, the announcement was met with some backlash. One student decided to leave Black Mountain, and the college’s assistant treasurer Erwin Straus left in part as a result of William’s arrival (Duberman 178).
Though these two members rejected her presence, the rest of the students and faculty members at Black Mountain welcomed Williams. During the summer institute, she felt “instant acceptance from everybody.” And, as Lowinsky and others had hoped, she had brought new, important perspectives to her classes and to the college as a whole during that summer. Her presence on campus did not cause a “fuss,” according to Williams, and on Williams’s last day of the summer institute, faculty member Nell Rice turned to her and said “Alma, there’s no way you could possibly get from Black Mountain as much as you gave” (Williams). In her book Opening Black Doors at Black Mountain College, Williams wrote that the college “was ready for me” (qtd. in Clark 47). After the 1944 summer institute, many of the students and faculty had agreed that the experiment was a success. Indeed, after the summer institute, 38 out of the 50 Black Mountain students signed a petition urging the college to admit more than one black student at a time (Duberman 183).
However, the college would not have any African Americans on campus again until the following summer, during the 1945 summer institute. But because the 1944 summer institute went over smoothly, and the college did not experience any of the backlash or protests they expected with Williams’s presence, Black Mountain faculty members thought that they would try the experiment once more, this time with two invited African American guests as teachers.
Dreier, Lowinsky and other faculty members had two famous African American singers, Roland Hayes and Carol Brice in mind, to be guest teachers in the 1945 summer music institute. According to Dreier, they both expressed interest in coming to Black Mountain because “it is perhaps the only place in the south where [they] would be accepted completely as a member of the College community without any discrimination” (Dreier to Carr April 5 1945).
The reasoning behind inviting African American guest teachers such as Carol Brice and Roland Hayes was twofold. First, the faculty members respected these artists and wanted their students to be taught by them. Second, these invitations had a more important, profound objective of giving students lessons about racial equality by those who would know the subject matter best. In a letter to Dr. Kinley Helm, a friend of Roland Hayes, Lowinsky wrote: “If artists such as Roland Hayes and Carol Brice offer their achievements to our neighboring communities, it will be a long way in the making for good will among them” (Lowinsky to Helm May 28, 1945). Lowinsky hoped that in bringing these black singers to campus, they would not only be giving students voice lessons, but they would be giving students, faculty members and locals lessons on the equality of African Americans. In Lowinsky’s eyes, Hayes and Brice would serve as examples to both the students and the surrounding community who attended their performances that African Americans are talented, intelligent and deserving of respect. Lowinksy believed that Black Mountain, and the summer institutes in particular, created the right climate to start this effort because of its focus on art and music: “This is the language which appeals most directly to people’s hearts and minds” (Publicity Correspondence). For the most part, Lowinsky’s assessment was accurate. During the 1945 summer session, the faculty members were pleased by the response of the local community. Virtually no “incidents” or “embarrassment” had taken place as a result of integrated events and performances that many outside community members had attended (Duberman 211).
In fact, one of the college’s most memorable moments was when Roland Hayes put on a concert on one of the last evenings of his three-week stay. He attracted one of the largest crowds Black Mountain had ever seen, with more than three hundred outside guests, including thirty to forty African Americans. The audience filled the dining hall, with integrated seating arrangements, overflowing onto the porch during the hottest night of the year (Duberman 211). Julia Feininger, wife of Lyonel Feininger, the 1945 summer session’s artist-in-residence, remembers Hayes’s combination of classical songs and Afro-American religious folk ballads:
His concert last Saturday was beautiful beyond words. . . It is not the voice alone; it is the whole man, the musician, the artist, the perfection of training as a matter of course. . . And the astonishing thing is, that he sings Bach and negro spirituals equally. . . with equal fervor and religious feeling, understanding, deep conviction. (Harris 101-104)
Beyond his talent and musical performances, Hayes was influential in other ways at Black Mountain as well. Accompanied by his wife, Helen, and daughter, Afrika, their visit lasted only a few weeks, but in that short amount of time, Hayes made deep impressions on many of the students and faculty members. Through his captivating storytelling, Hayes “held the community spellbound with the tales of his struggle to break from the barriers of racial prejudice” (Harris 101-104). The son of a Georgia slave, Hayes was recognized for his talent only when he moved to Europe, where he faced less discrimination for his skin color. His concert, wrote Edward’s wife Gretel, “was able to hold in its spell a large group of people from all walks of life” (Lowinsky 102-104). These extensive talents honed by years of work into fine craft with the ability to move large and diverse groups of people benefited the campus and surrounding community.
