Archive for the ‘History’ Category

For eight years, Black Mountain College occupied Lee Hall during the fall through spring, then stowed its belongings in the attic for the summer months, when YMCA conferences and camps were held. The annual transition eventually became too taxing and the College began to look at more convenient sites.

Just across the valley they discovered Lake Eden, a family retreat center built by Asheville developer E.W Grove in the 1920s. When the resort business dwindled in 1937, Black Mountain College purchased the property. The college’s own talented faculty were commissioned to design studio space, workshops, classrooms, and other modern campus facilities that Blue Ridge lacked. Finally in the spring of 1941, after construction for the new campus was complete, Black Mountain College officially relocated.

Lake Eden campus

Lake Eden campus

It was at the Lake Eden location that BMC could truly thrive. The most intense periods of creativity were held beginning in 1944 and became known as the “Summer Institutes.” Black Mountain College became a nurturing ground for many talents of the twentieth century and headquarters for innovation including construction of the first large-scale geodesic dome, the first multimedia “Happening,” and the publication of The Black Mountain Review.

Buckminster Fuller’s first geodesic dome

Buckminster Fuller’s first geodesic dome

The avant-garde at Black Mountain College wouldn’t always be so lively. During World War II, the majority of the male students and faculty left the campus. The student body became largely women and European refugees and the focus of curriculum evolved into more literary arts. Many of the students and faculty sought opportunities elsewhere and would go on to impact modern art movements in larger metropolitan cities like San Francisco, New York, or Paris.

By the 1950s, Black Mountain College, like many other experimental American institutions, struggled to exist. Enrollment decreased and eventually the college could no longer stay afloat. The college suspended classes by court order in 1957 and in 1962, the school’s books were finally closed with all debts covered.

Over its memorable 23 year history, Black Mountain College served about 1,200 students. Due to BMC’s academic intensity, small size, geographic remoteness, as well as the social upheaval of the time, few of those students actually graduated from the college. Despite these challenges and the school’s lack of formal accreditation, the legacy of Black Mountain College still lives on today.

Black Mountain College: The Legacy

Black Mountain College is considered one of the most important and influential experiments in education in the 20th century. Even now, decades after its closing, the powerful influence of Black Mountain College continues to reverberate in the local community and around the world. An extraordinarily large number of BMC alumni went on to make major contributions in the fields of architecture, literature, theatre, music, and dance – as artists, architects, writers, teachers, businesspeople, and in many other careers.

Many artists and writers now known around the world were associated with Black Mountain College as teachers or students. These included:

Writers/Poets: Charles Olson, Francine du Plessix Gray, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Jonathan Williams, Ed Dorn, and Robert Creeley.
Potters/Sculptors: Peter Voulkos, Robert C. Turner, M.C. Richards
Painters: Josef Albers, Jacob Lawrence, Cy Twombly,  Kenneth Noland, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell, Robert Rauschenberg, Ben Shahn, Leo Krikorian, Dorothea Rockburne
Composer: John Cage
Architect: Buckminster Fuller
Choreographer: Merce Cunningham
Photographer: Jonathon Williams
Filmmaker/Actor: Arthur Penn
Printmaker/Typographer: Gregory Masurovsky


In 1993, 60 years after the founding of BMC, the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center was opened in downtown Asheville. The Museum serves as an exhibition space and resource center dedicated to exploring the history of the college. Through exhibitions, publications, lectures, films, seminars, and oral history interviews BMCM+AC is committed to spreading awareness of Black Mountain College and its important legacy. Other projects include promoting alumni events and managing a permanent archive for the artwork, historical materials and publications related to the College. In 2008 the Museum celebrated the 75th Anniversary of the college.

Today, the Black Mountain College Historic District is located on 600 acres of the original Lake Eden tract. Camp Rockmont, a boys summer camp, which opened the year that BMC closed, still operates in the summer months while the LEAF festival is held every spring and fall, celebrating world cultures through music and the arts, a mission that stands true to the College’s legacy.

BMC Lee Hall porch

As the birthplace of Black Mountain College, YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly is honored to have been a part of this legacy as well. BMC is one of many milestones in our association’s rich and complex history. It should be noted that just three years after the college relocated, Blue Ridge was reincorporated under the ownership of the YMCAs of the South, undergoing a major renewal program to modernize buildings and expand services. This pivotal moment in our past enabled us to touch countless more lives, impact generations to come, and has shaped who we are today.

