Black Mountain College, Don’t you Know?

No, I did not know there was or had been a Black Mountain College until Marion friend, Nancy Hunter, gave me a bound article titled: The Success of it’s Own Accident, An Opinionated Encapsulated History of Black Mountain College. Written by Tom Patterson for the North Carolina Literary Review in 1995. (An intriguing read for an opinionated writer like myself who has endeavored to encapsulate the encapsulation)

I discovered that Patterson’s interest in unique stylistic art, as in folk art, started with an experience at the Black Mountain College Festival that took place in 1974 at St. Andrews College in Laurinberg, NC, where Patterson attended. When he followed through to write the essay I comment on today, he referenced “two extensive published histories of Black Mountain College–Martin Duberman’s Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community (1972) and Mary Emma Harris’s The Arts at Black Mountain (1987).” Also referenced is “Fielding Dawson’s exuberant memoir of his own life as a student there in the late 40s and early 50s.”

I share this information at this particular juncture in my Dysartsville blog because I have recently posted three memorials which vaguely tie in to this story: as in the local Boy Scout Camp, Foxfire Project, and Berea College.

Patterson reports that Black Mountain College was the brainchild of classics professor John Andrew Rice, whose “strong personality and freethinking ways got him fired” from Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. It was the depths of US depression, and he needed a job somewhere. Fortunately for him, several other professors and loyal students offered to support his idea of a more democratic institution of learning and an unconventional student body. They left Rollins as a mobile learning cell in search of a host.

From their website, I learned that Rollins College was the first college in Florida. It was founded in 1885 through sponsorship by a church, which was the norm back then. But from I was surprised to learn this body of believers was of New England Congregationalist inspiration, embracing autonomy and the belief that “every seeking child of God is given directly wisdom, guidance, and power.” This sounded kind of radical to me, especially since King Henry VIII once declared himself Supreme Head of that Church, and he had radical ideas about marriage. However, many of our nation’s oldest educational institutions, like Harvard and Yale, were founded to train Congregationalist clergy.  So although the Church progressed to become involved in many social movements, Rice wanted more intellectual freedom for teaching. He was invited to leave.

In the Conference Center at the Blue Ridge Assembly, where the Baptist Church used the facility only in the summer months, the first faculty of eleven opened Black Mountain College for fewer than two dozen students in the fall of 1933. Wikipedia reports Black Mountain College “was ideologically organized around John Dewey’s principles of education while emphasizing holistic learning and the study of art as central to a liberal arts education.” Dewey visited the campus twice during the 1934-1935 school year and his name was on the advisory board, later joined with the names of Albert Einstein and Carl Jung, an impressive endorsement for the infant hope of excellence.

At the same time, across the Atlantic in a turbulent Germany, the Nazis shut down the Bauhaus art and design school where Josef Albers and his wife Anni taught. They immigrated to the States and with connections through similar educational refugees found positions in Black Mountain College and stayed for sixteen years. Josef “developed a strong following among both students and faculty, and he ultimately proved to be the single most important influence on the school’s evolution as an arts center. In 1987 Mary Emma Harris wrote in The Arts at Black Mountain College that Josef in 1928 was the head of the furniture workshop at Bauhaus, and he “distinguished himself as a glass painter and as a designer of furniture and lettering.” (Patterson pg 23) Anni taught weaving and textile design. Language was a big problem for awhile, not to mention the political issue like an elephant hiding in the mountain forest.

In a free society, rules are unnecessary, right? So there were no written guidelines to the students at first. They were expected to show up for class, dress nicely for Saturday dinner, and each was allowed to decide their own graduation date. Later on there was a growing list of suggestions regarding barefeet and/or sex in public, throwing lit cigarettes out windows, borrowing books without asking, etc. With their past experiences, Albers and Ted Dreier, a physics and math instructor, and Rector Robert Wunsch were not as progressive as perhaps the rest of the faculty, and they remained ever vigilant for plots by political subversives attempting to destroy BMC. They did have a “rule” that said “No firearms” but like I said earlier, rules were rarely enforced, just argued. Even the one suggesting: Be Intelligent.

John Rice left six years after the college opened. In 1941, the college made a short move across the valley to a larger campus of 600 acres with craftsman style bungalows around Lake Eden. Students were required to participate in farm work, construction projects and kitchen duty, similar to commune living. After all, there were no course requirements, grades or degrees offered. “Work crews were headed by German refugee Richard Goethe, who had a PhD in economics but was also a master mechanic and toolmaker,” wrote Patterson. A materials course taught by Albers and a course on Plato were the only non-negotiables. The largest benefactors were members of the Forbes family. Even Eleanor Roosevelt visited once. Much of the teaching was by guest lecturers.

In 1944 an incident occurred that alarmed the faculty because the publicity drew much negative attention to the school. Two female students were arrested for hitchhiking and charged with loitering which then had a close connection to prostitution. The girls were forced to leave the school along with their female advisor who sanctioned their trip to visit a former teacher at Fisk University in Nashville, TN. In protest, all the student officers and twenty of their fellows, mostly liberal arts majors, resigned from the college. Two of these professors had been hired the year before, and Josef Albers was “convinced they were communists looking to take over the college.” (Patterson ppg 20-21) Hitchhiking was banned, for females. And the list of behavior suggestions got longer and stronger: don’t be noisy after 10:30pm and do not vacation with members of the opposite sex.

