Jackie R. Booker is the Chair of the Department of Social Sciences and Criminal Justice at Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina. In 2013, Dr. Booker presented a lecture titled "The Ideological Battle Over Industrial Versus Liberal Arts Education: Allen High School (Asheville), 1895–1930" at the North Carolina Association of Historians Annual Meeting.
Allen High School (Asheville, North Carolina): 1884–1974
With the end of the Civil War in 1865, four million African Americans gained their freedom. In addition to searching for kin, claiming land, and seeking the right to vote, most blacks wanted to earn an education. With assistance, first from short-lived Freedmen's Bureau and later from northern missionaries and philanthropists, some blacks in the South made tentative steps toward that objective, and their efforts over the ensuing decades reflected the evolving attitudes toward racial uplift as well as the changing political and social landscape of the postwar South.
During this time, Asheville, North Carolina, largely a rural town, grew as a result of the Southern Railroad expansion and the construction of the Biltmore House, the summer home of George Vanderbilt. Thus, the town attracted investors and retirees from the North, as well as freed slaves who had previously lived in small communities isolated from major cities. In Asheville, blacks worked as domestic servants, gardeners, construction laborers, and in other occupations dependent upon whites. Methodist clergyman Louis M. Pease and his wife, former New Yorkers, were among those relocating to Asheville and, although retired, they soon developed an interest in helping both blacks and whites to earn an education.
In 1875, the Pease family purchased a parcel of land, constructed a school for whites, and called it the Asheville Normal Collegiate Institute. Later, as the institution grew, it was renamed Warren Wilson College. Years later, Warren Wilson was one of the first white institutions to desegregate during the 1950s, and it found an allegiance with nearby Allen High School.
Although the Pease family acknowledged the dire circumstances whites faced in education, for African Americans in the isolated community, education proved even more daunting. To this end, the family purchased a second parcel of land in Asheville, on College Street, where they established a separate, one-room school for black students in an abandoned livery stable. The school opened its doors on October 1, 1887, with the Pease family and one additional white adult serving as teachers. Only three black students enrolled on opening day. However, as word spread, some 200 blacks attended by the end of the month, with many walking several miles to Asheville. Young students were educated during the mornings while adults, after finishing a day's work, came at night. The pupils had no textbooks; instead they read the Bible and wrote on slate boards. Since many students walked miles to reach the school, and the Klu Klux Klan maintained an active presence in the area, there was an urgent need to construct a dormitory.
Marriage Allen, a London native and visitor to Asheville, donated money for the first dorm upon seeing the difficult circumstances under which the school operated. The Pease family renamed the fledging school in her honor. After another generous donation, the school came to be known as the Allen Home and Asheville Academy for Colored Girls. Over the years, the school went through additional name changes, often reflecting the competing educational philosophies of Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois. When the health of the Peases declined, Allen became a mission school under the auspices of the Women's Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Church. Ten years after its founding, the school, located on land in an integrated neighborhood, was valued at $5,000. All the teachers were white Methodist missionaries, and the curriculum now included sewing, dressmaking, cooking, health, and religious instruction mixed with a few liberal arts courses including history, foreign languages, and literature.
Located next to Berry Temple Methodist Church, a house of worship founded by ex-slaves, the two institutions soon formed a close relationship. Girls regularly attended service at Berry Temple and collections were taken up to assist the school. Sunday as well as Wednesday night services became a mainstay of the curriculum. Other changes came to Allen School during the 1890s. Although established as a mission school, Allen slowly transitioned to a grammar institution by offering an education through grade six for boys and girls. The word "industrial" was also used variously as part of the school name during the period between 1887 and the early 1930s. Allen graduated its first four girls from grammar school in 1899, and one of them, Isabelle Jones, went on to teach at the school for 43 years. Allen, at that point, had 31 boarding girls and a total attendance of 123. In addition, women in the Woman's Home Missionary Society promoted both the racial and gender uplift of these young African American girls.
Like most other black institutions, Allen School was influenced by Booker T. Washington and his industrial philosophy of education. Allen students learned to cook, sew, feed chickens, milk cows, iron clothes, and do other domestic chores until the 1930s. By then, Allen School teachers and administrators began moving away from Washington's exclusive focus on vocational training, and began offering liberal arts courses along with the industrial curriculum. Allen girls had courses in World History, United States History, English literature, Art, Music, French, and Latin. Slowly, Allen School moved toward this liberal arts regime to educate young black girls to become leaders and to prepare them for entry into colleges and universities. This conscious change in direction during the period placed Allen School among the first to address gender inequality for black girls at this level. Although Spelman College and Bennett College had become all-black institutions for girls, Allen School was among the first to concentrate on black girls aged 12 to 18, sending many on to attend both majority white and historically black institutions. The 1920s were a decade of growth for Allen School. It now had two dormitories, and completed construction on a high school building in 1925. Named the Elizabeth Arter Memorial Hall after a generous benefactor, it contained several classrooms to accommodate the high school grades. In 1925, Allen School administrators applied for and received accreditation from the state of North Carolina, joining a handful of other black high schools with such a distinction. Allen also established a one-year teaching program where black educators from throughout western North Carolina and as far away as Winston-Salem and Greensboro renewed their teaching certificates.
