Stephens-Lee History Documented; Student Records Graduates as Part of Southern Oral History Program [The Asheville Citizen-Times]

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Stephens-Lee History Documented; Student Records Graduates as Part of Southern Oral History Program (By Paul Clark)

Reprinted with the permission of The Asheville Citizen-Times.

ASHEVILLE - Bringing home the stories of the only black high school in Western North Carolina, Kelly Navies found a place for herself - here in the mountains where her great-great grandmother was born a slave.

"I feel like I have material to write and write to the end of time," the 31-year-old Durham resident said. Her yearlong project chronicling the oral history of graduates of Stephens-Lee High School in Asheville has given her a sense of place, so much so that she's moving to the community that in part grew from great-great grandmother's family in Weaverville.

The Southern Oral History Program at UNC-Chapel Hill is marking its 25th anniversary this year with "Listening for a Change: North Carolina Communities in Transition." The project is an attempt to understand the changes in the state that were set in motion by World War II. One change was desegregation, and Navies, a UNC-Chapel Hill history graduate student, set out to gauge the impact Stephens-Lee's closing in 1965 and demolition in 1975 had on the black community here.

In the past 30 years academicians and others have been interviewing and taping local residents nationwide to get their experiences in their own words. The thinking, they argue, is that the way people tell stories is as important and telling as the words they use. UNC-Chapel Hill's nationally recognized program has seeded several others throughout the country.

Stephens-Lee was "just an unusual school," alumnus Everette Parrish said. "Just about all our faculty had their masters degrees and a few were working on their doctorates, which means we got the benefit of the latest in education. So much of our (African American) history has been lost or was not accurately recorded."

Navies' interest in the project, soon to be a part of UNC-Chapel Hill's Southern Historical Collection, began when she started researching her great-great grandmother's life in Weaverville. It made her wonder what it was like to be black here before the civil rights era.

"I kept running into people that kept telling me there weren't any slaves in that part of North Carolina. I knew that I needed to do this work," Navies said.

"When people think of the mountains, they don't think about what contributions blacks have made," said Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, who founded the Southern Oral History Program. "All the debates over busing and charter schools and race in the public schools, so much of the general history of desegregation and the history of the black schools was destroyed by integration.

"These interviews are an attempt to address the problem of social amnesia, the propensity of Americans to forget - and not learn from - the past."

Last summer when Navies began work, Parrish invited her to an association picnic. She announced what she was doing, and several people gave her their names. She worked for a month, staying with relatives in Weaverville.

She's got about 35 hours of taped interviews and is still interviewing. She spoke with Parrish, Samuel Camp, Geraldine Ray, Herb Watts, Richard Bowman, Elka McDowell, Norma Scott Baines, the Rev. Lewis Grant, Porche Leverette, Lucille Flack Ray, Herbert Barnette and other alumni.

"I became so close to them, particularly Everette Parrish," she said. "At times, it was very moving. There were tears in a couple interviews when they talked about the demolition of the school.

"But at the same time they were very proud to be sharing these stories with me. They were really excited about their story being told. I had one person, I won't say her name, she wanted to tell me the things the teachers did that were fun in the classroom, like singing songs in a math class. She called it 'devilment.'

"The prominent thing was that the band was so central. Those that were involved in it, it was the central thing in their lives at the time, even those that watched. They said they had to put the Stephens-Lee band in at the end because when it would go by, everybody would join and the parade would end."

Race, she found, was not explicitly discussed at Stephens-Lee, she said.

"In terms of what they learned about being black, that came implicitly through the lessons they taught about African-American poetry," Navies said. "The curriculum was structured in such a way that there were readings in African-American history and culture."

The historian said segregation surrounded the students at Stephens-Lee.

"I think Stephens-Lee provided them a sanctuary and a place where they were affirmed in a way that they weren't in the outside world.

"You can tell from talking to Stephens-Lee students - and (from) their bearing - that they are so proud. You can sense a strong sense of dignity. They have this strong sense of self.

"I had someone give me a very poignant story about (a student) going to the black library at the YMI and the book wasn't there that he needed. In that case the library was supposed to get the book from the white library. He went back (to the YMI) several times. He eventually threatened to go to the white library to get it himself, and the YMI got it for him."

One reason Navies believes it's important to remember Stephens-Lee is because when black schools were merged into white schools, little effort was made to save the successful programs the black schools had. Now there are huge disparities in the school success rates of black and white students.

"The alumni don't understand it," she said. "They were so much better educated in their segregated schools.

"If we start looking at these stories, we can put the best of what was going on in the black schools with the best of what was going on in the white schools and educate our children.

"What I learned when I talk to older people was how many different things they've done in their lives, how many times they had to change careers when they came across obstacles, whether they were race-related or not. They would go on and they would adapt. That's pretty much how they survived and succeeded. It continually inspires and amazes me, frankly. I'm just really in awe of these people."

Navies has been transformed in other ways. She came here with "my own misconceptions of the mountains."

"But obviously when you learn more about people and what they went through, your respect increases," she said. "I still feel I haven't gotten the whole story about being a black person in the mountains."

The Southern Oral History Program
Center for the Study of the American South
Love House and Hutchins Forum
410 East Franklin St., CB# 9127, UNC-CH
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-9127
(919) 962-0455