Asheville’s First City Schools for Black Students Part Two: African Americans Help Build the City and Its School System

View published in Asheville News and Hotel Reporter, vol. 3, no. 9, March 28, 1896. Nazareth First Baptist Church (Pine Street at Beaumont & Hazzard Streets) right of center. Hazzard Street down and left from the church into Valley Street. M681-DS

Part One of this series began with a survey of private and religious efforts to educate Asheville’s black children in the decades following the Civil War.  Next we saw how the city established a public school system in 1888 after a close vote of public approval in which black voters provided the crucial margin of support.  Looking into the history of Asheville’s first city school for blacks, Beaumont Street, we found that separate education for black students and white students was unequal from very start.  

Asheville in the 1880s

During the decade of the 1880s, the mountain city grew and prospered, and black people did much of the work that moved the city ahead.  Blacks played key roles as unskilled laborers, construction workers, brick masons and other skilled workers, and service and domestic workers. As the black community developed, black entrepreneurs opened businesses to meet the needs of their race in a segregated city.

Black laborers did the brutally tough work that put the Western Carolina Railroad through to Asheville in 1880.  The vast majority of the laborers on the railroad were black convicts chained together in work gangs—horrific reminders of slavery.   Work accidents that went unreported in the newspapers of the day resulted in a shocking number of deaths.  At least 300 lives were lost completing the Swannanoa Tunnel alone (Zoe Rhine, “Black Lives Built Western North Carolina Railroad,” HeardTell

 African American convicts working on a railroad, standing in line as two men with guns stand down the tracks. M710-8

Few residents of Asheville were aware of the human cost of the railroad, but they knew the regular passenger service that began in 1880 was making Asheville a top tourist destination.  A flood of visitors, many of them wealthy, poured into the city.  In 1889, George Vanderbilt decided to build his grand home, Biltmore, just south of the city.

The black people who did the backbreaking work involved in laying rails through the mountains were forbidden to ride the train together with white passengers.  State laws kept blacks segregated from whites in separate sections, often in completely different cars.  The U.S. Supreme Court would give its stamp of approval to a Louisiana law that required this practice— “equal, but separate” train cars for the races—in the landmark decision Plessy v. Ferguson (1896).   This ruling and others in its wake put the full force of law behind segregation.  

The original Battery Park Hotel (1886) stood just beyond small houses and farm buildings that would soon have to make way for urban development. A707-8

When the first Battery Park Hotel was built in 1886 on the highest point in the city, the skilled and unskilled work of black people proved to be essential.  The multistory hotel, constructed in Queen Anne Victorian style, was equipped with an electric elevator, electric lights–all the latest conveniences.  The hotel hired black people to fill service, maintenance, and custodial jobs.  Isaac Dickson worked there as a janitor.  But the black people who built the Battery Park and kept it running smoothly were not allowed to stay in its well-appointed rooms or enjoy a meal with their families in its elegant dining room. Every black person in the city had to live with these restrictions.

Part of the first generation out of slavery, with little to no education, black construction workers and brick layers helped erect the brick and later steel buildings that replaced the city’s older wooden structures. Asheville’s best-known brick mason was a black man, James Vester Miller, who taught his son and other members of his crews the skills of the masonry trade. Much of their work remains unidentified and uncredited.

       “Some of Miller’s construction projects have been documented while others are attributed to him by family and local tradition. He like many other black contractors constructed notable churches for black congregations, but strong tradition also reports that he built the Asheville Municipal Building (1925) for the fire department and police department. Some accounts also say that he worked on the United States Post Office (1890-1891, designed by Willoughby J. Edbrooke) that once stood in Pritchard Park and the YMI Building (1892) designed by Richard Sharp Smith. No documentation of his role has been located for these relative early and credible attributions; he may well have been one of the brickmasons or a brick subcontractor rather than the contractor.”

[North Carolina Architects & Builders, Author: Catherine W. Bishir. https://ncarchitects.lib.ncsu.edu/]

African American Bricklayers, possibly a crew of James Vester Miller’s company. L794-4 cropped

Blacks also supplied essential work in service and domestic roles. As Asheville’s reputation as a health resort and healing center spread, jobs opened in the growing number of sanitariums being built in and around the city. Many black women, held back by a lack of education, were able to earn an income by cooking and cleaning in hotels and health facilities as well as in the homes of white families.. Darin Waters points out that in the period between 1880 and 1890, more than 38 percent of Asheville’s black women were domestic workers (Life Beneath The Veneer: The Black Community in Asheville, North Carolina from 1793 to 1900).

Alphonzo H. Cobb’s house at 133 Montford Avenue. A. H. Cobb is seated right of center and his father, Elisha M. Cobb, is seated farther right. The black woman standing next to the tree is identified on the back of the photo as a servant. B691-5

With the growth of of the city’s African American community, black entrepreneurs took the initiative and opened businesses to meet the needs of their race.  Soon there were black-owned restaurants, grocery stores, barber shops, tailors, contracting firms, pharmacies, real estate agencies, funeral parlors, and more—providing virtually all the goods and services black people needed.  Isaac Dickson was involved in several of these enterprises.  Most black-owned businesses were concentrated in the East End neighborhood, many of them around “The Block” at the intersection of Eagle and Market Streets.  A black professional class of doctors, dentists, and attorneys also developed, a respected, educated class that included teachers and ministers.  In a recent two-part post in HeardTell, Zoe Rhine surveys the black business scene as it had progressed by early 1920s Part 1. For Part 2 click here.

