The Allen School: Educational Opportunity for African Americans in Asheville

The Allen School: Educational Opportunity for African Americans in Asheville

Did you know that between 1887 and 1974 Asheville was home to a private school created specifically for the education of members of the black community? The school’s genesis can be traced to the arrival of the Reverend and Mrs. L. M. Pease to Asheville in 1875. The couple left New York with thoughts of retiring, however upon taking up residence in western North Carolina, their aspirations shifted course. They acquired a piece of land on College Street which was donated to the Women’s Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Church and a school was established there. Educational goals would be threefold—industrial, mental, and spiritual.

Allen school

Allen Home School students, 1921 courtesy UNC-A Special Collections & The Heritage of Black Highlanders Collection from N.C. Digital Heritage Center.  

Early on, the school—located on the northeast side of downtown, near Beaucatcher Mountain—catered to all segments of the black community, serving all ages and both sexes, with children attending lessons during the day and adults at night. The institution functioned as a primary school with an emphasis on offering industrial, domestic, and religious education classes. Soon afterwards, courses for high school study were added. By the turn of the twentieth century, the institution was made up of the Allen Home School, where 31 students lived, and Asheville Academy, attended by over 120 children.

The Annual Report of the Women’s Home Missionary Society stated that 1909 was the most prosperous year for the Allen Home School and Asheville Academy. “The new building is full to overflowing and new adjustments must be made in the coming year to provide for all the lines of work.”

By 1924 the Allen School was an accredited four-year high school and offered a one-year preparatory teaching program. Over time, in addition to domestic courses, secretarial classes such as typing and shorthand were added, but the Allen School would shift towards a college preparatory curriculum. In 1939, when primary instruction was discontinued, the name was changed to Allen High School. About this same time the school became primarily a girls’ school, however evidence suggests that a few male students from Burnsville were allowed to attend since Yancey County had no schools for blacks.

While a large number of students came from Asheville and communities in western North Carolina, the school’s reputation spread, and soon young people from neighboring states boarded locally in order to attend.

Extracurricular activities were also important at Allen High School. A touring choir, various clubs, cultural events and concerts, sports teams, a student newspaper, dramatics, and church activities all added to the Allen experience.

Many Allen School graduates went on to college, some gaining admission to prestigious schools up North such as Vassar and Wellesley which had started integrating, while others stayed closer to home attending historically black colleges and universities in the South.

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Oteen at One Hundred

A century ago, with the United States and other nations involved in The Great War, improvements to existing American military hospitals were underway.  New facilities were built across the country to train army medical personnel and to provide care and treatment centers for the many soldiers and servicemen returning from the conflict in Europe.

US Veterans Hospital, Oteen

Oteen hospital complex circa 1930.  Ruiz Family Collection, Western Regional Archives.

Near Azalea, North Carolina—located east of the city of Asheville—“a 1,000-bed hospital for the treatment of tuberculosis” was built at a proposed cost of $1,325,000. Atlanta’s Gude Construction Company received the bid to begin work on the 60-plus buildings. By the end of the summer the War Department authorized an additional $300,000 to expand the facility, which was first known as General Hospital No. 19 at Azalea. After the new Oteen Post Office opened in 1918, the hospital was informally referred to as Oteen Hospital, or the hospital at Oteen.

In 1920, a large-scale construction campaign got underway. Original wooden structures were torn down and replaced with a permanent campus to minister to all aspects of veterans’ health care needs. Among the first permanent buildings constructed were two hospital wards along the east side of Riceville Road, known as Wards A and B.

In 1924, the federal government transferred administration of the hospital to the newly formed Veterans Bureau. Six years later it would become the Veterans Administration (VA). By 1932, the VA added an additional four hospital wards, a dining hall, a fire station, an administration building and other support structures. Building #9, built in 1930, served as the main nurses’ dorm. In 1932, Building #13 was erected to house African American nurses employed by the VA Hospital.

The current hospital, part of the complex now known as the Charles George VA Medical Center, was built in 1967 in front of the 1928 Administration Building. Over time, ownership of many of the buildings from the 1920s and ‘30s transferred from the federal government to other entities. Today Building #13 is home to the Western Office of the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. Building #9, to the south of the Western Office, is currently under restoration and is scheduled to open this spring. The Veterans Administration will provide outpatient services in the former dormitory.

Stay tuned. During this centennial year we’ll share bits of history about Oteen.

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Looking Back at 2017: Recapping the Happenings

As 2017 draws to a close, it provides a fine opportunity to look back and reflect on all that has happened at the Western Regional Archives (WRA) during the year. Topping the list was the celebration of our 5th anniversary last August. Friends, family, colleagues, volunteers, and interns gathered to help mark the special milestone.

