Opening Doors: Alma Stone Williams’ 1944 Integration of Black Mountain College

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Ms. Alma Stone Williams 

By Sebastian Matthews

Photos courtesy of Black Mountain College Museum. Not pictured: Son, Kenneth Williams. 

There’s a story in Martin Duberman’s seminal study Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community about the college’s first attempts at racial integration. It begins the first year of the college’s life, 1933.

Charles Templeman Loram, Sterling Professor at Yale, has asked to visit the campus with his students, one of whom is African American. The faculty holds a meeting to discuss the issue. Someone asks the question that is on everyone’s mind: “Should the black student be treated as just another guest, fed and housed with the community? Or should local mores be heeded and the student boarded elsewhere-with a black family in the village?”


“Without consulting the students or even the rest of the faculty,”
Duberman writes, “The Board of Fellows decides that, although it
unanimously disagreed with local mores, it would be safer to respect
them.” When word gets out of this action, eleven students write up a
petition. They decide “Black Mountain should follow the logic of its
own declarations: a place for and by the community” and demand a public
discussion of the “race question.”


“That meeting was long and heated. No one defended local opinions that
receiving a Negro on an equal basis with whites would be an affront to
morality,” writes Duberman, drawing from recorded minutes. “But several
did push the view that for the moment it was more important to ensure
the college’s survival than to strike a blow for integration-especially
since Black Mountain had not been founded to advance that cause. A
minority during the debate insisted that no compromise be made on the
racial question, but in the end caution reluctantly prevailed. Gary
McGraw Sr., father of one local student, was asked to find ‘suitable’
quarters in town for the black visitor.”


Jump forward a decade. The “race question” has only deepened at Black
Mountain College, as it has across the South. Students have voted by 2
to 1 to admit African-Americans the following term. The faculty remains
deeply divided on the issue.


Robert Wunsch writes to his friend Zora Neale Hurston, who has visited
Black Mountain earlier in 1944: “The only question in my mind is
timing; is now the right time to make this radical departure from
Southern procedure? I do not want to be cowardly; at the same time I
don’t want to be foolhardy.” The renowned black anthropologist and
novelist responds: “Even at this distance I can see the dynamite in the
proposal to take Negro students now.”


Though worried about these same questions, fellow faculty member Clark
Foreman argues: “If you wait for the ‘ideal’ time, you never do
anything. . . . No self-respecting American citizen or institutions
could accept intimidation ‘as a guide for policy.’” The community
“should live up to the highest standards of the country, rather than
down to the standards to the immediate locality.”


Soon, however, the college came up with a compromise: they would invite
an African-American student to their summer Institute. “The college
finally decided to call her a ‘member of the Institute’ rather than a
student, visitor, or guest,” said Alice Sebrell, staff member at The
Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center. In the spring of 1944,
“Mrs. Alma Stone Williams received a scholarship from the Rosenweld
Fund to make her attendance possible.”


Williams had been valedictorian at Spelman College and received her
M.A. in English from Atlanta University. She later received her M.M.
from the University of Maryland and studied at Julliard. She had
planned to study music at Julliard that summer but saw Black Mountain
as a unique opportunity. Mrs. Williams wrote in a recent email: “Most
people who came to Black Mountain College had learned of the special
quality of the school through other students and faculty. Many brought
with them their own famous names and great talent from various places
in America and Europe. My aim was to develop whatever talent I
possessed in this unusual and stimulating environment.”


She was well aware of being the first and only African American student
at Black Mountain College. “Pioneering did not frighten me. I was
accustomed to studying and living with white teachers at Spelman and to
reaching for high standards in all areas. In accord with segregation
practices of the time, I had expected to pursue advanced music study in
a northern rather than a southern state.”

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Percy Williams
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Alma Stone Williams
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Julian Williams, PhD
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Russell Williams, PhD
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Estelle Williams Crenshaw

Wesley Crenshaw


When asked what her experience was like in the nearby towns of Black
Mountain and Asheville, Mrs. Williams responded: “I had only a few
occasions in 1944 to interact with people in Asheville or the town of
Black Mountain. I had little need for business or entertainment except
for a regular appointment with an Asheville hairdresser. The
self-sufficient quality of life on the Lake Eden campus was not unusual
then. Gasoline and mass transportation were controlled by the needs of
wartime, and a national polio epidemic made people wary of strangers. I
was highly visible at the BMC concerts and lectures which were well
attended by music- and art-lovers from surrounding areas. No one seemed
to show that my presence was invasive or upsetting.”


