Asheville’s First City Schools for Black Students, Part Four: Builders of Black Schools (concluded)

This installment offers a look at the life and career of the fifth of the five original teachers at Asheville’s first black city school, Beaumont Street. We’ve saved one of the best teachers for last. We’ve also included information on the members of her family because of their prominence in Asheville and their connections to people still living in the area. In conclusion we’ll consider why Hester Lee and other well-qualified teachers were willing to take up the hard work of building black schools from the ground up in a brand new public school system.  

Hester Walker Ford Lee–1861-1922

Hester Walker Ford Lee and Walter S. Lee, cropped from photo in the Heritage of Black Highlanders Collection, Ramsey Library, UNC Asheville, Special Collections and University Archives 

Hester Ford was one of the two black women who faced the daunting task of teaching 85 first grade students, most likely crowded into one large room, when Beaumont Street School opened in 1888.  Hester must have identified closely with the struggles of her students and their families because she came from a similar background.  Her life experiences, educational achievements, and high status as a teacher told her students that they, too, could succeed if they set their sights high.

She was listed simply as “Mrs. Ford” in the first newspaper article announcing the teachers at the new “Colored School” (Asheville Citizen, May 16, 1888). She later married Walter S. Lee, who became principal of Catholic Hill School and Stephens-Lee High School.

Hester Walker was born to Amanda Walker in Plymouth, North Carolina, in 1861, four years before the end of slavery. Hester’s obituary says she spent most of her girlhood in Salisbury. The 1870 Census  lists Amanda Walker, a domestic servant, age 33, with Hester, age 12, living in Salisbury with a white family. “Amanda Walker (and her young child) were refugeed from eastern North Carolina during the Civil War to Salisbury.”

By 1880, at age 19, Hester had married Remus Foard (spelled “Foard” in the 1870 and 1880 census), and they were living in Salisbury in a household with Amanda Walker (age 41), Edmund Holt (age 45) and three other children, Emmaline/Everline, Willie and John, all with the last name of Holt. The 1880 census shows Hester and two of the other children were working at a tobacco factory.  Edmund Holt and Amanda Walker later moved to Asheville, where he worked for the railroad. Amanda Walker died in 1897.

John Wakefield Walker, A. B. M. D. from National Cyclopedia of the Colored Race, 1919.

Hester’s brother John Wakefield Walker became a well-known physician in Asheville. Lee Walker Heights was named for him and Walter S. Lee.  Amanda’s other siblings were also prominent black people in Asheville. Willie Holt taught at Catholic Hill School and after marrying E.J. Dodson in 1907 taught at Southside as Willie Dodson.

MAIN BUILDING—LIVINGSTONE COLLEGE. 1888. NCpedia

Hester Ford showed her academic talents early and somehow managed to attend Livingstone College, which opened in its second location in Salisbury in 1882. A private, historically black Christian institution affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion Church, Livingstone prepared its students for teaching and preaching, graduating its first class of students—eight men and two women—with a bachelor of arts degree in 1888. As Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore points out in Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, the two women were the first African American women to earn a bachelor’s degree in North Carolina. At age 27, Ford may well have been in this first graduating class.

Asheville Citizen Times October 7, 1888

Ford initially came to Asheville to teach in the city’s new public school system, and she became one of the five teachers who opened Beaumont Street School in January 1888. Some time after the first school year, and probably around 1894-95, she moved across the mountains to teach in Morristown, Tennessee. She married native Tennesseean Walter Smith Lee there in 1895. 

  “An application for a teachership in the colored schools was received from J. P. Wingate.” “The Superintendent reported the result of an examination held by him on this day for a primary teachership in the colored schools and Mrs. Hester Ford was nominated and elected such teacher.” School Committee of Asheville, NC. Minute Book #1 1887-1892

Working together as they often did during their careers, Hester and Walter Lee both gave talks at the Hamblen County Normal Institute for colored teachers who met at Morristown Normal Academy in 1897. “Mrs. W. S. Lee took Theory and Practice of teaching and handled the subject to the satisfaction of all who heard her,” the Morristown Republican reported (July 31, 1897). At that time, W. S. Lee was principal of the Greeneville, Tennessee, graded school.