The WRA casts a wide net, and our collection materials have been featured in publications and exhibits nationally and internationally. In addition to North Carolina, WRA received visitors from the following states in 2017: California, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. Overseas visitors hailed from the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand.

Cultural and educational institutions we aided included Appalachian State, Asheville Museum of Art, the Asheville School, Black Mountain College Museum and Art Center, Blowing Rock Art and History Museum, Lenoir-Rhyne University, New York’s School of Visual Arts, North Carolina Wesleyan, and Warren Wilson College.

And of course, we must mention our volunteers and interns. Over a dozen folks from high school students to retired professionals continued to aid our mission of collecting and preserving the history and culture of western North Carolina and the mountain region. Their dedication and service to the WRA is truly remarkable. Thank you!

We are eager for 2018 and look forward to new adventures and new experiences. The best is yet to come!   DSCN0564

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Cranberry Capers

Did you know that wild cranberries, Vaccinium macrocarpon, can be found in boggy areas across western North Carolina? The species has been documented in Alleghany, Watauga, and Haywood counties. The trailing shrub produces four-petaled pale pink flowers during the summer months and red berries in the winter. It is from this species that commercial cranberries were cultivated.


Illustration from Flora Batava of Afbeelding en Beschrijving van Nederlandsche Gewassen, (1872)

Apparently, these crimson jewels were popular with foragers. In fact, in the Journal of the House of Representatives of the General Assembly of the State of North Carolina for the 1876–1877 session, it was noted that a bill was introduced by Alleghany County representative, E. L. Vaughn (1839–1898) about harvesting them on another’s property.

Described as “one of the brightest and pleasantest gentlemen in the west,” Vaughn sponsored a bill that would “make it a misdemeanor to enter upon land and take therefrom cranberries without the consent of the owners.” One can only imagine what sort of berry thievery was taking place in the High Country to cause such legislation to be introduced. It was referred to the committee on the Judiciary and was known as H.B. 432. There is no record of the bill becoming law.

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Blackbeard: A Brief Biography

Note: This piece is published in conjunction with the exhibit,  Blackbeard 300: Commemorating North Carolina’s Rich Maritime History, on display at the Western Office of the NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources November 6, 2017 – January 6, 2018, Monday – Friday from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m with special programming Saturdays November 18 and January 6. 

In the early 18th century a notorious pirate preyed upon the coast. This dubious fellow was known as Blackbeard. Although he was documented as Edward Teach, or Thack, or Thatch, we’re not quite sure as to who he really was. Scholars think his ability to read and write shows that he came from a well-off English family. He probably changed his name to protect his relatives from the embarrassment of his exploits.  bb

Blackbeard began his career as a privateer during Queen Anne’s War. Non-military seamen were hired by the English crown to raid Spanish ships. After the war (and out of work) he turned to piracy. In 1716, Teach learned the tricks and twists of the pirate trade, when he fell under the tutelage of one Benjamin Hornigold, who, the following year, rewarded him with a ship that Teach renamed Queen Anne’s Revenge.

A robust man, his appearance was indeed impressive. It is written that he stood over 6 feet tall with a face full of black hair which he twisted into strands and entwined with small pieces of rope. To these pieces of hemp, he would set a match, which in addition to being useful for igniting cannons, gave him a devilish smoky aura.

After successfully blockading Charleston’s harbor in 1718, Teach ditched Queen Anne’s Revenge (and most of his crew) in Beaufort Inlet and moved all his loot and booty onto the ship Adventure. Teach and his pared down crew set sail for Ocracoke where it was believed he would set up a pirate base of permanent proportion.

Citizens of the Tar Heel State knew all too well of Blackbeard and his threats to shipping. They were frustrated with Governor Eden who had been unable to keep the fiend at bay. After learning of Blackbeard’s plan to set up shop off Ocracoke, a group of landowners petitioned Governor Spotswood of Virginia to put an end to Blackbeard’s terror and to restore peace of mind to the Albemarle region and its surrounding waters.

Governor Spotswood dispatched two ships that had been guarding the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay to head to Ocracoke and once and for all take care of Blackbeard. In a fierce hand-to-hand battle, Lt. Robert Maynard finally killed Teach, whose body suffered 5 pistol shots and 20 sword cuts and slashes. His head was then severed from his body and hung on the bowsprit of the sloop as proof that the bold Blackbeard had been defeated. His body was tossed overboard. Storytellers and raconteurs liked to embellish that it swam around the ship 7 times.

In 1996, Blackbeard’s ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, was discovered off Beaufort, N.C. Artifacts have been raised from the sea floor and cautious eyes have been waiting and watching for something to discount this underwater archaeology site as that of the QAR, but nay-sayers need to take a back seat, because after all this time nothing has been discovered to disprove the theory.

