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Saturday, March 5, 2011

Enigmatic Asheville leader Stephens helped generations of blacks

My grandmother proudly remembers Stephens-Lee. It was the 1930s, and the black school in her rural town in Virginia stopped at the 10th grade. Grandma moved in with her sister, 200 miles away in Asheville, where she became the first in her family to finish high school. I was intrigued. Who were Stephens and Lee?

Hester Lee, it turns out, had a straightforward biography — she was born and raised in North Carolina and taught at Catholic Hill School, which would later become Stephens-Lee. Her spouse was Walter S. Lee, the first principal of Stephens-Lee.

Information on Edward Stephens was much more difficult to come by. That which was available — through newspaper accounts and books — was not entirely consistent or reliable.

And one biography I found — all of two paragraphs — ended by stating that he just sort of up and left Asheville one day, never to be seen or heard from again. I had to find out more.

Through Deborah Miles, executive director of the Center for Diversity Education, and Jill Hawkins, of the Biltmore Estate archives, I began to gather clues.

Edward Stephens was born Dec. 22, 1849, in Georgetown, British Guiana (now Guyana). There are accounts that he left British Guiana for the United Kingdom at an early age and was educated in the UK and Europe.

One report noted that Stephens was educated at Oxford University, though neither Oxford nor Cambridge has a record of his matriculation. It is possible that Stephens was educated at another school in the UK.

Racial mixing was not uncommon in the earlier years of British Guiana, and many offspring of wealthy white men and local women of color were sent to the UK for their education. Stephens might have been such a student.

Or perhaps Stephens remained in British Guiana until immigrating to the United States, and obtained a broad, classical education through one of the elite missionary schools in British Guiana, such as Queens College.

Census records indicate Stephens immigrated to the United States in 1888. He arrived in New York and reportedly spent time in St. Louis before moving to Asheville in 1889.

Arrival in Asheville


One account suggests George Vanderbilt requested him to come. But how would Vanderbilt have known of Stephens?

Another account suggests that Stephens sought out Vanderbilt. Stephens was an enterprising man, and by 1889 it was well known that Vanderbilt had begun acquiring thousands of acres of land for what would become Biltmore Estate.

We may never know for sure what led Stephens to Asheville, but he made lasting contributions here. Stephens was the first principal of the Catholic Hill School, Asheville's first public school for students of color.

The school burned down in 1917, but was rebuilt in 1921 and renamed in honor of Stephens and Hester Lee.

Until 1965, it was the only senior high school in Western North Carolina for students of color. The school's gymnasium — what remains of Stephens-Lee — is now the vibrant Stephens-Lee Community Center on George Washington Carver Avenue.

Also while in Asheville, Stephens established a version of the Young Men's Christian Association for black people. As reported in this paper in 1890, “Stephens explained the object of the association to be the moral, intellectual and social improvement of its members.”

With the help of prominent African-Americans in Asheville, such as Isaac Dickson, and the financial backing of heir and philanthropist George Vanderbilt, the Young Men's Institute, now the YMI Cultural Center, opened in 1893. Stephens was its first president.

Mysterious departure


Within a year of the YMI’s opening, Stephens resigned from the organization and promptly left Asheville.

When asked for a reference on Stephens in 1894, Charles McNamee, Vanderbilt's adviser, wrote: “For a colored man, [Stephens] has had unusual facility in the way of education, and as far as book learning is concerned, is very thoroughly equipped.

“He speaks several languages, and has unusual command of the English language,” McNamee said. “His one failing however, is his lack of tact with people of his own race, and this was very injurious to him in his career in Asheville, and it was principally from difficulties arising from his unfortunate manner, that the necessity for his leaving the work in which he was engaged here arose.”

Stephens eventually settled in Topeka, Kan., where by 1895 he and his wife, Elizabeth “Izie” Riddick, who had also taught at the Catholic Hill School, started what became a major industrial school for blacks.

According to Dr. Thomas C. Cox, in “Blacks in Topeka, Kansas: 1865-1915, A Social History,” the Kansas Industrial and Educational Institute began in 1895 as a kindergarten, sewing school and reading room in a one-room house.

Within five years, the school had moved into a small building and was receiving annual appropriations from the state.

Stephens once again had a falling out with local African-American leaders and was dismissed in 1900 from the institution he and his wife built.

The school, later renamed the Topeka Industrial and Educational Institute, and still later the Kansas Vocational School, thrived for decades. At its height, the campus encompassed more than 100 acres and included several classroom buildings and dormitories. Its patrons included Andrew Carnegie and Booker T. Washington.

From Topeka, the Stephenses moved to Bridgeport, Conn., where they continued to educate African-Americans, though on a much smaller scale.

Stephens died of tuberculosis on Sept. 30, 1909, and was buried in Mountain Grove Cemetery in Bridgeport.

Izie lived another 34 years. In her widowhood, she helped establish a colored YWCA branch in Bridgeport. She is also buried in Mountain Grove Cemetery.

An extraordinary individual, Stephens, with imagination and determination, helped countless African-Americans throughout the country.

Clayton Bond is a writer in Jakarta, Indonesia. His grandmother, Robena (Helm) Davis, graduated from Stephens-Lee in 1937.





(published in the Asheville Citizen-Times, February 20, 2011)

1 comment:

  1. What a cool story! What a life Stephens pursued. Your grand mother graduated from Stephens-Lee in 1937! That must be prestigious.

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