A Most Exceptional Man: The Edward S. Stephens Story (Part Two)

In Part One we focused on Stephens’s work as a principal and teacher in the Asheville City Schools and as the organizer and first general secretary of the Young Men’s Institute (YMI).  In this new post, we’ll look at the events that led to Stephens’s departure from Asheville and the work he and his wife Izie did in Topeka, Kansas.  

Falling from Favor in Asheville

Although things seemed to be going Stephens’s way in the spring of 1893, his fortunes soon suffered a reversal.  The school committee’s “Budget for 1893-1894 School Year” listed the principalship at Catholic Hill School as a “vacancy” (minutes, May 15, 1893).  Stephens had been fired.  In August, he resigned as the general secretary of the YMI (Citizen, August 7, 1893).  Stephens had lost both of his important positions in Asheville. 

Charles McNamee, Vanderbilt’s personal secretary, later explained that Stephens’s “one failing . . . is his lack of tact with people of his own race, and this was very injurious to him in his career in Asheville.” “Difficulties arising from his unfortunate manner,” McNamee stated, led to Stephens’s downfall (quoted in Clayton Bond, “In Search of Edward Stephens, Asheville Citizen-Times, February 20, 2011).  McNamee’s explanation was accurate, but it didn’t tell the full story.  

Historians are fortunate to have a letter Stephens wrote to McNamee on January 20, 1892.  This letter, now in the Biltmore Estate Archives, is one of the most valuable—and by far the most shocking—of all the documents we found while researching this HeardTell series on early black city schools. 

Letter from Edward S. Stephens to Charles McNamee, January 20, 1892. Original in Biltmore Estate Archives; copy from Asheville School Foundation Archives, North Carolina Room, Pack Memorial Library, MS388.002.

Confiding in McNamee as a trusted adviser, a friend of the black race, Stephens laid bare the ugliest, most violent side of the white racism that kept black people in their place.  He wrote that a certain segment of Asheville’s white residents harbored a “determination to ‘run out’ all persons, white and black, who try to better the conditions of the Negroes.”  Stephens explained that the white women who operated the Northern Methodist Mission School for black students, the forerunner of the Allen School, “were warned one night by a white crowd that if they didn’t ‘clear out’ in two days they would swing on the same tree where the nigger was lynched.”  Only the timely intervention of some “leading citizens” persuaded the women to stay.

Stephens described in intense, first-person terms how racism, reinforced by threatened and overt violence, held down black people who tried to improve themselves and their race.  “For a black person to be self respecting, decent, assertive only a little of his elementary rights is to be, in the South, I have remarked, ‘a darn’d sassy nigger,’ a creature more obnoxious than the most rabid dog or virulent serpent.  Such a ‘nigger’ must go.”  Having been treated rudely and disrespectfully by school committee chairman W. W. West—his employer—Stephens looked into the future and saw trouble ahead. 

You can read his letter to McNamee in its entirety here.

After losing his positions with the city schools and the YMI, one of the few bright spots for Stephens was his growing relationship with Izie Riddick.  A graduate of a women’s college in Boston, Riddick had been a kindergarten teacher in Philadelphia and taught first and second grade at Catholic Hill School.  Perhaps because of her association with Stephens, the school committee didn’t rehire her for the 1893-1894 school year (minutes, May 15, 1893).  

When the Asheville Free Kindergarten Association agreed to sponsor a kindergarten in every school, black and white—at no expense to the school committee—Stephens received the committee’s permission to use a room in the Catholic Hill building for the new early-education program (minutes, September 9, 1893). The Citizen reported on September 14, 1893, that “Miss Izie Riddick will continue in charge of the Kindergarten department of the colored schools.  This is made possible through the assistance of those interested in the Kindergarten work.”  With both Stephens and Riddick off the school system’s payroll, her work in the kindergarten program helped the two of them get through the 1893-1894 school year. 

A New Start in Topeka, Kansas

Stephens and Riddick left Asheville together in 1894 or 1895 and moved to Topeka, Kansas, where they married in 1896.  The two of them would remain personal and professional partners for the rest of his life, working together on projects for the benefit of their race. 

Topeka Daily Capital, July 14, 1895, partial clip.