Looking back on the fascinating story of Black Mountain College, we are grateful for all of the movers, the shakers, and the leaders who have been a part of our journey. It is our hope that the future of the Assembly is full of the same inspirational vigor and vitality that Black Mountain College provided and look forward to sharing it with you all in the years to come.

Famous quotes about Black Mountain College

Famous quotes about Black Mountain College


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The college was an intense, high-pressure, exciting educational experience, one that disturbed students’ ideas of the status quo and often profoundly changed their lives. It required nothing but expected everything – a total commitment of emotion, intellect, and creativity.”               – Black Mountain College Museum & Arts Center

Black Mountain College was the first American college of its kind, an experimental school born out of John Dewey’s principles of experiential education. Central to the college was the idea that the arts are at the core of the experience of learning. Its founders believed that exploration of the arts- whether visual arts, music, literature, drama, or dance– are valuable in learning self-discipline and self-expression.

John Dewey, American philosopher and educator who inspired the Black Mountain College philosophy

John Dewey, American philosopher who inspired  Black Mountain College’s progressive education model

Also central to the philosophy of the school was the idea of community. Dedicated to the concept of democratic governance, the college strived to employ very few outsiders and be as self-sufficient as possible with no administration. The students and faculty themselves took part in the college’s operations, including farm work, building maintenance, and kitchen duty.

BMC students were expected to take individual responsibility for their education; to be engaged in the learning process; and to seek, find and create opportunities for personal growth. This meant few rules and regulations: no required curriculum, no schedule of exams, and no formal grades.

BMC academia

Black Mountain College academia

Lee Hall provided the ideal accommodations for the college community. Classes and lectures were held in the lobby, the porch offered dynamic places for group meetings, and the lawns and rooftops provided unique spaces for social gatherings. The building even hosted the College’s legendary Halloween parties each year in the basement.

While some faculty lived with the students in dormitory wings of Lee Hall, staff with families resided in the nearby cottages. Lastly, the dining hall just behind Lee Hall served as a center of intellectual and innovative activity, where students and professors could converse over shared meals.

Social gatherings on Lee Hall porch

Social gatherings on Lee Hall porch

BMC students eating lunch on the dining room patio

Students & Faculty

Black Mountain College attracted immigrant artists from around the world to teach at the campus.  This faculty, well-known in their respected fields, became magnets to young amateurs who were eager to learn and experience new artistic methods and theories. Students came to BMC from across the country, many by word of mouth. Enrollment was sometimes 50, sometimes 10, but never more than 100 students at any one time.

BMC Students and professor Josef Albers on Lee Hall porch

BMC students and professor Josef Albers on Lee Hall porch

With small classes and one-to-one tutoring, students and faculty were in close everyday contact. These unsanctioned mentorships and apprenticeships eventually played out and it was not uncommon for students to go on to become teachers at the college themselves. The school created a critical mass of professionals in many different areas of art- music, dance, painting, photography, poetry, and sculpture. Yet the overlying goal remained consistent: to challenge mainstream social values.

The progressive reputation of Black Mountain College grew quickly and generated a buzz in the industry, attracting other notable contemporaries of the time. It drew such guest lecturers as Thornton Wilder (1934), Louis Adamic (1935), Aldous Huxley (1937), William Carlos Williams (1940s), Henry Miller (1940s), and Clement Greenberg (1950) . Even Albert Einstein and the schools “founding father” John Dewey made several visits and eventually became members of the College’s Advisory Board.

Multi-talented artists and performers

Multi-talented artists and performers


Social gatherings on Lee Hall steps

Next up…Our final installment to the series:Black Mountain College: The Later Years

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The 1920 and 30s emerged as one of the most turbulent periods in American history. Many businesses were undergoing a transformation in response to the Great Depression and the execution of many new government-sponsored public works projects. YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly was no exception.

In 1932 the Blue Ridge property was put up for public sale as a result of a decrease in conference attendance and the failure of local banks. Weatherford was able to raise enough money to save the Assembly but it was legally necessary to reorganize under the name of “Blue Ridge College, Inc.” That following year in1933 a new 21-member governing board of trustees met to discuss the future of the Assembly.

Coincidentally during that same time a group of professors and students from Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida were in search of a place to start their dream: a new liberal arts college built around the foundations of community, self-expression and intellectual freedom. The group of non-conformists was led by John Rice, Classics professor at Rollins College who was frustrated by the rigid educational models of the time. His colleague, Bob Wunsch, was a native of Asheville and familiar with Blue Ridge Assembly. Wunsch recommended the site to Rice who visited the property in the spring of 1933 and immediately fell in love with the mountain setting, just as Dr. Weatherford had done 27 years earlier.