Red line showing approximate site of Beaumont Street from up the side of the mountain down to its intersection with Pine Street south of Nazareth Baptist Church. No pictures of Beaumont School are known to survive but it was believed to be near the intersection with Valley Street. North Carolina Room, Pack Memorial Library, F026-DS Street notation by Rich Mathews.

In 1905 they came to Asheville, where Walter Lee became principal of Hill Street School. Hester Lee began teaching by 1906, first at Hill Street School and then at Catholic Hill School when her husband moved from Hill Street into the principalship at Catholic Hill in 1909. Besides Hester’s beginning years from 1888, she taught in Asheville City Schools from 1906 through 1916 and was principal of the “Southside Building” in 1912 and 1913 at a time when very few women of any race were given principalships.

During and after World War I, Hester and Walter Lee were active in civic causes.  Both were on the committee of the “colored Red Cross” that worked with the “colored department” of the War Camp Community. Hester Lee served as president of the YWCA and was an officer in the organization when the Phillis Wheatley Branch, named for the first black woman to publish a book of poetry, was created in 1921. Hester was the president of the Parent-Teacher Association for a number of years.

Original plaque for Stephens-Lee High School reinstalled on the Stephens-Lee Alumni Center

When the Catholic Hill School was finally being rebuilt more than four years after it had been razed by fire in November 1917, the school board realized the school should be renamed.  In April 1922 the board “officially adopted . . . a more appropriate name for the splendid new structure.” The board had consulted with “leading colored citizens, and members of the National Association for the Advancement of the Colored Race” as well as other “colored organizations.” On April 25, 1922, the new school was officially renamed Stephens-Lee High School (“Board Adopts Name New High School” Citizen, April 26, 1922).

The appeal of the black community to the school board stated that “it would be most appropriate to have the name suggested serve as a memorial to Prof. [Edward S. Stephens], first principal of the high school for colored in Asheville, and for Hester Lee, who gave many years of her life as a teacher of colored in the city” (“Suggest Change in Name of Catholic Hill School Here,” Citizen, January 2, 1922).

Hester Lee died August 14, 1922, less that two months after the black community honored her with the naming of Stephens-Lee High School.  The school soon became the heart of the community. The devotion and admiration that black people held for her were well-known, and the name of the school made them official. Although many wonderful stories about Lee have been lost as people who were alive during her lifetime have passed, we hope this biographical sketch will help later generations understand how important Hester Lee was to Asheville. 

Why Did They Teach in Asheville?

North Carolina Room, Pack Memorial Library, L473-8

In earlier posts in the series Asheville’s First City Schools for Black Students, we traced the history of how Asheville finally made public schools available to students of both races in the late 1880s. Looking closely at the first black teachers hired to teach in the city system—the original five teachers who opened Beaumont Street School in January 1888—we saw that they were an impressive group, people ready and willing to teach young black children from families that had never before had the opportunity to go to school.     

We noted that Hester Ford and Mary Dickson taught 85 first graders, Harrison Brown had 29 students in his second grade classroom, Edward Lipscomb taught 28 third graders, and Daniel Suggs had a combined fourth and fifth grade class of 21 students. The faculty did their best in substandard conditions that made their always demanding jobs almost impossible at times.

All five of Asheville’s first black public school teachers were natives of North Carolina. Three—Brown, Lipscombe, and Ford—were born into slavery, and Suggs two days after the Civil War ended. Dickson, the only native of Asheville among the five, was born in 1871 during Reconstruction.  

Three of the five—Ford, Lipscombe, and Suggs—had earned a college degree. Lipscomb and Suggs also held graduate degrees. These teachers had every reason to hold their heads high. Graduating from college was an extremely rare achievement in the 1880s and 1890s, an accomplishment that less than one percent of whites and an even smaller percentage of black people were able to attain (National Center for Education Statistics, 120 Years of Education: A Statistical Portrait). Dickson and Brown came from more modest educational backgrounds, most likely receiving the equivalent of an elementary school education in classes held in the basement of Trinity Chapel, the forerunner of St. Matthias Episcopal Church. Even this much education set them apart from most blacks and many whites. 

