Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Start of a University

UNC Asheville can trace its origins to Monday September 12, 1927, when 85 students enrolled at Buncombe County Junior College. The college was the first in the state to be operated by a county and would evolve, through several changes in name and location, to become UNC Asheville in 1969.

That Monday in September marked the culmination of various events that had occurred over the preceding weeks.

In 1993, Thomas Reynolds told oral historian Dorothy Joynes how his father, A C Reynolds, who in 1927 was the superintendent of Buncombe County schools, and T M Howerton, L D Maney, and D S Roberts, of the Biltmore School Committee, met several times in Howerton's home to plan on starting a college for the county. If any people can lay claim to being founders of the university, it is therefore probably these gentlemen.

The discussions led to a mass meeting being held at Biltmore high school on July 11, 1927, to talk about establishing a junior college for Buncombe County in the high school building, with the college offering a junior college education to every boy and girl in the county.


An undated photograph showing the former Biltmore high school building on Hendersonville Road in Asheville. The building now houses offices and medical suites. [ABP_366]

The meeting approved the idea, with the Asheville Citizen reporting,  "A project for the establishment of a Junior College for Buncombe County met with an enthusiastic reception last night". The report went on to name check several people "who gave enthusiastic support to the proposal": Albert Teague, chairman of the County Board of Education; E M Lyda, chairman of the Board of County Commissioners; W E Johnson, commissioner of highways; M J West of the county Board of Education; and Clyde S Reed, Harry S Nettles, along with Howerton, Roberts, and Maney from the Biltmore School Committee.

Teague argued there were, "sound, ethical, educational, and economic reasons for the establishment of such a college immediately", and he felt confident that the Board of Education would back the plan "to the utmost".

Architectural drawing, dated August 1926, showing the basement of Biltmore School, the location of Buncombe County Junior College. [SA0018. Image courtesy of North Carolina Room, Pack Memorial Library]

Although the meeting green-lighted the plan, further hurdles remained, but these were mostly cleared by late August.

Firstly, the Citizen reported that on August 26, W H Jones, superintendent of the Biltmore schools, had announced that teachers had been appointed for the new college. These were, S B Conley (English and history), T L Revelle (mathematics and physics), and W M Hunt (French and Latin).

Secondly, J Henry Highsmith, the State Inspector of High Schools, gave his approval to the project. On August 28, the Charlotte Sunday Observer quoted Highsmith as saying, "The junior college which is being established at Biltmore for Asheville and Buncombe County gives an opportunity for the city and county to do one of the finest pieces of pioneer work in public education in North Carolina".

Some potential students had been concerned that they may not receive full credit towards getting a State teacher's certificate, or towards entering another college in the State. However, on August 30, the Citizen reported that, the previous day, A C Reynolds had received a letter from James K Hillman, director of certification in the North Carolina State Department of Education. In the letter, Hillman "assured local officials that with the maintenance of certain standards, all of which have already been provided for, the year's attendance at the Buncombe County College would be counted as equal to a year at any other accredited college in the State".

The college was still not quite ready though.

The opening date has originally been scheduled for September 6, 1927, but this had to be postponed to September 12 because, as the Citizen reported on August 31, although the buildings and installation of equipment were completed, the grounds were "not in shape".

In the Edgar M Lyda Collection in Special Collections at Ramsey Library is a document, undated but probably written around the time Buncombe County Junior College was started, outlining the case for the Board of County Commissioners to approve funding for the new college. The author(s) predicted that "at least one-half of our high school graduates will attend the junior college", and gave reasons why the college proposition was "sound from an economic point of view". In addition to the financial benefits, the paper also described how many students completing "eleven grades [of high school] are only sixteen or seventeen years of age and are not old enough to stand the strain of being thrust out from the home influences and restraints without seriously undermining their morals", and should therefore be attending a college close to home.

"Don't undermine your morals.....attend UNC Asheville". A recruiting cry the university missed?