It is important to note that there are no plans to ever actually raise the ship, rather researchers headed up by the Underwater Archaeology Branch of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History and East Carolina University, plan to recover the artifacts and preserve them for future display.

Every relic recovered is assigned two numbers. One designates that it is from the QAR site, and one identifies the object for the North Carolina master list of archaeological finds.

Artifacts surfaced are usually in the form of concretions. Natural elements such as sand and shells have bonded to them, making their identification difficult. Sometimes smaller concretions are found within larger concretions. All artifacts are given the utmost care at the conservation lab at East Carolina University.

Items recovered include a bronze bell with the date 1709, pewter plates, cannons, navigational instruments, nails, gun hardware, bottles, and smaller personal items such as a button and a tobacco pipe. Even a small amount of gold dust has been recovered. Experts estimate that over 500,000 items will be recovered from the site.

These fascinating finds will help future generations understand early ships, armaments, and life on board a pirate ship, and will ever keep us aware of the golden age of piracy. For more information visit

In 2018, the 300th anniversary of Blackbeard’s death, the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources will host an exciting array of educational experiences for a wide range of audiences.

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Between the Queen City & the Land of the Sky: Bus Service from Charlotte to Asheville

In November 1922, several North Carolina newspapers ran headlines announcing a new bus service linking two major commercial centers. Asheville’s Kenilworth Transportation Company (later known as the Asheville Transportation Company) had plans for a route between that city and Charlotte the following spring. Property near the intersection of South Market and Beaumont streets in Asheville was acquired for the construction of a three-story brick passenger station and terminal.

Big Brother C.B. Brown

C.B. Brown poses with the Miss Asheville. Ruiz Family Collection, WRA, circa 1923. 

Two vehicles, the Miss Asheville and the Miss Charlotte, could carry up to 21 passengers each on the 127-mile trip. At a cost of $11,000 each, the new vehicles were on the cutting edge of luxury and comfort. “Both busses are appointed with brown grain leather upholstering and the inside appearance is that of a Pullman car.” While similar busses were in use from routes between New York and Boston and New York and Montreal, it was believed that Miss Asheville and Miss Charlotte were “the only machines of their kind in the south,” and as such, “attracted a good deal of attention.”

Service got under way in May 1923, with a special promotional excursion provided for newspapermen and members of the press. Upon their arrival, Asheville’s Col. E. G. Hester and son Harvey Hester, who owned the busses, treated the press party to a surprise reception at the Kenilworth Inn.

The route’s itinerary included Hendersonville, Chimney Rock, Rutherfordton, Forest City, Shelby, Kings Mountain, and Gastonia. The sojourn took seven hours and cost $7.00 one way.

Charlie's Bus

The Miss Asheville, one of the busses that made the trip between Asheville and Charlotte. Ruiz Family Collection, WRA, circa 1923.

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Rampant Jollity: Singing Conventions in Western North Carolina

One hundred years ago, on September 30, 1917, thousands gathered in Hendersonville for the annual all-day Singing Convention held at the Henderson County Courthouse. All sections of the county were represented and a choir from almost every church performed.

ConDev8426G singing

Singing on the Mountain, Grandfather Mountain, 1951. NC Department of Conservation & Development photo, State Archives of NC

“The singing conventions have always been the source of a great deal of pleasure for the people in the county,” reported the French Broad Hustler newspaper. Folks from far-flung and remote regions of the county gathered and socialized at these community get-togethers, which were also an opportunity for the young people of the county to congregate.

Although threatening weather the day before caused officials to fear poor turnout, the convention was the best-attended on record. Many made a day of the occasion and brought picnic dinners to enjoy. Local furniture salesman, J. Fanning Stepp, served as president of the Singing Convention.

In the months between the annual convention, local singing conventions were held at locations around Henderson County, usually on the 5th Sunday of the month with dinner on the grounds. Bear Wallow, Edneyville, and Mt. Home all hosted singing conventions. Haywood, Jackson, and Cherokee counties also held singing conventions, while Burke and McDowell held a joint convention in 1907.

In 1922, Artus Moser penned an article in The Charlotte Observer that highlighted these special mountain events, asserting that they were the perfect breeding grounds for friendly rivalries among choirs. Moser claimed that while similar gatherings were held in the east, in the mountain counties there was a “higher degree of perfection, importance and influence.”

At Grandfather Mountain near Linville, the annual Singing on the Mountain event evolved from a Sunday School picnic in 1924. The 94th Singing on the Mountain event will be held June 24, 2018. In the central portion of the state, the town of Benson hosts the State Annual Singing Convention. The gathering of singers took root in 1921 and is billed as “the oldest continuous Gospel sing in the United States.” Also held in June, the 98th State Annual Singing Convention is slated for June 22–24.

That’s a whole lot of singin’ goin’ on!

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