Historian and UNC Asheville professor Darin Waters appreciates that individuals and communities often wax nostalgic when remembering the good old days. But of equal importance, says the educator, is participation in “a critical examination of the history … in order to make decisions about where mistakes were made and where we did things right.”
On Tuesday, July 25, Waters will offer a lecture on the history of African-American education in Asheville and Western North Carolina as part of the Buncombe County Lunch and Learn Lecture Series, hosted by the county’s Department of Health and Human Services. The free event will run noon-1:30 p.m. at Stephens-Lee Recreation Center, 30 George Washington Carver Ave., Asheville.
Waters will discuss Asheville’s early African-American educational institutions, including the Catholic Hill School. Built in 1892, the three-story brick building served as the area’s first African-American school. A fire destroyed the structure in 1917, claiming the lives of seven students. By 1923, the site was home to Stephens-Lee High School.
The importance of education in the African-American community during the immediate aftermath of the Civil War will be a key element in Waters’ lecture. “It may raise questions about how we view education today,” he says. “Is it on par with the importance that was placed on it in that post-Civil War period?”
While the majority of Waters’ talk will center on the city’s earlier history, the professor will also address Asheville’s role in the civil rights movement. Throughout the South, college students played a crucial role in integration. Most of North Carolina’s sit-in activities took place in cities with historically black colleges and universities. But because Asheville lacked such institutions, most of this area’s activism originated with younger students who were still in high school. “Stephens-Lee in a way played a role in helping to create a black intellectual class,” says Waters.
Waters’ presentation is the second of four monthly talks exploring aspects of African-American history in Buncombe County. The first event took place last month with Marcell Proctor’s lecture on the effects of redlining and gentrification. On Aug. 23, Buncombe County Commissioner Al Whitesides will address wage gaps and historical wealth disparities in the African-American community. The series will conclude on Sept. 27 with Sharon West’s lecture on access to and availability of health care for African-Americans in Buncombe County.
The series as a whole, says Waters, offers participants a chance to examine our area’s history with a more critical eye. This, he adds, is an important role historians and scholars must play within the community. “We always want to highlight the good things, which is necessary,” he says. “But at the same time, I think it’s important to at least talk about and consider the things that we might have gotten wrong. And then we must ask the important question of why, in the hopes of ensuring that we don’t repeat the same mistakes.”
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