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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.

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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.

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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.

Resources:

https://www.lib.umn.edu/ymca/guide-afam-milestones

http://www.aaregistry.org/historic_events/view/black-ymca-community-and-home

“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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Part II: “Today”

Even 100 years after its construction, Lee Hall continues to serve as the main focal point of the Assembly. The building, which still lacks central heating or air conditioning, remains open for lodging and meeting spaces only in the summer months. Currently Lee Hall, with a maximum capacity of 396 people, has 146 rooms: 57 rooms with two single beds and private bath, 17 rooms with four sets of bunk beds, and 72 dormitory-style rooms with two single beds and central bath on the hall.

In addition to rustic, seasonal lodging, Lee Hall also provides several office and meeting spaces. In the basement level are the “Paul Grist Room” and the “George Williams Room,” which can accommodate up to 125 people, while the first floor levels has the smaller “Founders Room” and “Clark Room.” However, the building’s largest and most popular gathering space is the expansive 4,400 square foot lobby, which is currently decorated with mission-style furniture from Tyson Furniture, a Black Mountain establishment since 1946. Several portraits of historical figures (including President Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee, the buildings namesake) by the early 20th century artist Henry Kirke Bush-Brown hang on the lobby’s walls. Lastly, above the large stone fireplace is a painting of Jesus Christ, reminding visitors and staff of the Assembly’s strong Christian origin’s, commitment to religious values, and the overall beauty of God’s creation.

Today Lee Hall is the epicenter of the Assembly’s summer conferences. For eight weeks a year, Lee Hall accommodates large national youth conferences such as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and well known regional Y leadership conferences like the Blue Ridge Leaders School, Youth Conference on National Affairs, and the High School and Jr. High School Christian Values Conferences, all which the Assembly has been hosting for decades.

Blue Ridge Leaders School on the steps of Lee Hall, Summer 2010

Lastly, it is the famous green rocking chairs on the porch of Lee Hall that continue to be an icon of the Blue Ridge spirit and its peaceful mountain setting. Ask any summer guest his/her favorite spot at Blue Ridge, and the answer will surely include Lee Hall – either the majesty of the building itself or its inspiring view of the Blue Ridge mountains which continue to bring back memories, year after year.

Lee Hall rockers and the view of the Craggy Mountains

Coming soon…Lee Hall, Part III: “Tomorrow”

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Robert E. Lee Hall

Robert E. Lee Hall is the oldest, largest, and perhaps the most recognizable structure at YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly.  The massive building stands on a hillside in the middle of Blue Ridge grounds and overlooks the beautiful Craggy Mountain range. Throughout the years, thousands of guests and conferees have sat on the rocking chairs of the building’s wide portico and watched memorable sunsets and moon rises.  Lee Hall’s captivating presence and commanding size reflect and reinforce the communal ideals of the it’s founder, Dr. Willis D. Weatherford and constantly reminding visitors of the unique history, strong values, and beloved traditions of the Assembly. 

Part I: “Yesterday”

Construction of Lee Hall began in 1909, three years after the Assembly was founded.  It was designed by Louis E. Jallade, a well known Canadian architect who was an active member of the YMCA in New York.  After learning of the plans for the Assembly, Jallade volunteered his services and commissioned a contractor and supervising architect for the project.

One of the most outstanding features of the neoclassical, plantation-style building are the eight, three-story wooden columns, all of which were fashioned in the Midwest and brought by train to Black Mountain. The rest of the wood in the building came from timber harvested from Blue Ridge property, which totaled over 1,500 acres at the time. Lee Hall’s monumental size (at 55,000 square feet) and stark-white color make it hard to miss against the lush woodland backdrop that surrounds it.

The four-story building was named after the great Civil War general, Robert E. Lee, who exemplified the traditions and ideals of the Old South and was an active supporter of the YMCA. Dr. Weatherford described Lee as “the finest flower of Southern chivalry. He represents the truest type of Christian manhood, the loftiest moral life, the purest and noblest ideals of the old South” in a 1920 issue of the Blue Ridge Voice. The building is therefore a tribute to this historical icon and represents the values of education, leadership, moral character and Christian principles.

