Letter: Telling the story of integration at Asheville High

Graphic by Lori Deaton

Anyone who reads Mountain Xpress on a regular basis will rapidly become aware that Asheville now has a vast amount of amazingly talented playwrights, directors and actors. [Recently], after reading about an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet here, I was thinking about my high school days (’69-’70) at Asheville High and what happened when Lee Edwards and Stephens-Lee were combined to form Asheville High.

It occurred to me that if someone were to work with me and others who were there on a play and produce the result, it would make a historical and moving work about a critical time in Asheville’s history and also be an inspiring statement that could be a teaching lesson for the whole city. Since I was the co-captain of the first Asheville High integrated football team, and since my dad was made principal of Stephens-Lee the year before segregation ended, [then] became principal of South French Broad after that, I have a lot of memories of those days, both good and bad.

I remember the first day speech “Pee Wee” Hamilton gave us in the locker room, where it became evident that he was going to create more problems by ordering everyone to get a military-style haircut, and some of the best players decided to quit and concentrate on playing basketball, and that the coach was overjoyed he could start forming his new team early. I remember the day of the riot at Asheville High, which changed all our lives and made us painfully aware that we had to deal with racism, and that change was a reality whether we liked it or not. We were all aware that the war in Vietnam was raging, and with the draft any of us young men might soon be on our way to Vietnam and the war after graduation.

Anyway, I have thrown this out in the hopes that some talented people might read this and decide to work with me on a play about it all. There are many people, [including] African-American, white, Asian and others who could be contacted for insights as well.

— John Penley

Editor’s note: Penley reports that he can be reached via gloco@live.com.


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4 thoughts on “Letter: Telling the story of integration at Asheville High

    • John Penley

      Thanks for the info. In fact a researcher for the Asheville Public Library has contacted me about doing one.

      • dennis merrell

        I was also there during the riot it was trying times there was lots of racism in those days although I always looked at every person as equal although I disagree with how the riot took place and don’t agree with the violence I had some friends hurt not sure what should have been done to make changes but the time period was a wakeup call with the war that never should have happened but I think some good came out of it

  1. Lois borchert

    I was there. Hard to recall that time. Hard because it is such a shocking thing for me to remember. I was naive, protected and from another country when I started asheville High.. I remember the brick that flew by my head when I was in the lunchroom.. How confusing the whole thing was. It was 1970.my first year at asheville high..

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