John Rice, founder of Black Mountain College

John Rice, founder of Black Mountain College

The Blue Ridge property was a self-contained ready-made campus, complete with dormitory space, dining hall, gymnasium, library, auditorium, and even a maintenance garage.

“Perfect. Here was peace. Here was also central heating against the cold of winter, blankets, sheets, dishes, flatware, enough for a dozen colleges, all at a moderate rental”, Rice wrote enthusiastically.

Most of all, the rural and pristine environment of Blue Ridge would foster a sense of creative inspiration that was the foundation of the school’s mission.

Rice and his team spent the summer raising funds for the school. In August a lease was signed with the Assembly for $4500 a year, funding which helped to lift Blue Ridge out of from financial hardship and temporally secure year-round operation.  The primary stipulation was that that the college personnel and equipment would have to vacate all buildings each spring to make room for the Assembly’s regular summer YMCA conferences.

Black Mountain College opened their campus in September of 1933 with ten teachers and twenty-two students. Little did they know at the time, it was history in the making and Blue Ridge would be a part of it.

Coming soon… Black Mountain College: Campus Life (Part 2 of 3)

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“This work has brought me into many very delicate and difficult positions. It has caused its full share of criticism and heartache. Some of my white friends have berated me for going too fast; some of my colored friends have called me names because I would not go faster.”   -Dr. Weatherford

The Controversy

Residents of the surrounding area did not always approve of the Assembly’s progressive racial practices. Blue Ridge sometimes received anonymous threats when area residents learned that African American speakers would be guests at the center. For example, in August 1919, a black YMCA secretary came to Blue Ridge, and a “disgruntled white man in the neighborhood made his disapproval of this integration known.” Several weeks later, the laundry building near Robert E. Lee Hall burned. Weatherford believed this man set the fire that destroyed the building.

Beyond these physical threats, Blue Ridge also had to consider the reactions of its supporters and take care not to alienate or offend them. At the time, many Southern whites did not want forced integration. Weatherford feared that by welcoming African American guests to Blue Ridge, it might stir up controversy among its long-term friends and family, southern leaders, parents of young conferees, and worst of all, the Assembly’s generous donors. If Blue Ridge were to be perceived as a radical place that fostered “dangerous ideas”, it would undoubtedly lose its mainstream appeal and support.

These funding issues in particular limited Blue Ridge’s activities, but furthermore, by allowing blacks to eat and sleep side by side with whites, Blue Ridge would be violating the law. To go against both social and legal norms would enable authorities to revoke the Assembly’s operating license. Weatherford believed the racial stances that Blue Ridge took at this time were as liberal as the institution could make and still keep its doors open.

Changing Perceptions

From 1912 to 1930, Blue Ridge was primarily an all-white conference center. In those years it did not openly dispute segregation, argue explicitly for social equality between blacks and whites, or condone interracial dating or marriage. Instead, Blue Ridge served as a place where whites and blacks could meet and discuss racial problems and where African American leaders could come to speak and offer their views on a variety of subjects. This alone dramatically influenced how white attendees perceived and treated African Americans.

The impact of Weatherford’s subtle, grassroots effort was profound.  Blue Ridge helped to influence the attitudes of the young college men and women it served, thereby changing how people interacted with one another in day-to-day life. This moderate approach would eventually help whittle away at the racist structure of southern society over the years. And because these conferences were held primarily for young people, the future leaders of America and those most open to new ideas, the movement touched countless lives over the course of history.

While perceptions cannot be quantified, it is clear that white students in particular were affected by what they saw, heard, and experienced at Blue Ridge. It influenced how many of them chose to spend their lives, inspiring bold action to stand up to racism. For instance, it is noted that one leader of the Louisiana delegation, who previously had threatened to walk out on Carver’s 1924 Blue Ridge speech, later tried to prevent a lynching in his hometown.

Reflecting on the impact of the center later in life, Weatherford proudly wrote, “Blue Ridge has probably done more than any other single institution to make the white people of the South conscious of their responsibility to serve this largest minority group in America. . . . The spirit of cooperation developed there has sent thousands of the choicest college students back to their respective colleges or out into the world as advocates of better racial understanding.”

Meanwhile, many strides were being made at the national level. In 1931, delegates from the National Council vowed to “work steadfastly toward the goal of eliminating all racial discriminations.” Later in 1946 Y-USA urged local branches to formally desegregate. Finally, in 1951, the color bar was broken at Blue Ridge.

