Social Justice

Allen High School Reminiscence by Mary Othella Burnette

My days at Allen High School: 1948-1949

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In Black Mountain [a town east of Asheville, North Carolina], poor Black residents began to emerge from the grips of the Great Depression as World War II created higher wages and unknown prosperity. With that good fortune, I could stop living with relatives in Ohio and California and come home as a 12th grader to enroll in Allen High School.  I could no longer walk to school, but I was assured of those courses needed for college admission. For me, that advantage was far more important than the hardship of relying on a rickety used school bus for the 16-mile daily ride into Asheville.

Except for college preparation, Allen High was different from any other high school I had entered. It was a private religious school, but Allen accepted girls of all faiths. Allen was small, with only 28 students in my entire senior class. And Allen was integrated in a way I had never seen before. Large integrated public schools in other states accepted students of different races while every faculty member was European- or American-White only. Allen’s student body was African American, female only, but the faculty was mixed: Black and White women who worked harmoniously, and who ate and slept in the same building.1

This unique institution was not hidden away back in the mountains. It stood openly on a main street near Beaucatcher Tunnel and not far from the Buncombe County courthouse. Moreover, Allen functioned in a fully segregated city and in a time when Jim Crow laws governed the Deep South.

And while the so-called integrated schools I had known completely ignored Black History Month, Allen offered a course in Black history, using a textbook written by an African American author. Furthermore, in celebration of Black History Month, Allen invited Langston Hughes to read for us on stage. His presentation was my earliest introduction to Black literature, and it inspired me to read widely as a student and, later, as a certified teacher.

At Allen I was not just another new student somewhere, not someone to be ignored or spurned  because of my rural background and my Southern accent. I was totally accepted within a familiar racial and cultural environment, and I was rewarded for my scholastic ability.

Little did I realize I had enrolled in a historical institution that rose up in 1887 as a beacon of hope for former slaves who wanted only to learn to read and write.  Allen’s light grew brighter for us who dared to reach for the stars. And it continued to shine until it was extinguished by the clamor for integration in 1974. 

Allen gave me a scholarship to Bennett College [in Greensboro, North Carolina], furthering my ambition for higher education and making that horizon obtainable with life-changing results.


1. Henrietta “Cissy” Dendy, an Asheville native and an Allen alumna, expounded in a 2020 interview upon the integrated faculty: “Black and white women can definitely train Black girls, so I don’t know what the problem is here in North Carolina because the gap in achievement for Black students versus white students in this state is huge. Somebody said that white teachers can’t teach Black kids and I said, ‘When did that happen? Because I went to Allen, given it was a private school with Methodist missionaries – Black and white.’” (Eliza Hill, “Asheville boarding school serves as an integral part of Black history,”in The Blue Banner: The Student Voice of UNC Asheville, posted 11/8/2020 at