Completed in the summer of 1912, Lee Hall was originally designed to house around 400 people and was to be used primarily for year-round conferences and schools.  The first conference held at Blue Ridge, a YWCA student group, attracted almost 1,000 delegates. They overflowed into tents on the Assembly grounds and it soon became clear that the necessary capacity of Lee Hall had been underestimated. Weatherford immediately began plans to expand the accommodations and two additional wings were added to form a large informal courtyard at the back of the building. This expanded capacity came in handy in 1916 when the YMCA joined the war efforts and nearly 2,400 workers were trained at the Assembly to work with U.S troops.

Lee Hall, 1923

Decades later, in 1933, Black Mountain College was established at the Assembly. BMC used Lee Hall as their main campus for many years until it eventually relocated in 1941. The expansive size of the building provided the perfect accommodations for this small college community. Classes, lectures, meetings and performances were held in the lobby, the dormitory-style rooms housed students and faculty, and the porch and rooftops provided perfect places for social gathering. While attic space offered additional housing, the Lee Hall basements housed a Library, provided the location for the College’s legendary Halloween parties, and even operated its own Post Office in the summer months.

After years of intense year-round use, the future of Lee Hall eventually came into jeopardy during the 1960’s.  In 1968 the Board of Directors considered demolishing the historic building and replacing it with a modern structure with the same architecture. It was to cost around a quarter of a million dollars and YMCA’s all over the South would raise the money to cover the project. However, many people quickly realized that the unique structural integrity and heritage of the building simply could not be reproduced. There proved to be very little support for the demolition and only about 10 percent of the necessary funding was raised. Frank Washburn, the Executive Director at the time says, “(Lee Hall) meant too much to too many people.”

Lee Hall’s strong following became clear again in 1970 when the Blue Ridge Center was purposefully constructed at a lower level to preserve the building’s scenic view of the mountains.  Finally, in 1979 Blue Ridge Assembly was registered as a Historic District in the National Register of Historic Places. The Assembly’s beautiful grounds and cherished structures deserved this honorable recognition. Lee Hall serves as a landmark to a historic legacy that will never be forgotten.

Coming soon…Lee Hall, “Part II: Today”

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Many of our guests are unaware of the rich and longstanding history we have so this post highlights some of the important events over the last 100 years at Blue Ridge.


On October 6, 1906 Dr. Willis D. Weatherford of Nashville, Tennessee, along with Dr. A.L Philips of Richmond, Virginia rented a horse and buggy and drove from Asheville, North Carolina to Black Mountain (about 15 miles east). Weatherford was looking for a site to build his dream – a conference center where groups could meet in an inspirational setting, surrounded by the grandeur of God’s creation. In particular, he wanted a centrally located training center for YMCA professionals and staff.

After hiking up the mountainside, Dr. Weatherford climbed a tree to assess the view. Seeing the beauty of the valley below and the mountains beyond, he exclaimed “Eureka, we have found it!”. Weatherford and Phillips headed immediately to a bank in Asheville where they borrowed $5,000 to provide a down payment on 952 acres and a campaign began to raise additional funding to build the Assembly. All of the wood needed for construction of Blue Ridge buildings came from the property site. Excess timber was sold, and the profits reimbursed more than half of the cost of the land.

Several months later, in January 1907, an organizational meeting for Blue Ridge was held in Charlotte, North Carolina. The charter was secured and officers were appointed: J.A Patton as President, J.D Murphy as Vice President, Weatherford himself as Secretary and F.C Abbot as Treasurer. The leaders quickly bought more land, totaling 1,574 acres. Thus, the YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly was born.