1956 staff photo

1956 staff photo

The Legacy

Weatherford’s interest in race relations directly influenced the five principles upon which Blue Ridge was founded:

  1. There is a dignity in all human labor. Anything ministering to human need is a God-given responsibility.
  2. The study of religion must be intellectually respectable.
  3. Religion is indispensable in building life values.
  4. All people are created in the image of God and worthy of love and respect.
  5. In the beauty of Blue Ridge’s natural setting, guests and staff should spend time in reflection/introspection through quiet time, prayer, Bible study or meditation.

Weatherford believed that the ethics of Christianity required Southerners to address the treatment of African Americans and work to improve the social and economic problems faced by black people. As a Christian, it was an obligation of each person to find the value in others, especially those different from oneself, and love them as equals.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.” John 13:16

Furthermore, Weatherford strongly believed in the value of manual labor. He wrote “the experience of slavery had left a deep psychological scar on the South and its attitude toward work. He reasoned that “the slave hated labor because it branded him as inferior, and the white man shunned labor because he thought it was the slave’s province.” Weatherford wanted to change these attitudes and instill the idea “that any task which added richness to human existence was a sacred task.”  Each summer he used the college-aged men and women who worked at Blue Ridge to help manifest this vision.  The conference center also employed a small number of African American workers who assisted with providing food and laundry services. Some of these employees commuted daily from Black Mountain, while others resided in Booker T. Washington Hall (later demolished in the 1970s).

Martha Washington Hall

Martha Washington Hall

In Weatherford’s opinion these men and women, white and black, represented the South’s future and would help transform the lives of many others. Because he viewed them as potential leaders, Weatherford hoped that a summer program of work and study would encourage them to contribute to their schools and communities. Blue Ridge Assembly promoted the philosophy that race relations would improve by broadening bright young students’ perspectives on race, and they, in turn, would change the world through their future work. These collegiate were held to high standards in speech and behavior. Racist language in particular was not permitted among the staff. For example, it is said that on one occasion, after a white member of the staff complained about the nature of manual labor, Weatherford responded, “You had better change your attitude toward both work and Negroes—or leave Blue Ridge. We respect both here”, reflected the founding principle that everyone should be treated equally.


Weatherford’s attitudes on race and equality continue to be a part of our heritage, preserved in the five founding principles that our staff still follow to today. We are proud to have been a part of this civil rights movement in the South, influencing a generation of young leaders, united under the Y values of caring, honesty, respect and responsibility.Today YMCA B lue Ridge Assembly is just as committed to the principles of diversity and inclusion. Each day, we work to ensure everyone, regardless of gender, income, faith or cultural background, has the opportunity to experience our life-changing programs.


YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly continues to adapt to needs of the changing times as we build healthier communities and strengthen mind, body, and spirit- for ALL.




“The Limits to Improving Race Relations in the South: The YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly in Black Mountain, North Carolina, 1906–1930” by Andrew McNeill Canady, 2009

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When the YMCA movement began in America in 1851, African Americans were excluded from membership based on legally mandated practices of segregation. Just a few years later,  the first YMCA for African Americans was founded in Washington DC. Over a decade later the onset of the Civil War and the abolishment of slavery created new opportunities for black people, especially students, in the Y.

Anthony Bowen, founder of the first YMCA chapter for African Americans in 1853

Anthony Bowen, founder of the first YMCA chapter for African Americans in 1853

Finally in 1915, Carter Woodson organized the “Association for the Study of Negro Life and History” at the Wabash Avenue YMCA in Chicago. This was the beginning of Negro History Week, the forerunner of today’s annual celebration of Black History Month.

Carter Woodson establishes Black History Month, 1915

Carter Woodson establishes Black History Month, 1915

Black History Month is particularly close to our hearts here at YMCA Blue Ridge. Our founder Dr. Willis D. Weatherford, Sr. was an outspoken activist for race equality throughout his career. In turn, Blue Ridge served as a hub for these progressive ideas and marked us a modern institution for the civil rights movement in the south.

Dr. Willis D. Weatherford, founder of Blue Ridge Assembly.

Dr. Willis D. Weatherford, founder of Blue Ridge Assembly in 1906.

Prior to the founding of Blue Ridge, Weatherford served as the Student Secretary of the International Committee for the YMCA. Under this position he traveled throughout the country, delivering speeches and providing mentorships to passionate young college students. At these campuses Weatherford found himself establishing friendships with “Negro waiters and janitors” despite the social and legal implications of the South’s Jim Crow policies. He developed an intellectual curiosity for the plight of African Americans and from these experiences, became increasingly focused on improving race relations between whites and blacks. Most notably, he desired to work on this problem at the local level.

