North Carolina’s Black Mountain College: A New Deal in American Education

Mary Emma Harris
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Black Mountain College was founded in the fall of 1933 by a group of faculty who had broken away from Rollins College following a fracas in which several faculty members were fired and others resigned in protest. It closed in the spring of 1957 after a judge ordered that academic programs should be ended until all debts were paid. In the intervening twenty-four years, the college evolved into a unique American venture in education, and the energy and ideas engendered there continue to influence the arts and education in the United States. Fine Arts Magazine 

Left: John Andrew Rice. Courtesy NCSA, BMC Papers.  

Robert E. Lee Hall porch. Courtesy NCSA, BMC Papers

At the center of the Rollins controversy was John Andrew Rice, Professor of Classics. A gadfly with an ingrained dissatisfaction with the status quo and authority figures, Rice, along with others, had challenged President Hamilton Holt’s progressive educational program. In April 1933, Rice was fired. Soon thereafter, Ralph Reed Lounsbury and Frederick Raymond Georgia, who had objected to Rollins’s violation of Rice’s academic freedom, were also fired. [1] These three along with Theodore Dreier, who had resigned, found themselves unemployed in the depths of the Great Depression. It seemed an opportune time to create the ideal college that had long been the subject of late-night discussions. They had two months in which to locate a ready-made campus, write a charter and obtain a certificate of incorporation, hire faculty and recruit students, and organize their ideas into a coherent philosophy. Literature teacher Joseph Martin recalled that the informal opening ceremony on the porch of Robert E. Lee Hall was similar to a “pick-up game of football,” an occasion “happily terminated by lunch.” [2]  By the end of the first quarter there were twelve teachers and twenty-two students. 

John Rice had been at odds with administrations at all colleges and universities where he had taught, and the experience at Rollins had only enhanced his discontent. Black Mountain College would be owned and administered by the faculty. There would be a Board of Fellows composed of several faculty elected by their peers and one student elected by students. The Board of Fellows would manage financial matters and the hiring and firing of faculty. Faculty would control all academic matters. An Advisory Board, with only the power of persuasion, was primarily a list of prominent individuals who believed in the college’s ideals and generously lent their names to increase the college’s credibility to a skeptical public. Among its members were John Dewey, Walter Gropius, and Alfred Einstein. There was to be no endowment, and donations were accepted only if they came with no effort to influence the college’s educational program. 

Woodworking shop. Photo by Josef Breitenbach. Courtesy, Center for Creative Photography, U. Arizona, Tucson; Josef & Yaye Breitenbach Charitable Foundation, N.Y.

Essentially the founders’ intention was to educate students for productive, participatory life in a democratic society. This was to be achieved through a curriculum which encouraged independent, critical thinking and life in a community where students would mature emotionally into responsible adults. At the center of the educational program was a close relationship between faculty and students and responsibility by the students for many aspects of their educational experience. Students entered in the Junior Division, a period of general study, and after passing a two-day examination covering all aspects of the curriculum, moved to the Senior Division, a period of specialization. Graduation was achieved by oral and written examinations by an outside examiner who was an authority in the student’s area of study. It was a rigorous process and only about sixty students graduated in the college’s twenty-four year history. Although term-end grades were recorded in the office for transfer purposes, the student did not know what grades were given. Of great significance for the college’s history and influence, the practice of the arts would be at the center of the learning experience. 

 The Black Mountain lifestyle and traditions evolved in the first years and were essential to the creative, unstructured environment. In its idealism, the college resembled a small religious community; in its reliance on limited means, a pioneering village; in its intense and experimental arts activity, a Bohemian arts colony; in its informal life style and woodland setting, a summer camp. Strongly influenced by the personalities of those who taught and studied at the college, the tenor of the community changed year by year. National and international events such as the Great Depression, World War II, and McCarthyism altered its history and were a catalyst for new programs and possibilities. 

