The Creation of a Public School System for the City of Asheville, 1887-1888

Looking down on Asheville with a distant view of the first Battery Park Hotel built in 1886. Eagle Street is in the center of the photo curving around a stand of trees. L473-8

Setting Up the System and Hiring the Teachers

Asheville Times, July 29, 1887:

“Graded School Carried: Asheville Keeps to the Front By a Very Close Squeeze

We need not multiply words to express pleasure at the result of the election yesterday on the graded school question. As usual, Asheville sticks to progress and progressive methods . . Now for a good school, one that will reflect credit on the community.

As we saw in the first two parts of this series, the community on the progressive side in Asheville was the black community, people who knew what education would mean for their children–the first generation out of slavery. Black voters carried the day in the city school referendum.

The members of the first school committee–five white men and one black man, Isaac Dickson–met 12 days after the referendum and went right to work. They had to get a public school system off the ground–one school for whites and one for blacks. Would it be possible to open the schools early in the upcoming year, in January 1888, only five months away?

The committee met nine times in 1887. Among the members’ top priorities were finding buildings for both schools and arranging needed repairs. Books and desks had to be ordered. The committee had to create a set of rules and recruit and examine qualified teachers.

Advertising for teachers once a week in the Asheville daily papers, the Richmond Dispatch, and the Raleigh and Nashville papers, the committee instructed Superintendent Philander P. Claxton to advertise also in Goldsboro, North Carolina, and examine black applicants there. In September the committee set teacher salaries, with white teachers earning $30 per month and black teachers $25 per month.

In mid-November, the committee began “electing” (appointing) teachers, and E. H. Lipscombe and D. C. Suggs were elected for the black school. H. B. Brown was elected in mid-December. Miss Mary Jane Dickson, Isaac’s daughter, was next, and Mrs. Hester Ford was nominated and elected on December 24.

Superintendent Claxton came to the black school building to examine and grade children on January 1, 1888. And with that, the Asheville City Schools opened for black students on January 9, 1888. The occasion was joyous, a cause for celebration, but the spirit was dampened by the “many black enrollees [who] were turned away weeping because of the lack of space” (“First Negro School,” Citizen, January 26, 1969).

The Original Five Teachers in Asheville’s First City School for Blacks: Beaumont Street, Serving Grades 1-5

As reported by the Asheville Citizen (May 16, 1888), the five teachers were:

First Grade: Mrs. Ford and Miss Mary Dickson, with 85 students for the two teachers.

Second Grade: H. B. Brown, with 29 students.

Third Grade: E. H. Lipscombe, with 28 students.

Fourth and Fifth Grade: D. C. Suggs, with 21 students.

The school committee hired three men and two women to teach at Beaumont Street, a gender makeup almost never seen in today’s elementary schools. It harked back to earlier decades of the 19th century, a time when schoolmasters outnumbered schoolmistresses. But the gender scales in teaching were tipping toward women in Asheville and throughout the nation. As more public school systems opened, women took over elementary teaching, while men moved into high school teaching and administration.

Here are profiles of the lives and careers of two of the five teachers at Beaumont Street.

Harrison B. Brown

Harrison Brown was the first person known to have taught black students in a public school in Asheville.

Before city voters narrowly approved the July 1887 referendum establishing a tax-supported school system, Buncombe County operated a public school known as Beaumont Academy. The school served black students from at least February 1886 through 1887.  Harrison Brown was the only person ever mentioned in published records as teaching at this school, which reached an enrollment of 213 by 1887.

We haven’t been able to locate a photograph or sketch of Brown, but we’ve found an intriguing photo that shows the downtown office he rented after he became a lawyer.

 Storefronts on brick-paved Court Square, circa 1896, showing H. B. Brown’s law office. We believe the children in the cart and the two girls sitting in the shadow of the front porch of W. O. Wolfe’s shop are the older siblings of Asheville author Thomas Wolfe. The Wolfe and Brown families must have known each other because the men worked in the same building. It is plausible that the woman standing at the back of the cart was Harrison Brown’s wife, Rachel, and the younger woman standing to the side of the cart could have been their daughter. L858-11
Entrance to the upstairs including signage for H. B. Brown, Atty. At Law. L858-11

Harrison Brown, a man who made his mark as a teacher and lawyer as well as in other lines of work, was born into slavery in Haywood County, North Carolina in 1858, seven years before the end of the Civil War.  According to his biographical sketch in the Heritage of Black Highlanders Collection (UNC Asheville, Ramsey Library, Special Collections and University Archives, available online), Brown attended an “Episcopal Parochial School” that most likely was the school in the basement of Trinity Chapel (later renamed St. Matthias).  Brown would have been age 12 at this time, and his family may have sent him to Asheville to go to this school. Like Mary Dickson, who also grew up to become one of the five original teachers in the Asheville City Schools, Brown may have had no formal education beyond what Trinity Chapel provided.   

