A Most Exceptional Man: Edward S. Stephens (Part One)

“Asheville from Beaucatcher” circa 1886-1891 by Lindsey & Brown. North Carolina Room, Pack Memorial Library, A210-8

This post begins the two-part story of Edward Stephens and his work in Asheville and other cities.  Although Stephens wasn’t one of the original five black teachers when the Asheville public schools opened in January 1888, he came to the system two years later and made lasting contributions to the black community as a teacher, a principal, and the organizer and first general secretary of the Young Men’s Institute (YMI).

During the short time Stephens was in Asheville, 1890 through 1894 or 1895, he stood out as different from other black people.  No other teacher had the international schooling or multicultural background Stephens had.  No one else had his assertive personal style.  No other teacher showed the same willingness to confront racial discrimination.  On the contrary, some black people were wary of Stephens because he could be so self-confident and bold, while some whites resented what they saw as his “uppity” ways.  And yet 30 years later, when it was time to name Asheville’s newly built black high school, he was honored as the Stephens in Stephens-Lee. 

Born in Georgetown, British Guiana, years after the abolition of slavery in the colony,  Stephens experienced the aftermath but not the direct evils of slavery.  Differing accounts place his birth as early as 1849 and as late as 1861.  He spent his earliest years in the home of the colony’s British governor as the child of the governor’s butler and maid.  The governor and his wife adopted him after his father, whose last name  presumably was Stephens, died. 

When the governor returned to England, he took Stephens with him, enrolling him in “the best English schools”—a highly privileged, very white environment.  Stephens later received an inheritance that allowed him to live beyond the means of a teacher’s salary (Topeka [Kansas] State Journal, November 16, 1896). 

Asheville Citizen Times, August 30, 1890. No photograph is known to exist of Edward S. Stephens.

The Asheville Daily Citizen (August 30, 1890) greeted his arrival with a story titled “A Well Informed Negro.”  The newspaper reporter based the unusually detailed story on an interview with Stephens, and it’s obvious the reporter had never encountered anyone remotely like him.  After his early schooling in England, Stephens had spent time in Paris, which may have prompted the reporter to observe that “he speaks English with a slight French accent.”  Stephens graduated from a university in Switzerland and did post-graduate study at a German university. 

Stephens told the reporter that “it had been his fortune to enjoy advantages which are denied to many of his people, and if he could do any good to his race he would be satisfied.”  By the time he came to Asheville in 1890, Stephens had traveled the world, served as a missionary in Africa, and mastered seven languages.  He had also developed a direct, candid way of expressing himself that seems to have played well in his early life but caused trouble later. 

Stephens arrived in the United States at the port of New York in 1888.  By the next year, he was in St. Louis, where he founded “a Y. M. C. A. for colored people.”  A notice on the same page of the August 30, 1890, Citizen that introduced Stephens to Asheville announced that “on Sunday afternoon a meeting will be held at Isaac Dickson’s house to organize a Y. M. C. A. for colored men and women.” 

With the capable assistance of Dickson, the city’s best-known black leader and businessman, Stephens and other black people took up the task. Darin Waters explains in Life Beneath The Veneer: The Black Community in Asheville, North Carolina from 1793 to 1900 that after initial efforts to establish the black YMCA failed, Stephens presented the idea to George Vanderbilt, who agreed to support the project with a loan of $15,000. The work moved forward.  

Asheville Citizen, Sept. 1, 1890

Stephens had already made connections with the Asheville School committee, having won a mid-year appointment as principal of Beaumont Street School.  He was the first of the city’s early black teachers who had not been born in North Carolina.  He replaced Edward H. Lipscombe, who temporarily left the system during the 1889-1890 school year to take care of numerous other educational and religious responsibilities.  

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a public school principal was in fact a principal teacher, so that in addition to his administrative duties, Stephens was responsible for teaching a class of elementary school children.  He appears to have been brand new to both sides of his job.  One source says Stephens had been a college instructor in his hometown of Georgetown, British Guiana (Bridgeport [Connecticut] Evening Farmer, October 1, 1909), but there is no record he had ever been a teacher or administrator at any other level.    

Whatever Stephens may have lacked in elementary school experience, he made up for with his unquestioned commitment to helping people of his race.  He first appears in the minutes of the Asheville School Committee on February 6, 1890, not long after he took the job: “Ed Stephens principal of Colored School appeared before the committee and asked an increase of the salaries of the colored teachers: on motion the matter was laid on the table.”  At the time, the monthly salaries of white teachers ranged between $45 and $35, while black teachers earned $30.  There was a similar gap between the salaries of black and white principals. 

Besides Principal Stephens, there were only two other teachers, Harrison Brown and Hester Ford, to cover the four grades at Beaumont Street in 1889-1890.  As we’ve seen in earlier posts in HeardTell, teaching and learning conditions in the black school were deplorable.  The two white schools were housed in far better buildings, and there was a total of 17 white teachers for nine grades.  These disparities must have worn on Stephens and his two fellow teachers as they tried to make the best of their situation. 

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

Mountain Street School opened on Catholic Hill in the fall of 1890 to relieve severe overcrowding at Beaumont Street.  Also in the fall of 1890, the school committee hired a new first grade teacher for Mountain Street, a woman who was in the early stages of what turned out to be a 62-year educational career in Asheville and other North Carolina cities. By the end of her career, her students would affectionately call her “Mother Jackson.”

