Last week’s Tuesday History post looked at newspaper coverage of the 1969 Asheville High School walkout. This week we share an account recently offered to Xpress by Roger Ball, who was the school’s student photographer that year. As Ball notes, Principal Clark Pennell asked him to capture the day’s events on his camera.
On the morning of [September] 29th, I was surprised to have Principal Pennell stop by my homeroom before classes and pull me aside. He expected a walkout of students later that morning and asked me to grab my camera. He wanted me to take photos of any cars coming on campus that didn’t belong to students. He felt that there were some outside people pushing this walkout and he wanted evidence.
As a young 18-year-old high school senior and the school photographer, I was pretty excited to help out at that point. Though I soon started wondering exactly what I was getting into as I came across uniformed Asheville police lined up in the lower level hallway, wooden nightsticks attached to their belts.
Once the morning bell sounded for first period it was obvious that the majority of the black students were heading to the front of the school instead of class. I followed and started taking photos of the students and watched for any cars driving up to the entrance. I never saw any. Outside, several students took the lead and addressed all who had walked out. Arms were raised in black power salutes.
Eventually Principal Pennell came out to try and defuse the situation. He asked the students to return to class. Nothing came from his efforts and the next thing I noticed were the police filing out the front. The students quickly moved off the front steps, across the front driveway and onto the grass area. At this point, the police demanded the students leave the campus. I don’t think returning to class was an option.
Lined up shoulder to shoulder, the police approached the crowd of students and when they did not disperse, wooded batons came out and the officers started swinging. To be honest, I was so shocked seeing the situation escalate this far, I forgot to to keep taking photos and only started taking them again when the students bolted in different directions down the schoolyard toward McDowell Street.
I continued to take photos as the students started throwing rocks at the police and watched as a small VW Bug was turned over. Eventually the largest group of students moved away, most of the police left or moved to different places around the school, I couldn’t tell. Classes were called off and the rest of the school’s students went home.
While the school stayed closed for a couple of weeks, I spent many days in the school’s darkroom making multiple 8-by-10 glosses of every shot I took that morning. Copies for the SBI, FBI, police, school board, you name it.
I did keep the negatives and, 40 years later, pulled the badly curled strips of film out. I cleaned, flattened and scanned each frame, posting them to several Facebook groups that popped up looking back at that day in our lives.
That was my involvement in the walkout.
From a more personal point of view, I’ve always thought the walkout was justified. I didn’t agree with the damage done to personal property and [I was] glad things didn’t escalate to the point anyone was seriously injured for sure. But what did the Asheville School Board and those handling the 1969 integration of the all-black high school, Stephens-Lee and the mostly white Lee Edwards, think? Hardly a year after one of the most violent and sad periods in our country — with the deaths of Martin Luther King and Bobbie Kennedy and racial riots in major cities — [the Asheville School Board] seemingly spent little time thinking hard about how this forced integration would affect the students involved.
There were several instances earlier in the school year where punishment for minor infractions was disproportionately levied on black students versus white students. Weeks before this walkout, it was brought to the school’s attention that none of the many Stephens-Lee sports trophies were on display in the large glass case at Asheville High. Both schools had a long and proud history of sports and awards to prove it. Yet I don’t believe a single Stephens-Lee trophy was displayed. Add the ongoing racial unrest nationally and things just reached a boiling point that day.
Ball’s fellow classmate and Asheville resident Dan Lewis is in the process of putting together a video documentary about the events. For information regarding the documentary, please visit avl.mx/40o.