Robert E. Lee Hall and Dining Hall. North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Library, Asheville, North Carolina

 The Blue Ridge Assembly buildings provided the college with an ideal campus. Robert E. Lee Hall with its three-story high wooden columns was an imposing structure. One entered into a large lobby that extended through to the back of the building. On either side and on the second and third floors were rows of dormitory-style rooms used by YMCA guests at summer conferences. Faculty without children and students lived in Lee Hall, and those with children, in nearby cottages on the property. There were so many rooms that each student and faculty member had a study although students shared rooms for sleeping. The dining hall in which students, faculty and families shared meals was located behind Lee Hall and joined by a covered walkway. 

There were classes in the mornings and evenings. In the afternoons everyone took part in a work program that included general maintenance, work on the college farm which was started the first year, and office and administrative work. Dress was informal with most wearing jeans during the daytime and casual clothes for dinner. Isolated in the Blue Ridge Mountains, far from any major metropolitan center, energies were focused inward on study and college activities 

Danse Macabre directed by Xanti Schawinsky (1938). George Hendrickson Papers, BMC Project.

There were no bells to announce the beginning or end of classes and no students rushing with books from one class to another. Limited financial means encouraged innovation, and the students and faculty provided their own entertainment in the form of weekend concerts and drama productions, hikes in the mountains, parties (either simple or with elaborate decorations), after dinner dancing or community sings, or hikes in the mountains. For students such as Sewell ‘Si’ Sillman, it was the not the “highlights” – the luminaries and intense summer sessions in the arts – but the “day-to-day routine that was really Black Mountain.” [3] It was the interaction among individuals and the integration of learning with work, community, and recreation that had a profound effect on students.  With considerable effort the college managed to achieve publicity in national publications, and visitors, both the curious and the committed, arrived to observe the college, among them John Dewey, Aldous Huxley, Henry Miller, May Sarton, and Thornton Wilder. Visitors were frequently called on for group discussions, concerts and lectures to the community. 

John Rice’s class. NCSA, BMC Papers.

In the first semester the college brought Josef Albers, abstract artist and former teacher of the fundamental course at the recently-closed Bauhaus, from Germany to teach art. At Black Mountain, he adapted these courses, formulated to train professional designers, to general education. His wife Anni Albers, eminent weaver, taught weaving and textile design. From their arrival, Black Mountain College was to be the setting for a dynamic fusion of American Progressivism and European Modernism, and the college was to be associated with modern art and innovative teaching in the visual arts. 

Josef Albers and Robert de Niro, Sr. NCSA, BMC Papers

John Rice and Josef Albers, both born in 1888, were charismatic teachers and most in the community took their courses. In appearance and personality they were polar opposites. Rice was a Southerner, short and rotund, with a wink in his eye and a quick wit. Albers was slim and ascetic, disciplined and focused. Rice prided himself on his ability to assess and reveal the foibles of others, a practice that was to be a source of controversy in the community. Among Rice’s courses were creative writing and a class called Plato in which students examined concepts and questioned assumptions. Albers taught classes in design, color, painting, and drawing. Born in Brooklyn in 1902, Theodore Dreier, who taught mathematics and physics, was tall, athletic, and idealistic. His family was well-to-do and had close connections to the art world. He immediately assumed the role of fund-raiser, and for sixteen years, his dedicated efforts and endless proselytizing were responsible for the college’s survival. John Evarts, a young musician with a gift for improvisation, taught music. He was able through his piano playing after dinner and on weekends to bring the often-divided college together for dance and song, and when he left to join the war effort in 1942, he was irreplaceable. Other faculty in the 1930s included Rhodes scholar Joseph Walford Martin in literature, Robert Wunsch in theater, and Frederick Georgia in chemistry. 

Theodore Dreier (left). NCSA, BMC Papers.

