Of all the names the school on Long Ridge went by, Anderson Elementary — its name in the final years of its existence (159-1965) — was perhaps the most fitting. And While the philanthropist Julius Rosenwald’s name is enshrined in history books, who was Anderson? The answer reveals a key piece of the community’s history, educational and otherwise.
In the mid-1800s, Joe Anderson was a slave in Mars Hill. Anderson, his wife and his children were owned by J.W. Anderson, one of the founders of Mars Hill College (now Mars Hill University).
Today, most of what is known about Joe Anderson was mostly passed down through oral accounts. “We know people who knew people who knew Joe,” says Les Reker, the Rural Life Museum director at Mars Hill University.
Several sources note that Anderson was considered “the best brick maker in three counties,” says Reker. “He was in demand.” In fact, it is generally agreed that Anderson made the very first bricks for the cornerstone of what became MHC.
The first building was started in 1854 and completed two years later. To complete the edifice, the college’s board of trustees — of which J.W. Anderson was treasurer — contracted out the labor from the local economic hub of Asheville, for the price of $1,100.
Three years later, the formative college had not paid its debt. No one, says Reker, knows why the money wasn’t forthcoming. “Maybe the contractor wanted it sooner rather than later. Maybe they simply reneged on their note.”
Whatever the case, in 1859, a sheriff from Buncombe County rode north to collect. The debt had to be paid, if not in money, in property.
Thus was the slave Joe Anderson taken as collateral for the financial burdens of the college, shackled and led off to the prison. Oral tradition relates that the board of trustees had five days to come up with the $1,100 before Anderson would be sold to a new owner.
Operating in his capacity as treasurer, J.W. Anderson canvassed the trustees, berating, cajoling and begging until 11 were convinced to pile their money to cover the debt. It was paid off with one day left, sparing Joe Anderson the final indignity of being sold away from his home and his family.
Soon, the Civil War upended life in Madison County, and when it was over in 1865, Anderson was a free man. J.W. Anderson granted him a swath of land; an 1880 census recorded the value of Joseph Anderson’s 18-acre farm at $250.
It is not ironclad fact, but it is also generally agreed that Anderson took care of his former master in J.W.’s last days on a deathbed in Asheville, as mysterious a claim as that might seem today. Anderson’s precise date of death is not known, though it was likely sometime just before 1910.
It is known that Anderson became something of a patriarch for Mars Hill’s African-American community, particularly in education, serving on school committees in the era of Reconstruction.
He left a legacy in many ways, including a sprawling, immense family, which stayed connected to local education and still does.
In 1932, Anderson’s remains were relocated to a grave on campus. In 1999, the university declared his a founding family. — by Cameron Huntley