It was during this tumultuous time, in the wake of widespread racial hostility and prejudice that Weatherford set out to establish Blue Ridge. He dreamed of a permanent meeting place where young people, of all races, could gather in an inspirational setting to discuss new ideas and strengthen their faith. And so it came to be in 1906- a southern conference and training center founded on the principles of the dignity in labor, the value of religion, the beauty of nature, and respect for all mankind.


Weatherford’s interests in improving race relations eventually gave rise to the five principles upon which Blue Ridge was founded. In 1908, he sought to publicly address these problems. He and six other southern religious and educational leaders—four of whom were African American men—gathered for an open dialogue about “the present race question, with special reference to what the college men of the South might do to better conditions.” This conversation, extremely uncommon at the time, would inspire Weatherford to write a book about African Americans in the South, the first of many of nationally-recognized publications that would be used in YMCA study groups and even as text books in college courses.


The Conferences: Unity & Action

When Blue Ridge hosted its first conference in 1912, the South had long been a racially divided region. The Assembly became a unique isolated place where social and religious issues could be confronted, examined, and challenged. It was unlike any institution of its time, one of the few southern places where progressive and liberal subjects were not off limits. Here, Southern white leaders and college students would meet and discuss the subject of race and eventually, welcome black speakers and participants to join them. While their presence was limited, even a small number of African Americans guest speakers was significant in the context of the segregated and racially hostile South.

1917:  A meeting of 48 southern Christian leaders, “educators, ministers, social workers, clubwomen, church workers, doctors, judges, public officials, and YMCA/YWCA personnel” who represented “nearly every state in the South . . . [and] included twelve women and several blacks.” The conference focused on the problem of lynching but also discussed the migration of southern blacks, legal measures to prevent mob violence, and “the role of religion in racial reform.” During this time the United States entered World War I and the YMCA established the Colored Work Department under the War Work Council to organize African American troops.

1919: Training program for the Commission on Interracial Cooperation. This committee, organized by Weatherford, was one of the first of its kind in the South to bring the races together on a local level and foster communication and understanding. The interracial programs of the CIC also sought to help reintegrate black soldiers back into America and eliminate the resurgence of racial tension and violence.

1920: Conference for religious leaders to discuss the “relationship of the church to race problems.” Over seventy-five southern ministers and  college presidents, including Robert Russa Moton, Tuskegee Institute principal and successor to Booker T. Washington,  attended.  Participants voiced their support for the CIC and other local interracial organizations, called for better schools and housing for blacks, and urged white southerners to live up to the “equal” element of the “separate but equal” creed. Moton in particular spoke on the subjects of lynching, social equality, disfranchisement of African Americans, and Jim Crow transportation.

Robert Russa Moton and Dr. Weatherford.

1923: The Southern Student Conference (held annually at Blue Ridge since 1913) welcomes George Washington Carver as a guest speaker. Carver was a well-known African American horticulturist and faculty member at the black Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, most known for his scientific research with the peanut. Carver’s experience at Blue Ridge was significant and student interest in his leadership was immense. Carver’s appearance at Blue Ridge proved to be the start of several friendships and mentorships with a number of white YMCA students, showing them that African Americans were capable of high achievement. Carver would return again in 1924, arguably making an even greater impact. As a “guest of the Virginia Delegation” during his time there he was treated as such- invited to eat and sleep among the all-white group. Since the conference center still segregated the dining of blacks and whites, Carver’s stay, in effect, was the first recorded racial integration of Blue Ridge Assembly.

George Washington Carver

George Washington Carver’s stay becomes the first known racial integration at Blue Ridge.

1925: Southern Student conference welcomes the African American educator Mary McLeod Bethune as a guest speaker. She is the first known African American woman to visit the Assembly.

Mary McLeod Bethune , the first  African American woman guest speaker at Blue Ridge Assembly

Mary McLeod Bethune , the first African American woman guest speaker at Blue Ridge Assembly

1926: Southern Student Conference welcomes Mordecai Johnson of Howard University. Johnson’s speech said, “I don’t advise you to start out putting your hand on this political measure, and putting your hand on this institution trying to change it around. This is not where you begin. You start out with John Jones when you meet him tomorrow morning—the individual toward the individual—acting radically upon the principles of creative love.”

1928: Southern Student Conference welcomes John Hope of Morehouse College as a guest speaker.


“Blue Ridge was the first place in the South where outstanding colored leaders could come to present to the leadership of the white South in large numbers, the needs and problems of the Negro people and the ways of meeting the same.”   

-Dr. Weatherford

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