Josef and Anni Albers were the first of many refugee artists and scholars hired by the college. Some had already arrived in the United States; others the college brought directly from Europe. Among those teaching in the 1930s were Fritz Moellenhoff, former student of Hans Sachs who had been assistant director of the Kuranstalten Westend in Berlin, and Erwin Straus, a neurologist and a noted phenomenologist in the field of psychology who had been editor of Der Nervenartz and a member of the faculty at the University of Berlin; Alexander ‘Xanti’ Schawinsky, artist and theater director who had studied with Oskar Schlemmer at the Bauhaus; and Heinrich Jalowetz, along with Anton Webern and Alban Berg among Schoenberg’s first students, who had been director of the Cologne Opera before he lost his position when Hitler came to power in 1933. Jalowetz was one of the most beloved teachers at Black Mountain and died and was buried there in 1946. These accomplished individuals had been leaders in their fields, and their respect for disciplined study provided a critical balance to the college’s informal structure. They both changed and were changed by the college. 

John Evarts and Heinrich Jalowetz. NCSA, BMC Papers

Although in the beginning – largely at the urging of John Rice – there was an attempt to determine what were acceptable Black Mountain teaching methods, this critical assessment was eventually abandoned, and teachers were left to decide how to run their classes. Some lectured and required regular papers; others did not. Generally, a completed assignment was a ticket to class. There were tests in some classes but no scheduled school-wide end of the term examinations. An attempt to teach an interdisciplinary class in the first year was not repeated. Essentially the unending conversation in the dining hall and informal gatherings was a far more effective form of interdisciplinary education that a formal class. In the cases where there was more than one teacher in a field, faculty worked together on the curriculum, but there were no formal departments. 

The administration of the college was a time-consuming responsibility for the faculty. Generally, decisions were arrived at by consensus, and Board of Fellows, faculty, student and community meetings were endless. There were committees to handle all aspects of college life. Without a separate administration to settle disputes, all too often differences in opinion became explosive conflicts and ended with a group of faculty and a coterie of their student supporters leaving, a loss the college could ill afford. 

Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, Designs for a Lake Eden Campus. Photograph Ezra Stoller © Esto

The 1930s ended with the resignation of John Rice in 1940 after a long leave-of-absence and the move in June 1941 by the college to its own property Lake Eden. The Blue Ridge owners were constantly in search of a more lucrative tenant, and in 1937 the college had purchased the Lake Eden property north of the Village of Black Mountain as a hedge against a sudden ouster. In 1939 Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer were commissioned to design a modern, unified campus which would provide for music and art studios and workshops, classrooms, common rooms for community gatherings, a dining hall, faculty housing and other facilities.  In the spring of 1940, when the faculty began to raise funds for the buildings, they discovered that, while donors would make small contributions for the annual running of the college, they would require an administrative structure with a guarantee of longevity and continuity of purpose to make large contributions. The situation was further complicated by the buildup of wartime production and the fact that Weatherford had found a new tenant and had given the college notice that they would have to vacate the property at the end of the 1941 spring semester. 

Lawrence Kocher, former editor of the Architectural Record and a long-time advocate for the college, was hired to design simpler, modern buildings which could be constructed by faculty and students working with a contractor.  The property had been developed as a summer camp and inn, and there were two lodges which could be used for dormitories, a dining hall, and a number of cottages, all in a rustic mountain style. The year 1940-41 was the most cohesive in the college’s history as everyone pulled together to construct the Studies Building, to winterize existing buildings, to construct a house for the kitchen staff, and to begin work on a barn and additional faculty cottages. [4] 

Studies Building. NCSA, BMC Papers

Black Mountain College was able to survive the war years only by taking out a second mortgage on the college property. Most of the men students and younger faculty were drafted or left to join the war effort, and those who remained were largely European refugees and women students. Despite travel and building restrictions, the college had a vibrant academic program. Among the new faculty were Eric Bentley, a young Englishman and Brechtian scholar who had graduated from Yale University and taught at UCLA. Two new music teachers, both refugees, were Fritz Cohen, cofounder of the Jooss Ballet and composer of the score for the dance, The Green Table, and Edward Lowinsky, a young scholar of Early Music. The college farm thrived and provided essential food when wartime rationing was in effect. 