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

How was it that the Asheville City Schools were able to attract black teachers of this caliber? The mountain city was lucky to hire them, to be sure, especially considering the working conditions in the first black schools.  But the other side of the coin was that the teachers felt fortunate to have the job. 

Simply put, the job market for black college graduates and other academically capable black people was limited. In the age of Jim Crow, who would hire them? Blacks with college degrees were overqualified for the job market they entered, especially in the South where there were few positions of any kind available that would allow them to use their intellectual and interpersonal skills. Their best prospects for employment were in education and religion. 

  “Bids were received for the repairs of Beaumont Academy and that of Jno. Clayton was accepted and the subcommittee directed to have the work done at once.” “On motion Prof. Claxton, Supt. was directed to advertise for and hold an examination of colored teachers in Goldsboro as early as feasible.” School Committee of Asheville, NC. Minute Book #1 1887-1892, 11/15/1887 p. 23

One by one, cities and larger towns across the South were starting public school systems open to students of both races. The word that Asheville’s new system had job openings for black teachers spread to North Carolina’s college-educated blacks via newspaper notices and by word of mouth. The city school committee advertised in the Asheville, Richmond, Raleigh, Nashville, and Goldsboro, North Carolina, papers.  The news must have traveled fast among black college graduates. 

Religious work, particularly the ministry, was also attractive to black collegians. Edward Lipscombe, as we have seen, had a highly productive career that combined religion and education at every stage. All three of the college-educated teachers—Ford, Suggs, and Lipscombe—were graduates of historically black colleges or universities (HBCUs) that impressed on all their students the necessity of using the education they had been blessed to receive to lift up their race and help their people move forward. In this sense, teaching was missionary work

The Asheville system was also hiring black teachers who had grown up in the immediate area, and their educational backgrounds tended to be modest. Mary Dickson exemplified this kind of teacher. As historian Lawrence Cremin explains in The Transformation of the School, a high school diploma was the standard credential required for entering elementary teaching in public school systems throughout the nation during this era.    

Asheville Citizen-Times June 1, 1888

But as the years went by, more of the city’s homegrown black teachers attended HBCUs, if only for an abbreviated teacher training program.  This change, too, was part of a national trend. Some taught for a few years in the Asheville system, went away to study in a college or university normal department, and then returned to the city school system (“City Schools’ Teachers,” Citizen, September 24, 1892).  Teachers could also upgrade their skills by attending the teacher institutes that Buncombe County conducted in this period. 

As the teaching force feminized in Asheville, just as in the rest of the nation, women filled elementary teaching positions while men moved into school administration and, in later years, high school teaching.  Although the majority-male composition of Beaumont Street School had become atypical of public elementary schools by the late nineteenth century, the careers of the original five teachers foreshadowed a pattern still visible in schools today.  Ford and Dickson, the two women, stayed in classroom teaching longer than their male counterparts. The three men had their eyes set on career advancement and mobility. Lipscombe became a principal, professor, and minister, Brown an attorney, and Suggs a college president.

Today’s public school systems are having to struggle to hire and retain teachers—especially black teachers. As job discrimination based on race has lessened, the brightest and most talented black people, men and women alike, have increasingly passed up teaching in favor of better paying, less stressful, more prestigious careers in other fields

Today the shortage of black teachers is acute.  It is nothing short of a crisis. 

  • National Cyclopedia of the Colored Race, 1919.
  • Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920 by Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, p. 40.
  • Morristown Republican, Morristown, TN. Jul. 31, 1897.

Click on links below for Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 of this series.

ASHEVILLE’S FIRST CITY SCHOOLS FOR BLACK STUDENTS PART ONE: BLACKS VOTE FOR PUBLIC EDUCATION, WIN A SEPARATE BUT UNEQUAL PLACE IN THE NEW SCHOOL SYSTEM

ASHEVILLE’S FIRST CITY SCHOOLS FOR BLACK STUDENTS PART TWO: AFRICAN AMERICANS HELP BUILD THE CITY AND ITS SCHOOL SYSTEM

Post written and researched by Zoe Rhine, North Carolina Room librarian, and Joe Newman, retired university education professor and board member of the Friends of the North Carolina Room.

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