Carol Brice also made a great impression on Black Mountain community members with her “exceptionally moving” concerts, 1945 summer institute student Angelica Bodky Lee remembers (Lee 165). Originally from nearby Sedalia, North Carolina, where she attended the Palmer Memorial Institute, Brice received a fellowship to attend the Juilliard Graduate School of Music in New York City from 1939 to 1943 (BMC Community Bulletin). In the summer of 1945, Brice brought along her baby and her mother for her whole stay at the college, and her father also visited for a short time. These visits were all approved by the faculty, indicating the college’s broader openness toward other African Americans, not simply just the specific guest teachers they invited (“Minutes of the Faculty and Board of Fellows of the Corporation of Black Mountain College”). Carol Brice would return to Black Mountain College again in the summer of 1947 for four weeks of recitals, this time with her husband and their small son (Harris 144).
This inclusion came at a price, paid for by a philanthropic organization to the great effects noted above. The college struggled financially throughout its existence, Black Mountain College was able to pay the salaries and tuition of African American students and teachers thanks to help from the Julius Rosenwald Fund. Faculty members were sometimes paid just $25 a week, in addition to being provided with room and board. Students paid anywhere from $300 to $1,200 for a year’s tuition, based on their means, and were expected to participate in the work program (“Buncombe County’s Eden” 46). However, with support from the Rosenwald Fund, a large, influential philanthropic organization which helped improve opportunities for African Americans through art, education, health care and more, the college was able to help fund their racial inclusion efforts. Inspired by African American educator and advocate for the black race Booker T. Washington, the Rosenwald Fund helped start over 5,000 schools in the rural South for black children. In addition, the fund provided $1.65 million in fellowships to hundreds of blacks and whites in education, agriculture, the arts, sociology, and numerous other fields from 1928 to 1948 (Schulman 13). Of this huge sum, the Julius Rosenwald Fund allocated a total of $3,400 to Black Mountain College to be put toward the salaries of “Negro scholars” (Embree and Waxman 276). Money from the Rosenwald Fund enabled Black Mountain to have its first full-time black student in the 1945-1946 academic year.
Sylvesta Martin, also known as Vesta, had attended the 1945 summer institute and was urged by Roland Hayes to stay on for the fall semester. She would learn and grow musically at Black Mountain much more than she ever could at Fisk, her previous university, or anywhere else in the South, Hayes had assured her. She submitted her application that summer and was accepted as the first full-time African-American student at Black Mountain College—she was not labeled as simply a guest or a visitor, as had been done in the past with other African Americans, but rather as a regular student (Dreier to Williams Sept. 7, 1945).
This bold new move in the college’s integration process drew internal backlash, yet again. When the college’s lawyer R. R. Williams learned that Black Mountain would admit an African American as a full-time student, he threatened to resign from his role as a representative of the college. In a letter to Dreier, Williams wrote: “I do not think that I should be a member of an Advisory council of an institution which runs counter to such enlightened public opinion in NC at the present time.” Williams warned that the next few years for the college “may be explosive in nature” as a result of Black Mountain’s early racial inclusion efforts which “disturbed” North Carolina’s segregation customs (Williams to Dreier Sept. 11, 1945). Williams was perhaps not entirely wrong in his assessment. Dreier and other faculty members suspected that fires being set in the woods on the college’s campus were caused by locals who disagreed with their admittance of African American students, though these claims never got explored or substantiated (Harris 111). However, Dreier assured Williams “we realize that we have to move carefully. . . We have tried to proceed very slowly, quietly, and with great caution” (Dreier to Williams Sept. 28, 1945). Despite his initial resistance to the idea of racial inclusion, Williams nonetheless agreed to continue handling the legal matters of the college.