Brown married Rachel Earle in Asheville in 1878. She was born in 1860 in Greenville, South Carolina. The 1900 census found Harrison and Rachel living on Cherry Street in Asheville with six children.

“H. B. Brown, Asheville, NC” is listed as a trustee in an 1886 newspaper ad for the Western Union Institute For Colored People, a religious academy whose trustees also included black educator and minister E. H. Lipscombe—the founder of the institute—as well as Thomas W. Patton, Richmond Pearson, and other white leaders (Asheville Advance, September 14, 1886). 

When the Asheville school committee hired Brown to teach the fourth and fifth grades at Beaumont Street in 1887, he was a man with connections in white and black Asheville, and he was an experienced teacher. His biography in the Heritage of Black Highlanders Collection states that Brown taught in Hendersonville, North Carolina, for five years. He was probably more familiar than he wanted to be with the rundown school building on Beaumont Street, having taught there when it housed the Buncombe County school for blacks. Now he was back in the building again, teaching 29 second graders in the new city system.

Brown soon branched out from teaching into several other endeavors. He was named to the Office of the Collector of Internal Revenue, 1889-1893.  The Asheville City Directory listed him in 1890 as a teacher and in 1896-97 as a lawyer and principal of a parochial school, which would have been either St. Matthias Episcopal or Calvary Presbyterian.  Brown was a founding member of the Young Men’s Institute (Y.M.I.) in 1893.  His Heritage of Black Highlanders biography indicates that he owned a great deal of property and “made it possible for many blacks to own their own homes and businesses.”

Brown was admitted to the Asheville bar in 1896 and commissioned in 1898.  His law office in the heart of the city on the Court Square symbolized his success and his acceptance by people of both races.  

In addition to these pursuits, Brown was a notary public; a newspaper publisher, founding The Colored Enterprise in 1896 with Thomas L. Leatherwood; a first lieutenant in a volunteer infantry company during the Spanish-American War; and a 33rd degree Mason, the district deputy grand master for Western North Carolina.

By 1920, Harrison and Rachel Brown had moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, where he was practicing law.  He died in Knoxville on June 16, 1930, at the age of 72. Only one son was listed in his obituary as a survivor, H. B. Brown, Jr.  The obituary states that Rachel had died “about a year ago.”

Daniel Cato Suggs

Daniel Cato Suggs was a career-minded educator who was willing to relocate to find better opportunities. He started out as an elementary school teacher, moved into college teaching and administration, and capped his career as a college president. His life story suggests he took every step along this road with the prayer that his work would help his race to rise. 

A native of Wilson, North Carolina, Daniel Suggs was born to George Washington and Esther Suggs two days after the Civil War ended in 1865.  He graduated in 1884 with a bachelor’s degree from Lincoln University, a historically black institution founded in 1854 near Oxford, Pennsylvania, and later earned a master’s degree from Lincoln. 

After beginning his teaching career in the Kinston public schools in Lenoir County, North Carolina, Suggs was in Asheville by 1887. He was the first black teacher who came to the city school committee’s attention for employment. He taught a combined class of 21 fourth and fifth graders at Beaumont Street School.

Suggs soon stepped up to college teaching. From from 1889 through 1892 he was department chair in math and science at Livingstone College, a historically black school affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion Church in Salisbury, North Carolina.  But he did not forget Asheville.  He attended the Colored Teachers’ Institute held in Asheville in August 1891 and “gave an interesting and valuable address on the conditions of the colored race and their duty and power.” “The teachers of the race,” he proclaimed,“ are to be the factor in the elevation of the race in the present age. They are to lead out in the development of the forces that belong to this race” (Citizen, August 6, 1891).

Suggs married teacher Mary Nocho of Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1902. They had five children.

Suggs spent 20 years, the longest stay of his career, as department chair of natural science and vice-president of Georgia State Industrial College for Colored Youth at Savannah. Then Livingstone called him back. The Negro Year Book, 1922, lists Suggs with a Ph.D. as president of the college. Suggs was invited back to Asheville that same year to deliver the commencement address at the “Closing Exercises at Catholic Hill.” Because Stephens-Lee High School had not yet been built, the exercises were held at the Y.M.I. (Citizen, June 4, 1922). 

Daniel Cato Suggs died in Greensboro in 1936 at the age of 71.

The posts in this series on early black city schools will continue with biographies of the rest of the faculty who opened Beaumont Street School in 1888: Edward H. Lipscombe, Mary Dickson Harris, and Hester Ford Lee.

Written and researched by Zoe Rhine, North Carolina Room librarian, and Joe Newman, board member of the Friends of the North Carolina Room.


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