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Stephens-Lee celebrates a centennial

As alumni of the high school come together to mark 100 years since the first graduation, learn a little more about the school’s remarkable legacy.

Black and white photo of original Stephens-Lee High School building

The original building was designed by local architect Ronald Greene.

Photo by Edward W. Pearson Jr., L940-DS, Buncombe County Special Collections

A beautiful academic gothic building rising above the Valley Street neighborhood, Stephens-Lee High School was known as the Castle on the Hill. But its renown was far more than merely aesthetic — until it closed in 1965, the school was a paragon of academics, culture, arts, and athletics for the Black students of Asheville.

So as Stephens-Lee High School celebrates the 100th anniversary of its first graduating class, we’re taking a look at that century-long legacy.

Early days of education

Stephens-Lee opened in March 1923, but it wasn’t the first school on that site. From 1892 to 1917, Catholic Hill School had occupied the space — and Dr. Edward S. Stephens served there as Asheville’s first Black principal until ~1894. In 1909, Walter Lee took up the position.

After the building burned in 1917, and students spent six crowded years going to classes in a former sanitorium, funding was approved for a high school for Black students. It was named for Stephens and Hester Ford Lee, esteemed educator and Walter Lee’s wife.

Its curriculum lived up to the excellence of its eponyms. The faculty taught classes in everything from literature, music, and drama to carpentry, welding, and cosmetology. The students performed plays and recitals, built houses in local neighborhoods, and played on multiple title-winning teams in football, track, tennis, and basketball.

The students were led in their endeavors by a highly educated academic cohort. In the year before the school closed, more than half of the faculty held master’s degrees — including Elynora Martin Foster Dargan, lauded by her obituary as “the first African-American woman in Asheville to receive a master’s degree.”

These teachers were central to the education of Black students, not only in Asheville, but across WNC. When the Black high school in Yancey County burned down and the school in Hendersonville closed, Stephens-Lee garnered students far and wide — with some being forced to ride in a bus for more than four hours.

Alongside students at the Allen School, a prep school for Black women, Stephens-Lee students started the Asheville Student Committee on Racial Equality, which organized sit-ins and petitions to shine a light on the inequalities and inadequacies in racially segregated facilities. They helped spur the construction of a new high school for Black students.

Throughout the school’s more than 40 years of education, the graduates that emerged served in a variety of fields, becoming athletes, teachers, lawyers, and civil rights leaders.


Before Stephens-Lee was built, students took classes in the former Circle Terrace Sanitorium.

Photo from the Ruth Jackson Cannon and Shirley Cannon Singleton Collection, K688-8, Buncombe County Special Collections

A long-lasting legacy

Asheville’s school system did not become fully integrated until more than 10 years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the final class graduated from Stephens-Lee in 1965. Initially, there was a plan to convert it into a middle school, but that never came to fruition. Instead, the building accommodated several organizations and later a community center, until the city purchased the building in 1975 and demolished it for urban renewal projects — all except for the gym.

Stephens-Lee alumni and Asheville Parks and Recreation worked to save the gym wing, which would eventually become the Stephens-Lee Community Center. When it was designated a historical landmark in 1996, it underwent a major renovation — for which the alumni association received a Griffin Award.

These days, you can find a small museum inside, celebrating the school’s illustrious history.

From Friday, July 5 to Sunday, July 7, all Stephens-Lee alumni are invited to a reunion commemorating the centennial. Contact Stephens-Lee Alumni Association President Sarah Hart at (828) 279-7300 or Alberta Williams at (828) 215-1191 for more details.

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