In spite of Williams’s hesitancy at the idea of having her at the college, Vesta Martin soon became a successful student at Black Mountain, performing in concerts in front of large, mostly white audiences and establishing friendships with her white peers. In a letter from the college’s treasurer to a representative from the Rosenwald Fund, Theodore Rondthaler wrote:
Sylvesta has distinguished herself as a student through her unusual diligence and achievement in her music courses, and as a member of our community through her friendliness and all’ round wholesomeness of character. Her success at Black Mountain seems to point the way toward a useful enlargement of our sphere of usefulness in the South. (Rondthaler to Elvidge Nov. 30 1945)
The same year that the school admitted Martin, it also hired its first full-time African American faculty member. Percy H. Baker took a leave of absence from Virginia State College for Negroes in Ettrick to teach Biology at Black Mountain for the Fall 1945 term. Despite his timidness, the students and faculty quickly grew attached to Baker’s presence and personality (Rondthaler to Elvidge Nov. 30 1945). Vera Baker Williams, a student at the college, wrote to Betty Schmidt (later Betty Jennerjahn), one of her fellow classmates, in the fall of 1945:
Mr. Baker who teaches Biology, he is the negro teacher and seems somewhat shy about the whole situation (understandable). Dehn and I are sort of adopting him. I consult him on Mushrooms and have him to supper. Sunday, Dehn drags him for hikes over the Seven Sisters. (Williams to Schmidt Fall 1945)
The community grew so attached to Baker, in fact, that they wanted his temporary teaching position to become permanent. In a letter addressed to the president of Virginia State College, Herbert A. Miller from the Black Mountain registrar’s office asked for Baker’s leave of absence to be extended. “Not only was he a most successful teacher, but I think no one ever thought of race in connection with him,” Miller wrote. “He fitted into the community perfectly. . . Percy Baker would be of inestimable value in establishing the precedent of both faculty and students” (Miller to Foster March 30 1946). Just as with Brice and Hayes, the college hoped to hire black professors who were intelligent, successful and who could easily connect with the students, to enable relationships to be established between whites and blacks at the college. However, the president of Virginia State College, for whatever reason, refused to extend Baker’s leave of absence. In a letter to Baker after he left the college, Miller wrote: “We are so greatly disappointed by the decision which President Foster sent me. Where are we now? No bridge player – no good botanist – no solution to the great problem. We are all disappointed” (Miller to Baker May 23 1946).
Later in the academic year, the college hired another African American faculty member. Mark Oakland Fax from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, came to teach at Black Mountain for the Spring 1946 quarter (Fax to Gregory April 19 1946). A young composer, Fax taught several music classes and composed several songs during his stay, including “Cycle of Three Songs,” with words written by Mary Leo, a white student. Fax, accompanied by Vesta Martin and other students, also gave regular concerts on campus which were well-attended by outside visitors. These integrated performances caused no incidents or confrontations among the locals (Harris 118).
Again the college community grew attached to Fax, but again they were disappointed when he too declined the college’s offer to become a permanent member of Black Mountain College. His reasoning, however, was family-oriented: his wife, who had stayed home while her husband traveled to North Carolina to teach at Black Mountain, insisted that they raise their son in a black community (Harris 118).
Despite the low retention rate of black faculty members in particular, Black Mountain remained committed to its initiative to encourage African Americans to join their community. Several teachers and students at the college dedicated themselves to the racial inclusion effort and hoped to challenge Southern segregation customs in the hope that the region would eventually move beyond them. In other words, having African American students, teachers and guests, while there may have been just a few, was not random or unplanned. On the contrary, it was a concerted effort on the part of the college, and certain faculty members were key players in facilitating this initiative. Getting in touch with historically black colleges and universities, encouraging students to apply, seeking out full-time and guest faculty members, persuading them to stay, securing the funding for their salaries and tuition all took time, effort and diligence on the part of these instrumental faculty members such as Foreman, Lowinsky, Dreier, and others.
In 1946 the college invited additional African Americans as students and faculty members for the summer session. In the spring, Josef Albers invited an artist who would later become one of the legendary names thrown around long after Black Mountain College’s close in 1956. Black Harlem Renaissance artist Jacob Lawrence accepted Albers’s invitation to be an art instructor during the 1946 summer art institute. Lawrence, accompanied by his wife Gwendolyn Knight, came from New York City and stayed on campus for ten weeks.
