The ‘Castle on the Hill,’ Stephens Lee High School, opened March 7, 1923, on the former spot of Catholic Hill High School, just above Valley Street on the east side of downtown Asheville. Catholic Hill had opened in 1892 as the first building constructed specifically for the education of Black students in the city. It burned down in 1917, a fire caused by a faulty furnace that resulted in the death of seven students.
Stephens Lee High School was designed by Ronald Greene, a leading architect in Asheville best known for his design of the Jackson Building, the city’s first skyscraper. The total cost of building Stephen’s Lee was $115,000.
In comparison, across town construction on the new white high school began in 1927, and Asheville High opened seven years later, February 5, 1929. Asheville High was designed by Douglas Ellington, whose art deco style can seen throughout Asheville in City Hall, the S&W building and the First Baptist Church. Asheville High cost taxpayers $1.3 million.
Stephens Lee High School was named for Edward Stephens, the first principal, and Mrs. Hester Ford Lee, one of the first teachers. It was the only high school for African-Americans in Western North Carolina, and many student rode the bus for hours in order to attend. It was designed for a capacity of 900 students and it opened with an enrollment of 856. (Asheville’s population in the 1920s was 28,000.)
After the 1964 passage of The Civil Rights Act the city moved to desegregate schools (a decade after Brown vs the Board of Education ruled that the separation of schools was unconstitutional). In 1965 Stephens Lee graduated its last class, and students were moved to South French Broad High School – essentially merging the two schools (not integrating). These few years in Asheville’s educational history are a little confusing – but it seems like in 1969 South French Broad was turned into Asheville Middle School, and Asheville High School was finally forced to fully integrate.
The major problem with how desegregation was handled was that for white students, teachers and administrators nothing changed – they had their same school, sports teams, and teachers – while for black students everything was seemingly taken away. Teachers and administrators lost their jobs, and the students lost their familiar faces and curriculums. The foreign halls of new schools not only held new faces, but also were empty of the trophies from the sports teams and bands, and held no shared history or legacy. Black students were bused from their familiar neighborhoods holding their friends and families, forced to move way outside of their comfort zone with no security net or resources to help.
On September 29th, 1969, 200 black students, in an effort to be acknowledged and represented in their new school, walked out in peaceful protest. Police showed up, and forced the protestors off campus. When the police charged the students, some responded by throwing rocks. Some students and police were hospitalized with injuries, and a curfew was put in effect in Asheville.
Eventually Asheville High School’s administration agreed to meet with students and discuss their grievances, although two subsequent protests happen at Asheville High during the 1970s.
Then, in 1975, Stephens Lee was torn down overnight, with no explanation from the school board or Asheville city government.
I’ve only heard one person speak their opinion on this, and his take was that the white families in Asheville would not tolerate their children being sent to a black school – so it was torn down. I’ve never heard any other reason, and that’s an uncomfortable enough truth that it sticks pretty hard.
Asheville continues to grapple with severe inequalities in education in the city, but many citizens and those in leadership are striving to makes changes. While we move forward into the future, honestly remembering the legacy of the past will help guide everyone.
The Haywood Street Fresco includes a nod to Stephen’s Lee High School in an idealized portrait of our city. Stephen’s Lee is included as a reminder of our city’s past, and with a desire to restore it to a place of prominence in the city’s skyline.
This article, “The Enduring Legacy of the Castle on the Hill,” gives a wonderful description of how important and inspiring Stephens Lee was to the community.
The Pack Library has spent years digging up a wealth of information on Stephens Lee, including this tribute to The Faculty of Stephens-Lee High School.