Talking with Black Mountain College’s first African-American student

Alma Stone Williams, an African-American woman from Savannah, Ga., attended Black Mountain College in the summer of 1944 to study music – nearly 10 years before many other colleges admitted black students.

Williams will be a panelist at the “What Was it Like to be Woman at Black Mountain College?” symposium. That event will be at 3 p.m. on Oct. 4 at UNCA’s Humanities Lecture Hall.

Mountain Xpress talked to Williams from her home in Savannah about her experiences at BMC. She was valedictorian of her class at Spelman College. After attending BMC, she went on to receive master’s degrees in English and musicology from Atlanta University and the University of Maryland.

Mountain Xpress: How did you end up attending Black Mountain College?

Williams: It was the middle of the college’s history, and they wanted to have an African-American student, or at least an African-American presence, on their campus. Some people were concerned that it would be dangerous. The students were really behind it, though. So they contacted the president of Spelman College and Horace Mann Bond, Julian Bond’s father, and they thought that I’d be a good person to go to there. I was planning to go to Juilliard to study but I thought, “Well, I can go there later.” So I went to Black Mountain for the summer and history was made, at least for me.

Xpress: So you recognized that you were in a unique situation by being the first African-American student?

Williams: I knew what I was getting into. But it didn’t bother me. I was very comfortable and very happy. The timing for me for just perfect.

It was remarkable for Black Mountain College to want to do and to bring me in. But it was also a tribute to the community. It was a great credit to the Asheville community that they didn’t get upset about me being there. They didn’t bother that I was there. And they knew I was there. The musical events were open to the public, and I definitely stood out. But no one said or did anything. A few people were aloof, but I didn’t care. I wasn’t afraid. It was part of diversity of that summer and part of Black Mountain. We just had the opportunity to do what we were excited about. People let the school alone.

Now it’s wonderful that people are excited about it and claiming it. Now Black Mountain can claim its history and its contribution to the civil rights movement. At the time, it was something more that they could offer in terms of experience and ways of broadening their students’ understandings.

Xpress: What was your summer at BMC like?

Williams: It was a great experience. There were people there of all ages and from all over the world. There were very talented students —16-year-olds playing violins and teachers and students who had escaped Nazi atrocities. There were people from the North and some from the South. That was part of the excitement of it.

The college had a combination of rustic simplicity and European elegance. We had tea in the afternoon on the porch every day. On Sunday afternoons, we went to listen to a broadcast of the New York Philharmonic and ate wonderful strawberry shortcake.

Xpress: What do you remember most about your experience at BMC?

Williams: We had lots of freedom at Black Mountain, mainly intellectual freedom. The college challenged everybody to go higher and be better. The students, the teachers, and the whole environment was one that stretched everyone who came in. The college allowed every individual to become the best at whatever he or she did. I think that’s why its influence has lasted so long. It was a great place to be.


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