Upon their arrival in North Carolina, Lawrence and Knight, who had only been to the South once before, the college arranged transportation in a private car from Asheville to Black Mountain so that they could avoid segregation on the train (Conkelton and Thomas 14-15). Jacob Lawrence only worked two and a half days a week during the summer institute (Albers to Lawrence April 9 1946), but he and his wife never left the boundaries of the college throughout the whole summer. “I never came in contact with [the local people],” Jacob Lawrence remembered in a 1999 interview, adding, “I knew not to wander around a place like that” (Bostic). Knight remembers: “Albers got us a room when we came so we could avoid the segregation. . . We were protected. The students and the faculty were very welcoming so we just stayed on campus” (Conkelton 28). This paranoia about the surrounding community exhibits the pervasive and paralyzing effects of Jim Crow legislature on the psyches of those it affected, regardless of the true safety of the Black Mountain community.
Lawrence, who had already begun to gain some national prominence for his work, especially within the Harlem Renaissance art movement, would become one of the first celebrated and accepted black artists in a predominantly white art world. His time at Black Mountain, especially his involvement with Albers, significantly altered his later work as both an artist and as a teacher (Cotter). Gwendolyn Knight, a painter herself, was not hired as an instructor for the summer institute, but spent a good deal of her time engaging with students and even taught informal dance lessons to the students and faculty (Conkelton 15).
Lawrence and Knight were not the only African Americans on campus that summer, and experiences of these college members varied. Students Mary Parks Washington of Atlanta and Ora Marie Williams of Ferndale, Michigan had also been invited by the faculty to attend the summer institute. Washington remembers, in a 2000 interview, that she received a scholarship from the Rosenwald Fund which covered all of her tuition. She, like Alma Stone Williams, had just graduated from Spelman College, where her professor, Hale Woodruff, encouraged her to attend Black Mountain and told her about its uniqueness: “He told me I would have to have a pair of dungarees [blue jeans],” Washington remembered. The atmosphere of Black Mountain was much less formal and more relaxed compared to the atmosphere of Spelman, a traditional all women’s school which required its students to wear skirts. Spelman had been opened after the Civil War as a school for young black women. Most of its teachers and all of its presidents (until 1953) were white, however. The summer of 1946 was Washington’s first experience being in an integrated group of students. However, she said, “I blended in. It didn’t seem to matter” (Washington). Outside the limits of the campus, however, it was another story. Washington went off campus and into Asheville, the nearest city to the campus, just twice during her summer stay. During one instance, she and another student, who was white, rode the bus into town. Washington “went to the back [of the bus] because that’s where Negroes went.” Her friend from Black Mountain wanted to accompany her, but Washington warned her against it (Washington). These negative experiences of institutional oppression did not mar her experience of that summer entirely. Though her time at Black Mountain was short-lived, the experience was long-lasting, and perhaps even life-changing, as she would come to realize later in life:
It seems like the string started at Black Mountain and as time went by, something would hook on, like working in the yard, the different things I would do would reflect back on Black Mountain. I didn’t think it would affect me, but it has. That’s what makes it Black Mountain. It’s still living. (Washington)
Washington went on to maintain her friendships with Jacob Lawrence, Gwendolyn Knight and other students and faculty member of the college, and realized more and more the influence the teachers like Josef Albers and Jean Varda had on her as an artist (Washington).
Despite their recruitment efforts, the college was able to enroll just one black student, Jeanne Belcher, in the Fall term of 1946. In a letter written to Lowinsky, Percy Baker explained that it was hard to persuade black students to join a college without being able to offer them a degree (Duberman 212). According to Washington, it became even more important for African Americans to earn a degree in this era: “Being an African American, you had to have a degree. You had to be a little better.” One of the reasons why Washington chose to attend, was because she already had her degree from Spelman (Washington).
Though Black Mountain did not offer a degree, it did begin partnerships with different universities, LeMoyne College in Memphis, Tennessee and Virginia State College, two historically black colleges. These partnerships enabled African American students to attend Black Mountain College for a summer or one or more semesters and transfer their credits to their respective schools so that they could work toward earning a degree (General papers, Vol II, Box 4). Because tuition formed an obstacle for black students in particular, the school made many scholarships available to them, especially by way of the Rosenwald Fund (Clark 48).
Seeing that the campus only had one or two black students at a time by 1946, the other students demanded that Black Mountain work more quickly and deliberately toward racial inclusion by inviting more African American students to attend the college. That fall, Black Mountain students passed a resolution which demanded that “as many Negro students as our capacity would permit be admitted immediately, that our campaign to get Negro students to apply be conducted on a broader basis” (letter qtd. in Duberman 212-213). That winter, during the college’s Christmas vacation, the students also held a fundraising campaign to raise money for potential black students unable to pay the minimum fee in order to attend the college. In addition, the students and the faculty wanted to extend the invitation of enrollment to black male students as well—up until the Fall of 1946, only black female students had been admitted (Duberman 213).
