On Monday, Sept. 29, 1969 at 9:15 a.m., about 200 African-American students walked out of Asheville High School. The event occurred during the school’s first fall term as an integrated educational institution. That year, African-American students, who previously attended Stephens-Lee, had joined the white students at the recently renamed Asheville High School, formerly Lee Edwards.
The 200 students had a list of grievances they wanted recognized and changed before they would be willing to return to class. These grievances were listed by student George Watkins, as reported by Ed Seitz on Sept. 30, 1969 in the Asheville Citizen:
“- The majority of majorettes or cheer leaders at AHS were white girls.
– In cosmetology class, the instructor had said she couldn’t do Negroes’ hair.
– Athletes had been compelled to get hair cuts.
– When black students are late a few times, they are sent home.
– It is hard for many black students to get to school on time because bus service is inadequate.
– Negro history is taught by a white teacher, and the history textbook’s author is a white man, and neither is competent to teach Negro history.
– Black students are called ‘colored’ and ‘boy’ and Negroes object to use of either term.
– Black students have trouble when they go to the school lunch room.”
When students participating in the walkout refused the school administration’s order to leave the campus, state troopers were brought in. Shortly thereafter, violence ensued. Bricks and rocks were thrown by students as officers advanced toward their location on the steps of the high school’s main building. Some of the officers responded to the violence, but according to newspaper reports, no one was seriously injured from the altercation.
After the violence abated that morning, all Asheville High School students were dismissed by Principal Clark Pennell. That afternoon Mayor Wayne Montgomery proclaimed a state of emergency throughout Buncombe County. A curfew was enforced from 9 p.m. until 6 a.m. Along with the curfew, there was a moratorium placed on the sale of alcohol and weapons. Public assemblies and demonstrations were also prohibited.
Throughout the week, the Asheville Citizen included daily reports on the situation. The paper offered various accounts for what triggered the walkout. Some articles attributed it to the general opposition students felt in having to leave Stephens-Lee. Others articles suggested more specific accounts, such as African-American student and walkout participant Leo Gaines, who said he was upset for being told to go home earlier that term for not wearing socks to school.
On Tuesday Sept. 30, 1969, the morning after the walkout, the Asheville Citizen quotes Gaines in the article, “Open Meeting Is Scheduled In High School Disturbance”:
“[Leo Gaines] said he did defy Pennell on the matter of not wearing socks, accused police of brutalizing black students on the school grounds and said he felt he was speaking for all black students who walked out Monday when he warned they would not go back to school until their grievances were taken care of to their satisfaction.
“Asheville will continue to have hell until we get what we want,” Gaines said, noting that he needed to use “faulty words in a faulty situation.’”
The next day, the newspaper continued its coverage with reports on how the community might resolve the walkout. In Seitz’s article, “Countywide Curfew Remains in Effect,” the reporter notes:
“[Chairman Gordon] Greenwood said commissioners ‘don’t want to do anything that will delay the return to normal conditions.’
At a three-hour open hearing held by the newly-formed Buncombe County Community Relations Council, black protesters insisted in threatening language that there will be no ‘return to normal’ until many grievances are corrected to their complete satisfaction.”
By Thursday, Oct. 2, the teachers at Asheville High offered a statement through the newspaper. In it, they wrote:
“’We deplore the fact a very small group who did not represent a majority of the Black Students chose improper channels to express their opinions of conditions that displeased them. We feel many of those conditions they expressed views on do not exist.
“We feel that the recommendations made by the Buncombe County Community Relations Council were premature. The Committee heard only one side of the situation. They did not confer with all personalities involved. We feel the solutions should have been arrived at through school channels. Those channels were and always have been available to all concerned.’”
That same day, the Asheville Citizen reported on the previous evening’s Asheville Board of Education meeting. In the session, it was determined that certain students who organized the walkout would be kept out of school. The board also decided to resume classes the following day, Thursday, Oct. 2.
In that article, Seitz writes:
“The school board’s complaint and request for injunctive relief asked that the defendants and other persons be retrained for the remainder of the school year or until June 15, 1970.
If this is not done, the complaint said, ‘the defendants and other persons acting in concert with them will continue to harrass [sic], threaten and intimidate the students, staff, teachers and officials’ of city schools.”
On Friday Oct. 3, 1969, the Asheville Citizen highlighted the City Council meeting. During the session, Councilman Robert Crouch is quoted as saying:
“‘I am tired of intimidations. I am tired of racious [sic] groups. I am tired of everyone making demands on everyone else. I am tired of minority groups trying to force the entire rest of the population to go along with them.
“I feel that all groups of citizens, black and white, need to live together in accordance with established laws for the good of all the people in Asheville, now and in the future.'”
Next week, we will hear Roger Ball’s account of the walkout. Ball was a senior in 1969. As the school’s photographer, he was tasked by Principal Pennell with documenting events on the morning of the walkout.