In 1895, Izie started a kindergarten, sewing room, and counseling program for young mothers, while Edward got busy making political connections with white as well as black people.  Soon they opened a new school with Edward as the principal.  Incorporating Izie’s programs along with plans to expand well beyond them, they patterned their Institute for Colored Youth on the black YMCA model that had proven successful for Stephens in St. Louis and Asheville.  The institute Edward and Izie founded in Topeka would provide young black students “a thorough intellectual, industrial, moral, and religious education,” emphasizing the development of “Christ-like character.” The Topeka Daily Capital lavished praise on Edward and Izie and called their school a “philanthropic endeavor,” “a good seed that will bring forth rich fruit” (July 14, 1895). 

The Topeka Plain Dealer, Dec. 21, 1900

Relying on donations for its support, the Institute for Colored Youth relocated several times over the next few years, each time into better facilities.  Early on, the school was able to buy an 18-acre farm, and farming became one of the first vocational programs added to the curriculum (Elizabeth N, Barr, “Topeka Industrial and Educational Institute,” in A Standard History of Kansas and Kansans).  Edward and Izie discovered that job training for black students was the real selling point of their school. 

The Topeka Plain Dealer, Dec. 21, 1900

They incorporated the school as the Industrial and Educational Institute of Topeka in March 1896 and appointed a board of trustees from their principal donors.  Industrial, the first word of the school’s new name, put the spotlight on exactly the kind of schooling Booker T. Washington was advocating for black students: industrial education.  Fast becoming the spokesman for his race, Washington was urging black schools to concentrate on training students for the jobs they were most likely to hold—in agriculture, manual labor, domestic work, and the trades (Louis R. Harlan, Booker T. Washington in Perspective).  The institute’s board of trustees, which was all white, enthusiastically approved the new emphasis.

Although Stephens, too, supported Washington’s educational ideas and had in fact invited the black leader to speak at Asheville’s YMI (Darin Waters, Life Beneath The Veneer: The Black Community in Asheville, North Carolina from 1793 to1900), Stephens’s own educational background made him determined that his institute would be more than just a trade school.  He was proud of the “three years’ course of English education” for every student (Kansas Farmer and Mail and Breeze, February 3, 1899). 

Kansas Weekly Capital, Jan. 13, 1899

The main thing virtually all whites and many blacks wanted to see in black schools, though, was industrial education.  When the Kansas legislature appropriated $1,500 in annual funding for the school in 1899, newspapers proudly referred to the institute as a “manual training school” with a wide variety of industrial programs (Kansas Weekly Capital, January 13, 1899).

While the school was growing, Stephens’ reputation was also growing.  The local press—several white newspapers and at least one black paper—was clearly fascinated with Edward and Izie.  The couple gave parties, entertained audiences with their talents in singing and public speaking, and made friends on both sides of the color line.  Even more newsworthy was Edward’s growing willingness to stand his ground and defend his rights. 

Topeka State Journal, January 23, 1896.  
The Topeka Daily Capital, January 24, 1896.

When the proprietor of the Copeland Hotel, the city’s Republican meeting place, refused to let Stephens ride in the hotel elevator, he sued the man.  Stephens was in the hotel to see his friend, a white judge.  The story made the front page in Topeka newspapers and was picked up by at least one other Kansas paper.  For the most part, the press coverage was supportive of Stephens (Topeka State Journal, January 23 and 24, 1896; Daily Capital, January 24, 1896); Wichita Daily Eagle, January 28, 1896). 

After a run-in with a coal merchant, Stephens had the man arrested for using abusive language and threatening to kill him (State Journal, April 6, 1896).  These and other stories that ran in the late 1890s painted a picture of a man who was willing to stand up to anyone, black or white, in order to do what he believed to be right. 

Part Three will conclude the Edward Stephens Story with a look at the trouble he got into with Topeka’s black leaders, forcing him to leave the city, and how he spent the final years of his life living quietly with Izie in Bridgeport, Connecticut.  

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, North Carolina Room, Pack Memorial Library, MS 388.

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.

2 Comments

  1. This is great. Congrats to Joe & Zoe and it was good to have Mr Newman’s credentials as an educator identified, I think. Many thanks, Mike McCue

    1. Mike, thank you! I’m just now seeing your kind comment. Today we posted the conclusion of the Edward Stephens story. All the best, Joe

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