Perhaps as a result of these efforts, Black Mountain enrolled a total of five African American students in the Spring of 1947, the largest black population the college had ever seen at one time. Three female and two male African American students were admitted, with a total student population of less than 100. In the postwar period, the college became larger and more diverse than in years past. There were people from cities, small towns, high school graduates, World War II veterans (with the help of the GI Bill), children of refugees, and now, several African Americans (Harris 110). Louise C. Cole and Louis H. Selders were both students from LeMoyne College who transferred back after just one semester at Black Mountain. Unlike the others, who left after one semester, Delores Fullman stayed on for two years, starting in the spring of 1947 and leaving after the spring 1949 semester (Private student files).
Among this small group of black students arriving in the spring of 1947 was Luther Porter Jackson Jr., the son of Luther Porter Jackson, Sr., a historian, professor at Virginia State College, and an important civil rights activist in the 1930s and 40s. Jackson Sr. helped found the Petersburg League of Negro Voters in 1935, authored a book which challenged stereotypes of African Americans in the antebellum South, and opposed segregation throughout the South. He was the secretary-treasurer of the Southern Conference on Race Relations, which met in Durham in 1942 (Dennis). At this conference, 57 prominent African Americans of the South met and produced the “Durham Manifesto,” in the midst of World War II and in the cradle of the Southern black middle class. During the war, African American soldiers fought fascism overseas, only to be met with racism and segregation upon their return home. Early civil rights activists began pushing the “Double V” campaign, which stressed the importance not just of victory over fascism abroad, but also of victory over racism at home. The Durham Manifesto called on Southerners to fight Jim Crow, and the conference attendees declared that they were “fundamentally opposed to the principle and practice of compulsory segregation” (Blythe).
While Luther Porter Jackson Sr. was busy advocating for integrated educational opportunities for African Americans, his son was acting on his father’s aspirations for black people. As a Marine fighting in the Pacific during World War II, Jackson Jr. received a letter from Percy Baker’s wife in which she told him about Black Mountain College. He returned to the U.S. and, after spending several semesters at Virginia State College, the all black school where his father taught, he decided to spend a semester at an integrated college in the South, and applied to Black Mountain for the Spring of 1947 (Private student files).
While African American students and faculty members were treated as equals while they were on Black Mountain’s campus, they nonetheless dealt with Jim Crow customs when they ventured off-campus. “There is no attempt to ‘hide’ our activities in race relationship, nor do we foist them on the local communities,” Alice Rondthaler wrote to an inquiring student in 1947. “Our Negro students obey the transportation, eating, etc. laws when they are in public. They realize, with us, that the progress forward must necessarily be slow” (Rondthaler to Privette April 30, 1974, Vol II, Box 4). Just as Mary Parks Washington experienced racism and segregation practices on the bus into Asheville in 1946, Delores Fullman was subjected to segregation a few years later, this time in a different, off-campus setting. In the Sprouted Seeds collection, Andy Oates, who was a student from 1948-1950, remembers going to Asheville to see a movie with Fullman when she was asked to sit in the balcony of the theater because she was an African American. In solidarity, Oates and a few other white students from Black Mountain sat with her in the theater’s balcony as well (Oates 258).
In other ways, too, white students hoped to be in tune with the “race problem” that their school was trying to tackle and attempted to work against the racism that their peers often experienced when they were off campus. Some white students tried to bridge the gap between themselves and African American individuals and communities in the area by attending local Negro churches and other gatherings alongside African Americans, including the Southern Negro Youth Congress. Student Jesse Dawes Green remembers meeting celebrated black writer and intellectual W.E.B. DuBois with other Black Mountain students at the Southern Negro Youth Congress when it was held in Charleston, South Carolina (Green 199-200).