Unlike many black institutions, Allen School managed to survive the Great Depression, though it did so with great difficulty. Contributions from Berry Temple, the Woman's Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Church, bake sales, rummage sales with clothes made by Allen School girls, all helped the school continue. In addition, Allen School's choir, usually numbering 15 to 20, , toured the northeast to raise money, in the tradition of the Fisk University Jubilee Singers. These trips allowed Allen girls to interact with whites and introduced them to the larger, majority society. Warren Wilson College also hosted the Allen choir and contributed to its success.
During the Great Depression and into the 1940s, Allen School administrators began the push to further consolidate the course offerings and gain regional accreditation. By 1930, Allen School had all but dropped its industrial arts curriculum, with the exception of sewing. As further evidence of its move toward liberal arts, its library now included over 2,000 books, exceeding the library holdings of most white high schools. Allen School administrators also dropped the word "industrial" from all of its publications in 1924, though the words "high school" were not officially added until 1939, when Allen hosted grades eight through 12, having dropped its grammar school grades of one through seven. Also, by this time period, Allen had a well-established pipeline for its alumna to continue their studies at Howard University, Morgan State University, Winston-Salem State Teachers' College (now Winston-Salem State University), North Carolina A&T, and Bennett College (the all-black women's school founded by the Methodist Church), among other institutions. In the 1940s, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools awarded full accreditation to the school, an honor it achieved before most historically black colleges and universities.
The golden years for Allen High occurred between 1945 and 1970. This 25-year span witnessed increasing enrollments, its most famous graduate, numerous academic accolades. A new dormitory was constructed at Allen High School in 1942 which allowed for an increase in enrollment. In addition to Lee Hall, Muriel Day Residence Hall was built in 1952. The latter included 100 additional beds, doubling the school's capacity. Allen officials also eliminated the boarding of 8th grade girls so that it received only high school-level students. Moreover, Allen could accommodate another 90 girls in its day program, which was aimed at those living in the city of Asheville who did not require overnight lodging. By 1960, Allen High School boasted an enrollment of 200 students, mostly boarding girls. Its pupils came from 13 states, the District of Columbia, the Caribbean, and even Africa. Allen also enrolled Judy Grenier from upstate New York, the school's first white student who attended from 1957 to 1959. Local, state, and national media outlets wrote stories about her matriculation, and First Lady Mamie Eisenhower even sent her a letter of commendation. In addition to its academic rigor, Allen School offered its students extra-curricular activities which included the Gospel Choir, basketball, regular church attendance at Berry Temple, movie nights in Asheville, use of the nearby YWCA, a Drama Club, a chapter of the NAACP, and other opportunities.
The school's music program attracted some of the best and brightest African American girls. Nina Simone, from nearby Tryon, below Asheville in the Blue Ridge Mountains, became the most famous Allen High School alumna. Born Eunice Waymon in 1933, she was a child prodigy and learned classical music from local white piano instructors paid for by white benefactors. She enrolled at Allen School in 1947 and quickly became not only the leading pianist but also the head of the touring Gospel Choir. Waymon graduated from Allen High School on May 30, 1950, sharing highest academic honors with classmate Olivette Jackson, who went on to become a professor at Prairie View University. Waymon moved to the northeast after graduating, but after being rejected by the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, she abandoned her goal of becoming the first black classical pianist. Despite this setback, this Simone became an outspoken and acclaimed musician whose songs contributed to the soundtrack of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and beyond. Along with Simone, Allen High School also produced teachers, judges, social workers, nurses, and other women who represented the school well with their solid high school education.
Oddly enough, integration helped doom Allen High School in 1973. A federal judge ordered the integration of public high schools in Asheville and, as a result, the Methodist Church decided to close Allen High School. Enrollment had already declined due to integration, and funding from the Methodist Church was shifted to other causes. During May 1974, Allen graduated its last class of young women. But, from its humble beginning in a wooden barn, Allen High School had emerged as one of the preeminent all-black girls' schools in the country for over 50 years, and its alumnae continue to hold reunions and relive the best of times for Allen High School.
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"History of Berry Temple Methodist Church. Service of Dedication Program." Black Highlander Collection. University of North Carolina-Asheville. September 17, 1761.
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Walker, Vanessa S. Their Highest Potential: An African American School Community in the Segregated South. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1996.