Stephens-Lee remembered

For more than 40 years, Asheville’s Stephens-Lee High School was more or less synonymous with “secondary school” for African-Americans in Western North Carolina. Its athletes won championships, its band attracted attention across the state, and the school itself served as a focal point for the local black community.

The school’s doors closed in 1965, and though it lives on in alumni’s cherished memories, some feared that subsequent generations no longer understood the central role it had played in the community. Now, a new local documentary, The Mighty Heroes of Stephens-Lee, seeks to preserve the school’s stories and legends for future generations.

Behind the camera: From left, Johnny Bailey, Ralph Roberts and Bennie Lake, makers of “The Mighty Heroes of Stephens-Lee.” Photo By Jonathan Welch

The film was the brainchild of Stephens-Lee alumni Johnny Bailey and Bennie Lake. The two men, both Asheville residents, had previously written a book, The Greatest Sports Heroes of the Stephens-Lee Bears (Alexander Books, 2004), about some of the school’s star athletes.

“After the book came out, we wanted to go into more detail and share some more of the personal stories,” Lake told Xpress. “We wanted to get these stories before they disappeared. Not everyone will read a book, but they might go see a film.”

In 1975, the old school was bulldozed—except for the former gym. Now the Stephens-Lee Recreation Center, it’s where the film premiered Feb. 5. It will continue to air on URTV throughout February (Black History Month).

From the time Stephens-Lee opened in 1923, it drew students from a wide area, including Madison, Henderson, Transylvania and Yancey counties as well as Buncombe.

“What drove us to do this was the fear that the legacy and culture here were going to be lost,” Bailey explains. “It was a focal point of Asheville’s history—not just for the black community but for the entire community. None of this history should be lost.”

Now and then: At top, Stephens-Lee Hall-of-Famers at a 2006 gathering. At bottom, a photo from the archives features a member of the school’s famed marching band. Images Courtesy Ralph Roberts

Teaming up with director Ralph Roberts, co-producers Lake and Bailey spent a year making the film. “I mainly set the cameras up and helped edit,” notes Roberts, adding that Bailey and Lee conducted the many interviews with Stephens-Lee alumni and teachers that account for the bulk of the film.

Roberts, an Erwin High graduate, says he remembers the Stephens-Lee band from his youth as “just totally dominating the parades—they were incredible.” The band, notes Lee, included musicians who went on to play with Marvin Gaye and James Brown.

Roberts got involved in the project, he says, because “I think it’s very important. Integration was in some ways a bittersweet reward. It opened up amazing opportunities, but this unique place and sense of identity there was lost.”

A common vision

Bailey agrees. Although Stephens-Lee was “the only cultural outlet we had at the time,” it was made unique by the “camaraderie we all shared. This was a time when many of these families barely had anything to eat, but they made sure we got to school—it was a family affair. There was no division between the school and the community.”

One thing that set the school apart, notes Lake, is that “many of the teachers there had master’s degrees, which was very unusual for that day.

“We had some fun times in the athletic department [and] with the band, but I think what really stands out were the teachers,” he recalls. “They had something that today is not there as much, I feel. They cared what happened outside of class. They came to our houses, they talked with our parents, they made sure we studied.”

The whole community, he says, shared that ethos. One memory that stands out for Lake is when the Bears claimed the state basketball championship in 1962.

“We had a lot of good players, but you could have switched any of them up and you could have never told the difference on the floor; we were all dedicated. In all three areas—in our education, our athletics, our band—that was what we had in common. We were all dedicated to the same goals.”

And almost half a century later, says Lake, the memory of that spirit retains its power.

“That’s why we made this; there was just too much history that people were not remembering. We wanted to capture again our greatest achievements and give them their due.”


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20 thoughts on “Stephens-Lee remembered

  1. Moe Fisher

    Please, anyone, is there a list of students who attended Stephens-Lee anywhere between 1935 and 1941? I’m desperately looking for my father’s history of education to prove to the government that he in fact DID go to school here in the US, and, I believe, in Asheville, NC.