Eagle Street looking east from the intersection with Biltmore Avenue toward the intersection with Market Street. Although the businesses shown here were well beyond the time frame of this HeardTell post, black-owned businesses survived and thrived well into the 1960s. Photo by Warren Guggeheim, assumed to have been taken circa 1950.

Paying for Schools in the Age of Jim Crow

As Asheville’s black families struggled to survive in the emerging social and economic order of the late 1880s—changes that included the first opportunity for most of the city’s families, black and white, to send their children to school—a financial crisis shook the new school system. Toward the end of the second school year, the system ran out of money and closed every school.  It took a campaign for voluntary public subscriptions (donations) to raise money to reopen the schools. “Funds Being Raised for [the Schools’] Continuance,” the Citizen informed its readers on March 17, 1889, listing the contributors to separate fund drives for white schools and black schools. 

Philander P. Claxton, the city system’s first superintendent, and the school committee that governed the system called on Beaumont Street’s teachers to raise money for their school.  In a move that was blatantly discriminatory, even in the context of the times, the committee required black teachers to donate one-half of one month’s salary to the funding campaign—or else they would be fired.  As William H. Plemmons notes in A History of the Public School System of Asheville, North Carolina, the committee made no such demand of white teachers. 

By the time the campaign ended, whites had contributed more than $1,700 for their two schools. Blacks, although joined by a sizable number of white donors including Superintendent Claxton, had raised only $219 for Beaumont Street (“The Colored Schools,” Citizen, March 21, 1889).  Isaac Dickson’s $15 subscription for the black school stood out as one of the largest individual donations in either fund drive, but most of the contributions for Beaumont Street were for a dollar or less.  As if to score another point for Jim Crow, the system reopened its white schools more than a week before the black school.

Asheville Citizen-Times March 10, 1889

INEQUALITY IS . . . EQUAL?  

It aggravated black families that their children were still sitting in overcrowded, poorly ventilated classrooms while the school committee had acted quickly when the same problems affected white students.  In the fall of 1888, the system had reduced enrollment at Academy Street School by building a new school on Orange Street to serve white families who lived in the eastern half of the city. With thirteen rooms and a capacity of 500 students, Orange Street School was, according to the Citizen (“Asheville’s Schools,” February 23, 1890), “one of the best adapted school buildings in the state.” 

Orange Street School (1888-1939), located on Orange Street near Central Avenue. MS273.001S

The committee had also extended the course of study available to white students to nine years, a program the Citizen boasted would prepare graduates “to enter any university in the country.”  While the committee was building up the curriculum for whites, it was cutting down the number of grades at Beaumont Street School from five to four. 

There was no coverage in the Asheville Citizen of the teachers or grades taught at Beaumont School for 1889, and none for 1890 except for the review of the first three years of the city system in the above-cited article “Asheville’s Schools” (February 23, 1890). After devoting seven long paragraphs to the progress in the white schools, the newspaper writer mentioned in a short paragraph, almost as an afterthought, that the attendance of “colored children . . . remained about the same [250 students], and three teachers are employed. There are but four grades, and the course of study does not differ from that of the other schools.”  It is hard to understand how the unidentified writer could reach such a conclusion when the article praises the expanded curriculum in the white schools but then acknowledges the reduction in black elementary schooling to only four grades–with only three teachers to cover them. The only explanation is that whites were learning how to look at inequality and call it equal.

Beaumont was the city system’s first and only school for black students from January 1888 to the opening of Mountain Street School in August 1890, a brief period of not quite three years. All but forgotten today, Beaumont School served its community well considering the limitations imposed by Jim Crow.

MOUNTAIN STREET SCHOOL 

Mountain Street School, with outdoor privy in view at left, date uncertain. MS388.002A Image 10, Asheville City Schools Foundation Collection.

When the school committee finally opened Mountain Street in 1890, it did provide some relief from the overcrowding at Beaumont Street. But the Mountain Street facility turned out to be nothing more than a frame building with an outhouse, most likely an old dwelling that had been repaired and pressed into service as a school.

Black families would have to wait two more years for a decent school building. With the opening of Catholic Hill in the fall of 1892, black people in Asheville finally had a school they could be proud of, a brand new facility designed expressly for education. Future posts in this series on early black schools will detail the history of Catholic Hill School, the forerunner of Stephens-Lee High School.

Part Three of “Asheville’s First City Schools for Black Students” will take a close look at the lives and careers of the city’s first black teachers. The early instructors at Beaumont and Mountain Street somehow found ways to teach their students under impossible conditions.  Teachers who resolved to stay in the city system kept their faith and managed to hold on.  The opening of Catholic Hill School in 1892 fulfilled their hopes and answered their prayers. 

Post written by Joe Newman, board member of the Friends of the North Carolina Room. Research by Zoe Rhine, librarian in the North Carolina Room, and Joe Newman.  

2 thoughts on “Asheville’s First City Schools for Black Students Part Two: African Americans Help Build the City and Its School System

  1. Cherie Morris says:

    This series about early Asheville is wonderful! I know we tend to think of our city as liberal and open-minded but obviously it was not always so and despite our willingness to embrace change, there is still much that needs to be done. The Foundry Hotel and the restaurant Benne on Eagle gets rave reviews in major publications throughout the country but many Asheville residents particularly our African American population, cannot afford it.

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