Patterson wrote in his article that “from the outset two key aspects of its administration and educational emphasis set it apart from other schools in this country. First, the faculty were the sole owners and administrators of BMC, which had no outside board of trustees or directors that could exert political pressure on the school. Second, the arts occupied the center of the curriculum; not the liberal arts or the study of art history, but rather music, dance, theatre, visual art, and literature as active practices. Courses in the sciences and humanities were offered, at least until the last year or two. In the reversal of the usual order of academic priorities, those disciplines held a more peripheral position at BMC.” (Patterson pg 21)

Patterson wrote, “Despite the Southern heritage of its founder, BMC was always culturally and socio-politically out of step with the surrounding region.” After a speech in Charlotte about the college and his ideas on education, a front-page article in the Charlotte News described him as “decidedly radical and communistic.” (pg 24 of his bound article). On page 25, he quoted Duberman’s page 68 of Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community (1972), writing that predictably “blacks were allowed in the kitchen at BMC long before they were allowed in the classroom. The first African Americans at the college were cook Jack Lipsey and his wife Rubye” who stayed for several years. “The question of whether a visiting black student could stay on campus or not was one of the first divisive issues to confront the college in its founding year. In the end, fear ruled, and the student was housed in ‘suitable quarters in town’.”

Duberman also wrote “the arrival of Carol Brice and Roland Hayes as guest faculty for the summer music institute of 1945 marked another important turn for the college. Brice brought her mother and baby and stayed for four weeks; Hayes and his family stayed two weeks. Both had dramatic impacts on the college and the town. Hayes’ public concert brought an integrated audience of over 300 to the campus without incident.” “Percy H. Baker, a professor at Virginia State College, was hired to teach biology. Baker later said BMC was ‘one of only two places I have been in my life when I was unconscious of race.’ (Quoted in Duberman page 217) “By 1947, five black students were enrolled.” But few applied after that.

Patterson wrote, “the full-time faculty worked in exchange for a share in the school’s ownership and were paid based on its income, which was usually lean and sometimes nonexistent. Long-term teachers went for months, even years, without receiving a paycheck, in essence working for room and board and an ever-increasing IOU from the college.” (pg 22)

The most divisive issue that perhaps unfortunately destroyed the school was not in the student population but in the faculty, the adult leadership. From Duberman pp 230-22 and Harris, 105, Patterson wrote that Rector “Robert Wunsch, a founding member of the faculty, was arrested in 1945 on a ‘crimes against nature’ charge and forced to resign his post.” (pg 25) Wunsch had taught at Rollins with Rice, and had come to BMC to teach drama. It seemed a natural fit for him since he was a native of this area. When Ted Dreier heard the news, he “returned immediately from a sabbatical and had the charge reduced to aggravated trespass in exchange for Wunsch’s promise to leave the area (forever). Dreier later told Duberman that he suspected Wunsch had been set up because of his liberal reputation.” Wunsch “moved to Los Angeles, where he changed his name and began working for the post office.”

For the next couple years, strife within the leadership regarding BMC’s future direction weakened it’s utopian hope. Albers left in 1949 because of the power struggle, and the school never recovered. Patterson writes, “But from an artistic standpoint, it was a time of remarkable energy and unprecedented innovation at the school.” “The lively spirit of avant-garde renaissance that infected Black Mountain during the early 1950s was epitomized by the most famous event ever to take place there–the now legendary ‘happening’ that composer John Cage organized one evening in the summer of 1952.”

In the next post, I will be highlighting individuals who added to the excellence that Rice hoped to encourage with his education experiment. There are several who deserve spotlights and admiration.

But to end this general description of Black Mountain College, it must be noted that Charles Olson tried his best to breathe spirit into an unconventional institution. “Olson taught briefly at Harvard, worked in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration and published two books when he was first invited to teach writing at Black Mountain in the fall of 1948.” Over the next five years, he was in and out between Black Mountain and his home in DC, or studying Mayan glyphs in Yucatan, a most extraordinary individual.

On page 27, Patterson describes Olson as “a formidable personality which was magnified by his towering 6’8″ frame.” The college was without a rector until the fall of 1953, when Olson agreed to take the reins. His recognized contribution to BMC was his influence on contemporary writing. “He brought fellow-poets Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan to join him, and soon afterwards, founded the Black Mountain Review, an arts magazine “whose seven issues helped establish the Black Mountain writers and beat generation writers such as Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs as important forces in American literature.” (Patterson pg 28)

“Describing the ambiance at Black Mountain in the early 50s, Olson wrote that it was ‘more no-college now, and fast becoming a Chinese monastery or  hill-fort’.” “These last Black Mountain holdouts were an outlaw commune on the cultural fringe, a band of intellectual outsiders and visionaries taking refuge from a bland, conformist society.” Olson wrote a series of farewell lectures called The Special View of History that “speak to a basic issue that was always at the heart of Black Mountain’s educational philosophy: the relationship of the individual, and particularly the individual artist to his or her time.” The lectures were posthumously published fourteen years later. (pg 28)

Black Mountain College took its last gasp in 1957. Wikipedia reports, “Ironically, the property was purchased and converted to an ecumenical Christian boys residential summer camp Rockmont.”

As a local native, young Tom Patterson attended this camp for two summer sessions in the 1960s, returning, enlightened, to write a fitting memorial for the college once birthed there.

Surely I have left out many consequential names, but readers can go to the current website and learn more details of this historic chapter in our beloved mountain neighborhood. Although the college is gone, it is remembered in the BMC Museum and Arts Center at 120 College Street, in Asheville NC.

Advertized now is an Upcoming Exhibition: February 1, 2019 to March 18, 2019.


Copyright @2019 Georgia Wilson


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