Looking back at the history + desegregation of schools in Asheville

Stephens-Lee High School. Source: Pack Library

Stephens-Lee High School I Photo courtesy of Buncombe County Special Collections.

Today we’re looking back at the history of education in Buncombe County and Asheville City Schools, specifically the history of African American schools and the integration of grades K-12 after the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964. The decision to end segregation in schools came with Brown vs. the Topeka Board of Education in 1954, and it gave schools 20 years to comply with desegregation.

So what did that look like in Asheville? Asheville was quicker than many communities to integrate schools in the city and county, but integration resulted in new challenges, some of which the school systems are facing today.

This is all recent history for Asheville, and its effects are still rippling across schools in the community. A 2014 report from the State of Black Asheville and a 2016 report from Youth Justice NC revealed that disparities still exist between Black and white students which may be caused by unaddressed issues due to desegregation (and the resegregation of our classrooms).

The issue is complicated, and, luckily, Asheville City + Buncombe County Schools are continuing to think about racial disparity in education and implement changes to improve education for everyone. Asheville City Schools Foundation’s Choosing Equity Series is one way that educators, administrators + students are keeping dialogue open and implementing positive change.

With the end of the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery + involuntary servitude in 1865, formerly enslaved people of color were faced with different problems of segregation, discrimination + unequal opportunities.

Today, we look back at the history of Black schools and desegregation of grades K-12 in Asheville to explore how one facet of the Civil Rights Act played out in the city.

1865–1910: N.C. establishes its first colleges + universities for African American students. The first of these (and oldest in the South) is Shaw University, founded in 1865. The other North Carolina HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) are Barber-Scotia College; Bennett College; Elizabeth City State University; Fayetteville State University; Johnson C. Smith University; Livingstone University; North Carolina A & T State University; North Carolina Central University; St. Augustine’s University; Winston-Salem State University.

1865: The first Black children’s school, founded by The Freedman’s Chapel of newly freed slaves of St. Matthias, opens. Other Black schools established before the end of the 19th century are Calvary Parochial School and Allen Home School, which opened in 1887 and instructed both children and adults.

1887: Isaac Dickson, a former slave who was instrumental in the creation of the YMI, is appointed to Asheville’s first school board upon the creation of Asheville’s public school system.

1888: Asheville’s first public school for Black children opens in an abandoned building on South Beaumont St.

1892: Catholic Hill High School opens as the first building constructed for the education of Black students. It becomes known for excellence in music, athletics + education.

1896: The Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy vs. Ferguson upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation under the “separate but equal” doctrine.

1912–32: “Rosenwald Schools” are established in N.C. The schools, which are funded by Sears, Roebuck + Co. president Julian Rosenwald, educate three-quarters of rural Black children in the region.

1917: A fire starts at Catholic Hill High School when the furnace malfunctions, killing seven students.


  • Stephens-Lee High School for African American students opens. The school is named after George Henry Stephens, Asheville’s first Black principal (of Catholic Hill High School) and Hester Lee, its second principal. Stephens-Lee is built on the same site as Catholic Hill. The first class graduates in 1924.
  • E. W. Pearson, a former Buffalo Soldier, established the Burton Street Community in West Asheville in 1913; in 1923 he creates the Burton Street School.

1927: Buncombe County’s only Rosenwald School opens in the Shiloh neighborhood of Asheville. It replaces a County-funded school opened in 1906 (which students had stopped attending due to its extreme need for repair + maintenance). In 1965, 245 students are enrolled.

1942: Seven Black public schools are open in Asheville. They are: Stephens-Lee High School, Asheland Avenue School, Hill Street School, Burton Street School, Livingston Street Elementary School, Shiloh School, and Mountain Street School.

1954: Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka: The Supreme Court justices ruled unanimously that “separate but equal” for children in public schools is unconstitutional. The decision gives school districts 20 years total to comply with biracial desegregation.

1952: Staff conferences, workshops, and meetings for planning councils + administration in Asheville are desegregated, although schools remain segregated.

1960s: The School Board votes to close the Black elementary schools in Asheville and Buncombe County. Complaints that the “burden of desegregation” has been placed on area Black schools results in a group of African American families repealing the decision, complaining that their children now have to travel up to six miles or more to attend a formerly all-white school. The appeal is denied.

1963: Grades 1–3 are desegregated. Students are given the choice of which school to attend while Black schools still remain open. However, although 22 students of color in Buncombe County apply to attend white schools, ten are denied by the School Board due to “overcrowding.”

1964: Passage of the Civil Rights Act.

1964-5: Plan for the Asheville City Schools for the Desegregation of its Schools (to comply with Civil Rights Act) affirmed in 1965. ASCORE, the Asheville Student Committee on Racial Equality (who also worked to desegregate local movie theatres, lunch counters + public spaces, including libraries), comprised of students from Stephens-Lee/South French Broad, Allen High School, and other area schools, assists with integration. City staff note that due to Asheville’s “cosmopolitan structure” and “active interracial committee,” people are accepting of school + other public facility desegregation.

1965: Stephens-Lee High School graduates its final class. Students move to South French Broad High School after ASCORE makes the case that the school needed updates + maintenance (also for Black students).

1966: Burton Street School closes; students go to Hall Fletcher and Aycock schools.

1969: South French Broad High School, which had replaced Stephens-Lee, is converted to a middle school (now Asheville Middle School) for the Asheville City School district. This completes the merger of Lee Edwards and South French Broad.

1969: Tensions resulting from desegregation (for which there were no workshops or counseling given) leads to the first uprising at Asheville High School, which begins as a planned walkout and ends with the destruction of a building under construction. School closes for a week and a city-wide curfew is imposed for six months. Eventually, City Council meets with the students who organized the walkout and many of their demands for fairer treatment are met.

1972: A second conflict at Asheville High School, which allegedly began over a controversy surrounding an interracial couple, leads to the hospitalization of eight people.

1974: Allen High School, a private prep school for young Black women, closes. The building is now Asheville Office Park (just before the tunnel on College St.).


  • Third protest at Asheville High School
  • Stephens-Lee High School is partially demolished without public notice; after an outcry, the gym is spared and becomes the Stephens-Lee Recreation Center (30 George Washington Carver Ave.).

1980s: Randolph Elementary (predominantly Black) and Jones Elementary (predominantly white) merge.

Today, there are local orgs — including Hood Huggers and Lenoir-Rhyne University Equity and Diversity Institute (LREDI) — doing the vital work of educating, empowering + supporting African Americans in and around the city.

We’d love to hear from you around the history of African American schools + desegregation. Do you have memories from before or after the integration of schools in Asheville?

Let us know by emailing us at hello@avltoday.com.

More from AVL Today