Miss Leonora T. Jackson’s background was different from Stephens’s in almost every way.  Jackson had been born into slavery in Halifax County, North Carolina, in 1859.  A minister’s daughter, she was a graduate of Shaw University, a Baptist institution founded by the Freedmen’s Bureau.  Shaw prepared black teachers and preachers, sending its graduates out with a missionary zeal for their work.  Jackson came to Asheville with five years of teaching experience in a graded school in Raleigh and several more years as principal of the city normal school.  A Raleigh newspaper noted she had already built an “enviable reputation” as “the finest teacher of primary classes in the State” (Click here to read earlier post on Leonora T. Jackson).

As highly educated black people, Stephens and Jackson both felt an obligation to lift up their race, but given their different life experiences, their methods and personal styles were different.  It didn’t take long for the two of them to clash.  According to the school committee minutes of December 5, 1890, “The Supt. reported misunderstanding between Miss Jackson & Principal Stevans [sic] of the colored schools . . . After hearing statements of parties, on motion, The principal was directed to proceed in his management of the schools, the Supt. to report to Com. the first interruption of regular routine.” 

Internal disputes that broke out in any school, black or white, almost never reached the school committee.  Most principals did everything in their power to settle such matters inside the school, because a disruption that the superintendent had to bring to the attention of the committee reflected badly on the principal’s ability to manage the faculty.  Such were the rules of school system bureaucracy. 

Stephens weathered this storm and found plenty to do teaching his students, supervising the Mountain Street faculty, and overseeing the black YMCA project.  With enrollment increasing as parents became more familiar with the city school system, the school committee entered a building phase.  In May 1891, the committee began investigating sites for two new schools, one black and one white, and quickly settled on a Catholic Hill lot as the site for the black school (minutes, May 29 and June 4, 1891). 


Catholic Hill Property Plat, Buncombe County Register of Deeds, filed June 1, 1890

While the committee’s attention was focused on putting together the funding needed to build two new schools, Stephens made two more requests for a salary increase for black teachers (school committee minutes, October 8, 1891, and February 5, 1892).  The committee tabled both requests.  From a financial standpoint, his petitions were poorly timed, but a much larger obstacle stood in the way.  Did Stephens, still learning the dominant white culture of the South, understand what he was up against with his push toward salary parity in the era of Jim Crow?  It appears he did, but he felt it was still his duty to stand up for what he knew to be right—even against all odds.  

Catholic Hill School in 1904. MS273.001ZH

Stephens found more encouragement in several other events.  He had the honor of opening the new Catholic Hill School as its first principal in the fall of 1892.  At last, the black community had the school it deserved, housed in an impressive brick building designed specifically for educational purposes. 

The school had six grades and a faculty of six counting Principal Stephens, who taught grades 5 and 6.  Miss Leonora Jackson and Miss Loula Love each had a first grade class, Miss Izie Riddick taught second grade, Miss Emily Stanard third grade, and Miss Virginia Burrell fourth grade.  The Citizen (September 24, 1892) announced that Love and Burrell were new to the city system.  Love was a graduate of the Normal Department of Howard University in Washington, DC, and Burrell a graduate of the Philadelphia Institute for Colored Youth.  Future posts in this series will tell the story of Catholic Hill School, the forerunner of Stephens-Lee High School. 

Work on the Young Men’s Institute (YMI)—the name chosen for the black YMCA in Asheville—was also moving ahead, and a few months later the work was completed to great acclaim.  The Citizen wrote on February 2, 1893, that “Stephens, principal of the Catholic Hill school and promoter and general secretary of the beneficent enterprise,” joined two ministers and Charles McNamee, Vanderbilt’s personal secretary, at the first meeting held in the new YMI.  The meeting drew 70 people to the new building, which the Citizen touted as “one of the handsomest in Asheville.”  

The Young Men’s Institute, 1901. North Carolina Room, Pack Memorial Library, K256-S

The Citizen soon announced the formal opening of the YMI, “erected for the improvement of the colored people of Asheville and vicinity, through the generosity of George W. Vanderbilt” (April 7 and 12, 1893).  Within a few years, the black community would be able to repay the money Vanderbilt had loaned for the building.  The centerpiece of the opening ceremony was a concert of classical sacred music and contemporary secular music selected and directed by Edward Stephens and featuring “Miss Edmonia E. Hedges, organist and pianist, [along with] trained local talent.”  The music of Mendelssohn, Handel, and Mozart echoed through the large auditorium. 

Designed by prominent architect Richard Sharp Smith and built “by and for” the black craftsmen who had constructed Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate, the 18,000 square foot building at the corner of Eagle Street and Market Street quickly became the multipurpose center of black life in Asheville.  Serving both men and women, the YMI housed a kindergarten, reading room, and gym and offered meeting space to church congregations without their own place to meet.  Over the years it would also make space for a drugstore, schools for adults and children, a funeral parlor, doctor’s offices, the black public library, and a variety of other services (ymiculturalcenter.org). 

Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, by John Davis, 1980. North Carolina Room, Pack Memorial Library. K847-8

The YMI and the nearby Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church anchored the thriving black business and cultural district that came to be known as “The Block.”  More than a century later, they continue to serve the community.  

Part Two of the Edward Stephens story will continue with a first-person look at the racism he encountered in Asheville, his marriage to teacher Izie Riddick, and the work the couple did in Topeka, Kansas, and Bridgeport, Connecticut, after they left Asheville.

Resources: All Asheville School Committee notes are from Book #1, 1887-1892, and Book #2, 1892-1895, property of Asheville City Schools Foundation Collection and owned by the Asheville City Schools Foundation.

Post written by Joe Newman North Carolina Room Friends Board Member and retired Professor of Education, University of South Alabama. Research by Joe Newman and Zoe Rhine.

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