Part One: Blacks Vote for Public Education, Win a Separate but Unequal Place in the New School System
When Asheville went to the polls in July 1887 and narrowly approved a resolution establishing tax-supported public schools, black voters provided the crucial margin of support. The city took this step forward during an era of educational reform, a time when cities and towns across North Carolina and throughout the South were finally beginning to provide public schooling for all children.
As a thriving town building a reputation as a health resort and tourism center, Asheville boasted more than 10,000 residents by 1890, according to U.S. Census records, an estimated 2,000 of whom were black. For the vast majority of the city’s children, black and white, the new school system promised their first chance to get an education.
In the years before the city system opened, there were small-scale efforts to educate Asheville’s black children. Darin Waters discusses these early schools in his dissertation Life Beneath The Veneer: The Black Community of Asheville, North Carolina from 1793 to 1900. In 1865 Trinity Episcopal Church founded Freedmen’s Chapel, soon known as Trinity Chapel and later as St. Matthias Church. In 1870 Trinity Chapel established the city’s first school for black children in its basement when it began offering classes in literacy and religion. Calvary Presbyterian Church undertook similar efforts in 1884.
A succession of black private schools that came under the sponsorship of the Women’s Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church began as early as 1875 and culminated in the founding of the prestigious Allen School for girls in 1897. The Buncombe County government operated a school for blacks in Asheville called Beaumont Academy that enrolled 106 students by 1886. But all told, these well-intended efforts reached no more than a small fraction of the black children who needed to go to school.
How was it that African Americans were able to make the critical difference in the city school referendum of July 1887? Thanks to the Reconstruction Acts adopted by the United States Congress in 1867, black males had the right to vote. As W. H. Plemmons explains in A History of the Public School System of Asheville, North Carolina, solid black support of public education was just enough to counterbalance the “no” votes cast by many whites. White opposition grew out of apathy toward educating poor children generally, fears that the schools would eventually become racially mixed, and deeply ingrained resistance to tax increases. The school tax referendum passed by four votes, 722-718, barely receiving the approval of the required majority of eligible voters. Without black support, the major step forward Asheville took in 1887 would have been a big step backward.
To reward blacks for turning out at the polls, the city board of aldermen appointed a former slave, Isaac Dickson, to the first school committee. Born in rural Cleveland County, North Carolina, in 1839, Dickson moved to Asheville with his family in 1870 during the Reconstruction era. Rolling up his sleeves to make a living as a janitor, coal and kindling dealer, grocer, funeral parlor operator, and landlord, Dickson was an enterprising businessman and property owner in the East End-Valley Street neighborhood of the city, a man highly-regarded by both races. He and his family had gone to school in the basement of Trinity Chapel. Dickson worked as a butler on the serving staff of the white Episcopal boarding school that Dale Slusser documents in his book The Ravenscroft School in Asheville. According to Plemmons, Dickson may also have been a member of the household staff of Richmond Pearson, one of the wealthiest men in the city and the broker of the arrangement that gave Dickson a seat on the school committee of the board of aldermen. The presence of an African American on the governing board of a public school system was most unusual in the South, and it speaks well of Asheville.
Jim Crow Inequality
As Dickson and the five white school committee members worked to open the system by January 1888, racial disparities quickly reared their heads. Plemmons notes that the board of aldermen appointed the white members to staggered terms of two, four, and six years. Dickson’s term was two years.
There were many inequities. To house the first white elementary school, the committee purchased the former Asheville Male Academy on Academy Street, an impressive building that would continue to serve as a public school well into the 1900s. The committee located the first black elementary school on Beaumont Street in the former Beaumont Academy, the old Buncombe County school for blacks, a building now owned by the city in the East End near Catholic Hill. (The hill got its name from the Catholic mission that stood on the site until 1921.) The committee attempted some repairs to the Beaumont building, but it evidently needed a lot more work. The committee closed it as a school after three years.
As the era of Jim Crow took shape in late nineteenth century Asheville, it became clear that the tangible resources the city school system was providing for white students—everything from buildings to books to teacher salaries—were superior to those for black students. Waters points out in that during the school system’s first years, white teachers earned $30 per month and black teachers $25. White principals were paid $45 per month and black principals $40. Overall, the gap in per-student spending between white schools and black schools was at least 20 percent.
From the very start, separate was unequal under Jim Crow. In Asheville and throughout the South, these patterns of inequality became so deeply entrenched that they lasted into the second half of the 20th century.
Beaumont Street School
Despite the glaring racial injustices, black families demonstrated a powerful desire for their children to go to school, a reflection of their seemingly unshakeable faith in the power of education. On January 9, 1888, the opening day at Beaumont Street School, 600 children came to enroll, twice as many as the poorly equipped building could hold. Turned away, many children walked home crying (“First Negro School Started Year after Citizen,” Asheville Citizen-Times, January 26, 1969).
On May 16, 1888, four months into the first school term, the Asheville Citizen (“A Visit to the Graded Schools”) described the progress of the new school system based on the first-hand report of a visitor. The first grade teachers at Beaumont Street, “the colored school,” were Mrs. Ford and Miss Mary Dickson, Isaac’s Dickson daughter, who had 85 students to instruct between them—possibly in one large classroom. The second grade teacher was H. B. Brown who was responsible for 29 students. E. H. Lipscombe taught third grade to 28 students. The combined fourth and fifth grade class had 21 students under the care of D. C. Suggs.
The total number of students present on the day of the visit was 163, or 65 percent of the 250 students enrolled in the school (“Report of the Select Committee,” Citizen, May 12, 1888). Records for the school system’s early years show that absenteeism was a problem in every school, black and white, although attendance did improve as the system became better established and more familiar to parents (“Our Public Schools,” Citizen, August 18, 1890).
Virtually all students had to walk to school, regardless of the weather. Some had to make their their way from across town. Muddy ruts on many streets made the trip all the more hazardous when it rained or snowed (“A Month’s Work in the Schools,” Citizen, November 17, 1894).
For most families of both races, getting the children off to school in the morning was a first-time experience—something unique in their family history. In the years before compulsory school attendance and child labor laws, parents had to weigh their faith in education against the need for their children, even the youngest ones, to go to work. To Asheville’s first generation of free African American families, struggling to survive in a changing social and economic order barely two decades after emancipation from slavery, public schooling surely seemed a blessing, but one that took some getting used to.
Part Two of “Asheville’s First City Schools for Black Students” begins with a financial crisis that the school committee solved with the help of Jim Crow; continues with the opening of Mountain Street School, another black school in a makeshift building that quickly overflowed with students; and concludes with a look at the early black teachers who did diligent work in the midst of deplorable conditions.
Post written by Joe Newman, board member of the Friends of the North Carolina Room. Research by Joe Newman and Zoe Rhine, librarian in the North Carolina Room.