    • David Ferguson

      The school served as the center of the community. The teachers lived in the community and played a big part in our life.the events sport s all played a central part of our daily life.the friends demanded will last forever we were a community within a community at Stephen friendships will last forever.the school grounds in one of the first place I visit when I return home last . I lived on Max street that mean I was on the grounds of the school daily and even some nights .the memory of The school will last forever

  2. James M. Hunter, Jr.

    My father, uncles and aunts attened Stephens Lee during that era! I will inquire of them to determne if they have any information. What was your father’s name? I was born in Asheville in 1951 and lived there until about 1961, and I am very interested in getting more information about the school. I will be visiting my uncle in New Bern, NC this spring and a former neighbor in Winston-Salem that taught at Stephens Lee.
    Best regards,

  3. Kimberley

    My grandmother attended Stephens Lee around 1937-1939 Josephine Logan was in the marching Band and played basketball. Any pictures or information would be greatly appreciated.

    Thank you,

    • Kay Carney-Filmore

      Logan was her last name? My mom, aunts and uncles all attended Stephens-Lee. They are the Greenlee’s who are related to the Logan’s.

  4. Bill

    Bennie passed away last Friday. My thoughts and prayers go out to his family. Bennie was a wonderful person and will be missed. Does anyone know about funeral arrangements or a memorial service?



  6. Rita Lee Brown

    I would like to purchase a copy of the movie if possible. The legacy that my grandfather, Prof. Walter S. Lee, Sr. established must be preserved and shared. I want my children and grandchildren to know their history. Any information will be greatly appreciated.

  7. Jimmie "Pete" Joseph

    I was a 1955 graduate of SLHS , a wonderful experience and lasting memories in the classroom and attending Baseball, Football & Basketball games . After these activities , we attended dances with your best girlfriend . What a ride for four years .

  8. stanley baird

    My fondest memory of Stephens Lee was being in the band our Band Director Madison Lennon was affectionately know as ‘Doc” he was the greatest and as a former Band Director I tried to pattern myself after his teaching

  9. Cynthia

    My father Randolph Moorehead attended Stephens -Lee and graduated in 1952. He’s not in the best of health and I would love to either get a copy of this documentary or better yet a copy of his yearbooks for him. He also had a brother, William Moorehead, who passed away 2 years ago. I so greatly appreciate anything that you can provide for me for my father.
    Thank you, Cynthia Moorehead

    • Kay Carney-Filmore

      I believe your father would have been there with some of my aunts and uncles, and perhaps my mom. The Greenlee kids.

  10. Kay Carney-Filmore

    My mother and all of her ten sisters and brothers attended Stephen’s Lee High School. In fact, there is a special wall with all of their graduation photos. I believe they all attended throughout the 1940s. They were the well-known Greenlee family. My mother, Fannie Greenlee, was head majorette for most of her years there,. In fact, she was so good, that she was often asked to lead the citywide parades as a majorette. She went on to attend North Carolina A&T where she also marched with the band and was head majorette. She is now 85 years old, doing well, and lives in California with my dad. She has attended several of the past high school reunions.

    • Thomas Johnson

      My cousin shuford Brown grad of class of 1955. Does anyone know him

    • Larry Payton

      My father, William James (AKA WJ) Payton, a 1944 graduate of Stephens-Lee HS passed from this life on February 5th 2016 at his home in San Leandro California.
      I would welcome any opportunity to share stories and pictures about my father.
      Larry Payton

  11. Larry Payton

    My father, William James (AKA WJ) Payton, a 1944 graduate of Stephens-Lee HS passed from this life on February 5th 2016 at his home in San Leandro California.
    I would welcome any opportunity to share stories and pictures about my father.
    Larry Payton

    • Kay Carney-Filmore

      Sorry for your loss. Too bad there wasn’t an opportunity to connect earlier. My mom, a Stephens Lee grad lives in Oakland, just minutes from San Leandro. I think your dad may have been a few years older than my mom, but all of her siblings attended as well, so he was probably classmates with her older sibs.

      • WJay

        My dad was actually the class of 1945 and was drafted for the War in Korea along with several other Asheville men.
        Please share my contact information with your mom’s siblings who knew him.
        Larry Payton

  12. Debra flint Alexander

    Hello my dad and his brothers and sisters went to the school William Flint

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