Studies Building construction. NCSA, BMC Papers

At Blue Ridge, the college had to vacate the buildings in the summers when the YMCA held its summer assemblies. In 1940, 1941 and 1942 at Lake Eden it held a regular summer session and a work camp to help with the construction of new buildings and to provide the farm with workers. In 1943 it sponsored a Seminar on America for Foreign Scholars, Teachers, and Artists. In 1944, in addition to the summer session and work camp, it sponsored music and art institutes. These intense summer programs in the arts which attracted a large number of students, some of whom remained as fulltime students, were ultimately to alter the history and influence of the college. In the summer of 1944 the Music Institute was a celebration of Arnold Schoenberg’s seventieth birthday. Although Schoenberg was unable due to failing health to travel from California, the Institute brought together leading performers and interpreters of his music for an intense series of concerts and lectures. The Art Institute had as its faculty muralist Jean Charlot, sculptor José de Creeft, painter Amédée Ozenfant, and photographers Barbara Morgan and Josef Breitenbach. The college had to rent rooms across the valley at Blue Ridge to accommodate the students. Faculty in the summers of 1945 and 1946 included Will Burtin, Lyonel Feininger, Fannie Hillsmith, Jacob Lawrence, Leo Lionni, Robert Motherwell, Beaumont Newhall and Ossip Zadkine in art, and in music, Erwin Bodky, Alfred Einstein, Eva Heinetz, Hugo Kauder, and Josef Marx, among others. 

As the college was enveloped in an intense round of classes, concerts, and lectures in the summer of 1944, it was simultaneously embroiled in what was without question the most vituperative internal conflict in its history. The previous year a number of fractious issues had torn the college, the most difficult being that of integration. North Carolina was a segregated state, and there were those who feared for the college’s safety if it were to integrate. Finally, the issue was resolved with a decision to permit two black women students to enroll for the summer. Nerves were still raw over the integration debate when in the middle of the summer session, two women students who had hitchhiked to visit Eric Bentley, who was teaching at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, were arrested in Chattanooga on their return to the college and jailed. The crisis culminated in the resignations of Bentley, Cohen and his wife dancer Elsa Kahl, Clark Forman, and languages teacher Frances de Graaff, along with a large coterie of students. 

College farm. NCSA, BMC Papers

As the international conflict came to an end in the summer of 1945, a critically wounded Black Mountain College began slowly to rebuild. Black students were admitted for the regular sessions. Recruitment was not easy, and the college found that few were able to attend a college that did not offer an accredited degree. New faculty members were hired including M.C. Richards, a young scholar from the University of Chicago, to teach writing and literature, and her husband Albert William Levi in social sciences and philosophy. Max Wilhelm Dehn, eminent Frankfurt geometer, taught mathematics and philosophy, and Fritz Hansgirg, metallurgist who had been hired during the war, remained to teach chemistry. Theodore Rondthaler, a North Carolinian from an esteemed Moravian family, arrived to teach Latin, history and literature. John Wallen, who was exploring methods of group dynamics, taught psychology, and David Corkran, former headmaster at the North Shore Country Day School in Winnetka, Illinois, taught history. When the Alberses were on sabbatical, Ilya Bolotowksy taught art, and Trude Guermonprez Elsesser and Franziska Mayer, weaving and textile design. 