The school, while watching out for its reputation and the safety of its students and faculty members, was also involved with the issue of racial inclusion and combatting Jim Crow on a larger, national scale, and even hosted conferences and supported the early Civil Rights movement (Duberman 175). This commitment resulted in events such as the Southern Conference for Human Welfare holding their annual conference on Black Mountain’s campus in 1944. On April 16, 1947, a group of activists from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) came through the nearby city of Asheville and stayed at Black Mountain College for the night. These activists were young black and white Freedom Riders on their “Journey of Reconciliation” through the South. The group travelled from Washington, D.C. down through Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina and Tennessee using public transportation and challenging the segregationist Jim Crow laws which were still enforced, despite a recent Supreme Court decision which found them unconstitutional called Morgan v. Virginia. These laws forced black passengers to sit in the back of buses and in separate train cars than white passengers (Catsman 13). During the day when the Freedom Riders were on the Black Mountain campus, classes were cancelled so that faculty and students could attend meetings with these visitors and learn about their objectives with the Journey of Reconciliation (Minutes April 15, 1947).
One student, Janet Heling Roberts, remembered the visit fondly: “How admirable that the College could be that brave, that caring, that committed. In those years, this was a very daring thing to do” (Roberts 129). The Freedom Riders were not bothered on their journey to Asheville and were welcomed on the Black Mountain College campus, but their next day was not as peaceful. On their way out of Asheville, two Freedom Riders, one black and one white, were arrested for not moving from their seats after being asked by the bus driver. In court the next day, the Asheville judge said he had never heard of the Supreme Court decision they used to argue their case, and the two were sentenced to 30 days working on a road gang, for breaking an unconstitutional law (Catsman 32-33).
The summer after the Freedom Riders stopped by the college, Black Mountain admitted two more African American students for its 1947 summer institute. The students were a married couple from North Carolina, Doris Harris Miller and Quentin Kyles Miller. However, before sending in their applications, Quentin sent a letter to the registrar at Black Mountain: “I did not return the application because I feel that I should inform you that my wife and I are Negroes. If this has no bearing on our entering the College as special students, please let me hear from you so that I may send in the applications without further delay.” The registrar replied to Quentin: “Applicants for admission are considered on basis of personal qualifications, regardless of color” (Notes from student files). In addition to admitting African American students, it should be noted that Black Mountain also admitted other non-white students, such as Ruth Asawa, a Japanese-American who was a student for two years at the college. Students also came from countries such as China, France, England and more (Rondthaler to Privette April 30, 1974).
Black Mountain continued hosting international students, but by 1947, the college saw fewer black students, which disappointed Lowinsky in particular. In a letter to Dreier, Lowinsky wrote: “If Black Mountain College wants to have Negro students, it will have them; if it does not find them, it is because it does not really want them. This may seem a hard statement—I nevertheless am convinced of it” (Duberman 214). But two years later, in 1949, Lowinksy left the college, as did Dreier. With most of the college’s first racial inclusion proponents gone (Foreman, Wunsch and now Lowinksy and Dreier), admitting black students to Black Mountain College seemed to be no longer a priority. Lowinsky continued in his letter to Dreier: “Our efforts to contribute in a small way to better interracial living may not be just another one of those fads of which we were so often accused. It must be an effort as hard and consistent as the problem to the solution of which it wants to contribute” (Duberman 214). Despite his urging, after Lowinsky left in 1949 the racial inclusion effort at Black Mountain largely stopped. After him, no other faculty member was willing to take the extra time and effort to recruit additional students (Harris 111).
“We take great risks,” Lowinsky wrote in 1945. “The success of our endeavors might possibly mean that the long-awaited opening in Southern educational institutions would be made” (Lowinsky to Helm May 28, 1945). But Lowinsky and the rest of the South would have to wait another decade before this “opening” occurred, when the Brown v. Board of Education decision was handed down in 1954. Even then, it would be years after the historic court decision before desegregation took place. In the five years that Black Mountain College adopted the effort to integrate, it committed itself wholeheartedly to this goal. And, given its means, the college succeeded. Despite financial and social obstacles, the college recruited at least eleven black students, five black faculty members, and numerous other African American guests from 1944 until its closing. In his letter, Lowinsky continued: “It is our great hope that we will be able to succeed in carrying out our artistic ideas and our carefully planned and developed bi-racial program” (Lowinsky to Helm May 28, 1945). Buckminster Fuller, Josef Albers, M.C. Richards, John Cage, Willem de Kooning and many other names are often associated with this legendary, short-lived college. But alongside these should be inscribed the names of the first courageous African American faculty and students who helped form a better, more united and democratic Black Mountain College.
