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.
Integration closed the school’s doors 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.
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.”
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.”