Summer Session String Quartet. Nikolai Graudan, Lorna Freedman Kolisch, Rudolph Kolisch, Marcel Dick. Photograph by Maja Apelman. Courtesy BMC Project

Approval under the GI Bill of Rights was essential to the college’s survival after the war, and with that approval a number of students, attracted both by the arts curriculum and by the opportunity to study in an unregimented environment, enrolled. As the student body swelled to almost a hundred students, there was concern that it was becoming too large.  The GIs who were older and who had experienced the discipline of military life and the horrors of conflict were eager to pursue a delayed education. Among those enrolled during this period, both GIs and recent high school graduates, were filmmaker Arthur Penn, writer James Leo Herlihy, and artists Ruth Asawa, Joseph Fiore, Lorna Blaine Halper, Ray Johnson, Lore Kadden Lindenfeld, Kenneth Noland, Robert Rauschenberg, Sewell Sillman, Kenneth Snelson, John Urbain, and Susan Weil. 

Robert Motherwell (Summer 1945). Photo by Margaret W. Peterson. Elaine Schmitt Urbain Papers, BMC Project.

In the summer of 1948, Josef Albers organized a Summer Session in the Arts which was be a pivotal moment in the college’s arts programs. Although previously both the regular sessions and the special summer sessions had brought together American-born and refugee faculty, the Europeans, far more accomplished than the younger American teachers, had been dominant. The 1948 summer faculty included John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Willem de Kooning, and Buckminster Fuller, all at the time unrecognized, but artists who would become seminal figures in the arts in the United States during the second half of the Twentieth Century. Buckminster Fuller, who was a last minute replacement, attempted to erect his first geodesic dome that summer. When it failed, it was dubbed the “supine” dome, and everyone cheerfully dismissed the “failure” as part of the process of experimental and a step on the way to success. Cage and Cunningham captivated the imagination of the community. They were to remain a presence at Black Mountain through 1953 as visitors and as summer faculty. 

During the 1948-49 school year, the college once again was split into opposing camps. At issue was an effort to find a way to provide for the college’s survival. GI Bill revenues were declining, and it was nearly impossible to raise the funds annually to keep the college open. Many plans were considered. One was to have the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill adopt Black Mountain as an experimental school. Another was to narrow the curriculum to focus on the arts with limited offerings in other areas. The crisis ended with the resignations in the spring of 1949 of Theodore Dreier, Josef Albers, Anni Albers, Charlotte Schlesinger, and Trude Guermonprez. 

Lunch on the dining hall porch. Photo by Felix Krowinski, Sr. © BMC Project

During the 1950s, even as the college began to sell land to survive, it experienced an explosion of creative activity. Poet and historian Charles Olson, who had taught one long weekend a month during the 1948-49 school year, returned to teach fulltime in 1951. Students Joseph Fiore and Pete Jennerjahn were hired to teach art, and Hazel Larsen Archer, to teach photography. M.C. Richards remained to teach “reading and writing.” Katherine Litz taught dance, and composers Stefan Wolpe and Lou Harrison, music. Wesley Huss taught theater. In the last years, in addition to Olson, writers Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, and Robert Hellman taught writing. Creeley, who was living in Mallorca, edited the Black Mountain Review, which gave a coherent means of publication for Olson, Creeley, Duncan and their associates. Pete Jennerjahn taught a Light, Sound, Movement Workshop which explored non-literary multimedia performance. The press, which previously had been used primarily to print college forms and concert and drama programs, was used by the students and faculty to print their own writing. Students during the 1950s included John Chamberlain, Edward Dorn, Francine du Plessix Gray, Joel Oppenheimer, Robert Rauschenberg, Michael Rumaker, Cy Twombly, and Jonathan Williams. 