Since then, Blue Ridge has hosted conferences for millions of men, women and young people from around the world. It has been a national training site for the YWCA, Boy Scouts of America, the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons, as well as large annual conferences for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Campus Crusade for Christ, the YMCA Christian Values Conference, the Blue Ridge Conference on Leadership, the YMCA Youth Conference on National Affairs, and the Blue Ridge Leaders School.


There are 5 main principles upon which Blue Ridge was founded:
-There is dignity in all labor. Anything that ministers to human need is a God-given responsibility.
-Religion must be intellectually respectable.
-Religion is indispensable to building life values.
-Every person is created in God’s image and is worthy of love and respect.
-In the beauty of Blue Ridge’s natural setting, guests and staff should spend quiet time in reflection, meditation, and prayer

.

For more unique images from our past, please see the Facebook photo album "From the Archives".

Blue Ridge Assembly Historical Timeline:

1906: Blue Ridge property discovered and purchased by Willis D. Weatherford, Secretary of the Student YMCA of the South.

1907: Officers appointed to operate YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly and additional land acquired.

1912: Robert E. Lee Hall construction completed. Designed by architect Louis E. Jallade fom Montreal.

1916: YMCA joins the war efforts. Nearly 2,400 workers trained at the Assembly to work with U.S troops.

1915: Construction of gymnasium, athletic field, cottages and road to railroad station.

1917: Construction of additional cottages.

1919: Weatherford becomes President of the Southern College, the YMCA Graduate School of Nashville.

1926: Asheville Hall completed.

1927: Abbot Hall completed.

1933: The Assembly was reorganized during the Depression. Students and teachers from Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida visit Blue Ridge to establish their own college, named Black Mountain College.

1937: Black Mountain College relocates to the other side of Swannanoa Valley. (It later closes in 1956 and reopens as Camp Rockmont, a boys summer camp)

1943: The YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly declares bankruptcy. Fundraising campaign begins.

1944: The Assembly is reincorporated under the ownership of the YMCA’s of the South.

1948: Professional land survey conducted at Blue Ridge.

1960’s: Old buildings updated. Ware Pavillion, David Warner Memorial Swimming Pool, cottages and Younts Hall completed.

1968: Frank “Scotty” Washburn appointed Executive Director.

1970: Blue Ridge makes the transition to a year-round conference center.

1974: Blue Ridge is recognized as an International YMCA.

1979: Blue Ridge Assembly Historic District listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

1980: The YMCA of the USA recognizes Blue Ridge as the South’s first International Program Center.

1985: Charles R. Younts Maintenance Service Center opens.

1993: The Blue Ridge Assembly Board of Directors establishes  “Vision 2000”, a strategic plan commitment to Program expansion. The initial focus was recreation, expanding to include environmental education, adventure experiences, challenge, teamwork and leadership development.

1994: The first  element of the Camp Cousins Challenge Course, the 50 ft Alpine Tower, is completed.

1995: Executive Director C. Roger Hibbard announces that the fundraising campaign under Vision 2000 has raised more than $5 million for the future of the Assembly.

Climbing Wall and Team Development Low Rope Course built.

1997: Mountain Bikes purchased and 3.5 mile intermediate bike trail opens.

1999: Blue Ridge serves as the set for the Columbia Pictures movie 28 Days, starring Sandra Bullock.

Craft Shop expands to year-round service and includes focus on Appalachian heritage crafts.

2000: The Diamond Extension, a 40 ft high ropes challenge course, built.

2001: 8000 sq ft Harry Brace Indoor Challenge Course constructed in Ware Pavillion.

2004: Construction begins for first of three Family Lodges.

Woodland archery range established near lower athletic fields.

2005: Watts Family Odyssey Course built as final installment of Camp Cousins Challenge Course.

2006: Blue Ridge marks it’s 100th Anniversary with an extravagant year-long Centennial Celebration.

2008: 18-hole Disc Golf course built around lower athletic fields and nearby woodlands.

2009: Construction of final Family Lodge complete, featuring new “green” elements such as rooftop solar paneling.

Executive Director C. Roger Hibbard announces his retirement after 33 years at Blue Ridge.

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