[Albers to Lawrence April 9 1946, Faculty Files, Jacob Lawrence, Vol. III, Box 4], 61.12, North Carolina Museum of Art, Black Mountain College Research Project, State Archives of North Carolina, Western Regional Archives, Asheville, NC, USA.
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[BMC Community Bulletin, “Second July Bulletin 1945,” Vol. I, Box 28], 61.12, North Carolina Museum of Art, Black Mountain College Research Project, State Archives of North Carolina, Western Regional Archives, Asheville, NC, USA.
Bostic, Connie. “Interview with Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence.” 3.1 n. pag. Web. 11 Apr. 2014.
“Buncombe County’s Eden.” Time 33, no. 25 (1939): 46-47.
Catsam, Derek. Freedom’s Main Line: The Journey of Reconciliation and the Freedom Rides. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2009. Internet resource.
Clark, Camille. “Black Mountain College: A Pioneer in Southern Racial Racial Inclusion.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 54 (Winter 2006): 46-48.
[Correspondence], PC.1956, The Theodore and Barbara Loines Dreier Black Mountain College Collection (Dreier BMC Collection), State Archives of North Carolina, Western Regional Archives, Asheville, NC, USA.
Cotter, Holland. “Jacob Lawrence Is Dead at 82; Vivid Painter Who Chronicled Odyssey of Black Americans.” The New York Times 10 June 2000. NYTimes.com. Web. 8 Dec. 2013.
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[Dreier to Williams Sept. 7, 1945], PC.1956, The Theodore and Barbara Loines Dreier Black Mountain College Collection (Dreier BMC Collection), State Archives of North Carolina, Western Regional Archives, Asheville, NC, USA.
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Duberman, Martin B. Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community. New York: Dutton, 1972. Print.
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Embree, Edwin R, and Julia Waxman. Investment in People: The Story of the Julius Rosenwald Fund. New York: Harper, 1949. Print.
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Harris, Mary E. The Arts at Black Mountain College. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1987. Print.
Hurston, Zora N, and Carla Kaplan. Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters. New York: Doubleday, 2002. Print.
Knight, Gwendolyn, Sheryl Conkelton, and Barbara E. Thomas. Never Late for Heaven: The Art of Gwen Knight. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003. Print.
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Matthews, Sebastian. “Opening Doors: Alma Stone Williams’ 1944 Racial Inclusion of Black Mountain College.” The Urban News. Accessed Oct. 20, 2013.
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[Miller to Foster March 30 1946, Percy Baker faculty files, Vol. III, Box 1], 61.12, North Carolina Museum of Art, Black Mountain College Research Project, State Archives of North Carolina, Western Regional Archives, Asheville, NC, USA.
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[Minutes April 15, 1947], 61.12, North Carolina Museum of Art, Black Mountain College Research Project, State Archives of North Carolina, Western Regional Archives, Asheville, NC, USA.
[“Minutes of the Faculty and Board of Fellows of the Corporation of Black Mountain College,” June 27, 1945. Vol. I Box 4, pg. 274], 61.12, North Carolina Museum of Art, Black Mountain College Research Project, State Archives of North Carolina, Western Regional Archives, Asheville, NC, USA.
[Notes from student files], 61.12, North Carolina Museum of Art, Black Mountain College Research Project, State Archives of North Carolina, Western Regional Archives, Asheville, NC, USA.
[Private student files], 61.12, North Carolina Museum of Art, Black Mountain College Research Project, State Archives of North Carolina, Western Regional Archives, Asheville, NC, USA.
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Schulman, Daniel, and Peter M. Ascoli. A Force for Change: African American Art and the Julius Rosenwald Fund. Chicago, IL: Spertus Museum, 2009. Print.
Washington, Mary Parks. Interview by Connie Bostic, Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center, April 29, 2000.
Williams, Alma Stone. Interview by Connie Bostic, Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center, April 20 2001.
[Williams to Dreier Sept. 11, 1945], PC.1956, The Theodore and Barbara Loines Dreier Black Mountain College Collection (Dreier BMC Collection), State Archives of North Carolina, Western Regional Archives, Asheville, NC, USA.
[Williams to Schmidt Fall 1945, Jennerjahn papers], PC.1956, The Theodore and Barbara Loines Dreier Black Mountain College Collection (Dreier BMC Collection), State Archives of North Carolina, Western Regional Archives, Asheville, NC, USA.