As the Music Institute drew towards its end, Alma was invited to attend
a second summer institute being planned for the following summer at
Kenyon College, Ohio. “But when I spoke at another time with a visiting
teacher from the University of Georgia about desiring to take courses
there in Athens, he commented that there were ‘problems.’ The
depressing reminder of segregation practices in the state came when the
ticket seller at the bus station pointed out that my waiting room was
‘over there.’ My campus friend, who was also from Georgia, walked
outside with me and we waited until the bus came.”*


Scholar Camille Clark, author of Black Mountain College: A Pioneer in
Southern Racial Integration learned of Mrs. Williams’ story from her
son, Russell Williams, a professor at Wheaton College. “The Journal of
Blacks in Higher Education is always looking for interesting historical
notes about blacks in higher education,” Clark wrote in an email. She
considered Ms. Williams’ story interesting “regardless of whether she
was the first or not.”


“Black Mountain College also drew our attention,” she continued. “It
was quite a progressive place-the lack of grades, a famous faculty and
student body, the racial integration of the study of the arts.

Perhaps
even more surprising is that it was an educational utopia for Black
students-although located in the racially conservative hills of western
North Carolina.”


In Opening Black Doors at Black Mountain College, included in the Black
Mountain College Museum’s anthology Remembering Black Mountain College,
Alma Williams writes: “The college community, all white since its 1933
beginning, was not sure it was ready to take on this new risk, to which
it was challenged by students and a few teachers.”


“In human terms it appears now that it should not have been so
reluctant. In the time of war, the school was able to recruit one,
Joseph Albers, who spoke no English. It could expect fellow Americans
to have no special problems in transporting fleeing European scholars
to work or study in a Southern place of refuge…”


“But the college leaders were not sure in the spring of 1944 that they
could bring or desired to bring, an American Black to join their ranks
and study beside them. It was natural for me to expect the best, and
having achieved as much as I could, to pass it on.”


Russell Williams recalls the experience of another black student,
Lawrence Gaines, just a few years earlier. “Gaines wanted to go to the
University of Missouri Law School, but was denied admission because he
was black. Missouri went so far as to argue that they would set up a
law school for Blacks rather than admit him there. His case was taken
up by the NAACP, with Thurgood Marshall being one of the central
lawyers on the case. But one day Gaines went out for some cigarettes
and never returned.

Marshall stated that he believed that Gaines had
been abducted and killed-not an unusual thing to be concerned about at
that time. This was one of many ways that many people fought to
maintain the racial hierarchy.”


“Then, just a few years later, Black Mountain College, in the hills of
North Carolina, quietly integrated. This was an amazing event, and
quite a tribute to those who pushed for it. They were amazing people
with a strong sense of racial justice, vision, and courage to fight for
what they knew was right. It is very noteworthy that most predominately
white institutions of higher learning in the South did not integrate
for another twenty years!”


Mrs. Williams echoes her son’s opinion: “It is important to recognize
Black Mountain College’s role in the history of integration in America.
Black Mountain College wanted an African American student. Though the
decision to enroll one was not unanimous, it was willing to take
considerable risk to bring me into the community. In this intellectual,
friendly, artistic, naturally beautiful environment, they gave me the
freedom to learn from and beside them and to be myself.” *


In 1945 the College admitted two African American students to the
Summer Session and also two guest faculty members, performers Carol
Brice and Roland Hayes. That fall the college hired an African American
faculty member, Dr. Percy H. Baker, and admitted an African American,
Sylvesta Martin, as a full-time student for the regular academic year.
In the winter of 1947, five black students were enrolled at the
college: two men, both veterans of WWII, and three women.


At this point the faculty voted to declare the experimental stage of
its interracial program at an end and to release a public statement to
the effect that henceforth “admission will be open to all students of
all races.”


Besides rearing five children, Mrs. Williams taught college English,
music and the humanities in Georgia, South Carolina and Michigan. Her
father, P. H. Stone, was State Agent for the Agricultural Extension
Service in Georgia. Her stepmother’s uncle was Monroe N. Work, editor
of the Negro Year Book, and her husband, Russell Sr., taught in the
Agriculture Dept. at South Carolina State. Alma Stone Williams retired
from teaching in the humanities at Savannah State College and presently
lives in Savannah.


Mrs. Williams remembers her time at Black Mountain College as special.
She recalls “the truly magic music of the concerts which lifted our
hearts together to new heights of challenge and sharing.” Her son adds:
“She described it as the most enjoyable, fulfilling summer of her
life.”


Summing up her experience in an email letter, Alma Stone Williams
writes: “I am blessed to have been a part of a world and time in which
I could receive a mountain-top experience on a true southern mountain.
I am thankful that this came about during a time of national change and
unlimited creative responses to living and life.” And from her memoir:
“I was at home among these people: students and teachers, Northern and
Southern, regulars and institute members, Americans and foreigners,
Thomas Mann’s daughter and Sigmund Freud’s daughter-in-law. The arts
brought us together, and differences were not so much threatening as
they were attracting.”  

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