Social Justice

The Allen School in Asheville, North Carolina, 1887-1974

An Extraordinary Educational Opportunity for African Americans

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Subject: THE ALLEN SCHOOL IN ASHEVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA, 1887-1974

Author: Western Regional Archives, a branch of the State Archives of North Carolina

License: Courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina

Source: “The Allen School: Educational Opportunity for African Americans in Asheville,” posted to https://westernregionalarchives.wordpress.com/2018/02/ on February 14, 2018 by Western Regional Archives. The article has been slightly revised to add points of information.

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, but 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. A school was established there alongside Berry Temple Methodist Church. Educational goals would be threefold—industrial, mental, and spiritual. The school was later named for Marriage Allen, a Quaker from England who in 1897 donated $1,000 for a dormitory.

Early on, the school—located on the northeast side ofdowntown, 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.

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. During the 1950’s, about half of Allen High School graduates went on to college, and by 1972 more than three-fourths attended four-year colleges.1 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. For example, 53 girls attended Allen in 1942, with 28 coming from western North Carolina, 19 from the wider region, and five from nonadjoining states.2

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.

Throughout its existence, Allen High School graduated 1,177students. 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. Other graduates stayed closer to home, attending historically black colleges and universities in the South. Alumnae include musician Nina Simone, ophthalmologist Sheila Wright, physician John Holt, superior court judge Yvonne Mims Evans, U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Winona Williams Thompson, and NASA engineer and PhD Christine Darden, who inspired the movie Hidden Figures.3

 

1. Jamie Butcher, “Religion, Race, Gender, and Education: The Allen School, Asheville, North Carolina, 1885 to 1974,” in Appalachian Journal, V. 33, No. 1, pages 78-109.

2, Thomas Calder, “Asheville Archives: Allen High School’s impact on city residents and beyond,” in Mountain Xpress, posted 2/23/2020 at https://mountainx.com/news/asheville-archives-allen-high-schools-impact-on-city-residents-and-beyond/

3. 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 https://thebluebanner.net/11699/arts-features-2/asheville-boarding-school-serves-as-an-integral-part-of-black-history/