On this day in WNC History: During the midst of the Great Depression, the Black Mountain College opened to students for the first time in 1933. Based on the principle of progressive education, this college offered a new model of learning, particularly in the liberal arts, for students from WNC and abroad.
Black Mountain College initially rented buildings from the YMCA’s Blue Ridge Assembly, but eventually moved to a new campus by Lake Eden from 1941 through its closing in 1957. The college was governed and owned by its faculty and all college members participated in its operations, maintenance, and even farm work. The college’s president, Dr. F.R. Georgia, explained that the instructors would be advisors, facilitators, and friends to students. Incoming students in the junior college would move on to the senior program after comprehensive exams in a broad array of liberal arts subjects and graduate when they chose. Students did not receive accredited degrees, but left with an expected personal growth.
The school’s founding occurred simultaneously with the rise of Nazism in Germany and the closing of the Bauhaus School there, encouraging many intellectuals and students to immigrate to this small school in the American mountain South. It also operated during the period of Jim Crow segregation, when some faculty were reluctant to strain their relationship with the surrounding community by integrating. After much deliberation, Black Mountain College admitted the first African American woman to attend a white higher-ed school in the South during this time when Alma Stone Williams entered in 1944. In the following years, several African Americans began teaching in summer and then regular programs and more students arrived as the Rosenwald fund provided salaries and scholarships.
The college shifted in the 1950s from an artistic to a more literary focus, and began publishing the short-lived Black Mountain Review literary journal in 1954. Just three years later, under mounting debts and declining enrollment, the school closed. The legacy of the institution is often fondly remembered, and today both the Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center as well as the Journal of Black Mountain College Studies work to explore this experimental and influential school and its members.