Buckminster Fuller’s ‘Supine Dome’ (Summer 1948). Photo, Beaumont Newhall. Courtesy Beaumont & Nancy Newhall Estate. Scheinbaum & Russek Ltd., Santa Fe, N.M. © 2010, Beaumont & Nancy Newhall Estate

Through the summer of 1953 the college continued to sponsor summer sessions which attracted exceptional faculty, including John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Paul Goodman, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Ben Shahn, Theodoros Stamos, and Jack Tworkov. In 1952, faced with an ever smaller student body, Charles Olson proposed a radical change in the college program. Already, through attrition, the college had become a college of the arts. Under Olson’s plan the college would abandon any remaining vestiges of progressive education such as the work program, the farm, and community in education in favor of a series of year-round institutes which would bring together major figures in the arts, the sciences and the humanities.  The Pottery Institute in the fall of 1952 had as its faculty Shoji Hamada, Bernard Leach, Soestsu Yanagi, and Marguerite Wildenhain. An Institute in the New Sciences of Man had Marie-Louise von Franz and Robert Braidwood as guest speakers. The 1953 summer institute, the last of the major summer programs, featured potters Peter Voulkos, Warren MacKenzie, and Daniel Rhodes along with a general faculty in art, dance, theater and music. At summer’s end, faced with a greatly diminished student body and faculty, the lower campus with the Studies Building and Dining Hall were closed, and students and faculty moved up the hill into faculty cottages. It was impossible for the small coterie to keep up the property or to manage the farm. 

Charles Olson and daughter Kate, Black Mountain College. Photo by Mary Ann Giusti. Courtesy Mary Ann Giusti

By the fall of 1956 there were three teachers: Charles Olson, Wesley Huss, and Joseph Fiore, and Fiore was taking a year’s sabbatical. Olson and Huss decided that the time had come to close the Lake Eden campus. Students, including a group who had worked that summer with Robert Duncan on Medea: The Maidenhead, the first of his Medea triology, returned with him to San Francisco to continue their studies as part of Olson’s “dispersed” university. Olson remained at Lake Eden to formulate other programs and deal with legal issues. Since 1951, the faculty had been paid half-salaries in money (and at times beef from the farm) and the other half had been listed as a debt against the college. Three sued the college for the unpaid salaries, both because they were seniors and badly in need of income and because they, along with others, felt the time had come for the college to close. Olson traveled to San Francisco to deliver his, Special View of History lectures as part of the Black Mountain curriculum. In March a judge ordered that academic programs cease until debts were paid and legal issues resolved. The final issue of the Black Mountain Review appeared in the fall of 1957. Olson, the last rector, had arranged in advance for its printing costs. On January 9, 1962, the Final Account was approved and the college books were closed respectably with all debts paid and a balance of zero. 

Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada. Mary Emma Harris Papers

The influence of Black Mountain College and the productivity of its faculty and students has been extensive and diverse. Many have had stellar careers; others have achieved significant recognition as university professors, early childhood educators, artists, musicians, writers, and scientists. Institutions as diverse as Marlboro College in Vermont, the North Carolina School of the Arts, and Catlin Gable School in Portland, Oregon have been influenced by Black Mountain. The “Black Mountain Poets” include both poets and prose writers who published in the Black Mountain Review, some of whom were never at the college. The designation excludes other Black Mountain writers who were at the college but did not publish in the Review. Among the artists, there is no identifiable Black Mountain style. This diversity, rather than a limitation, is a tribute to the college’s fostering of independent thinking and working. 

Essential to the success of Black Mountain College was its administration by the faculty; this also was the root of many of its problems. In the instances when the college sought the assistance of a professional administrator, inevitably there was talk of a standard curriculum, predictable results, and a conventional appearance. In each case, the college refused to exchange the open, receptive, flexible atmosphere for the possibility of longevity. A critical part of the college program was its willingness to let things happen, not to create a circumscribed program with a predictable result. Fuller’s “Supine Dome,” the founding of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, John Cage’s first “happening,” and Josef Albers’s design and color curriculum which he later taught at Yale University were not planned outcomes. 

More than five decades have passed since Black Mountain College closed. Still, its story continues to have an impact in the arts and education worldwide. Biographies are being written, documentaries filmed, and exhibitions organized. The energy and ideas engendered are a continuing catalyst for new beginnings in the arts and education. 

 by Mary Emma Harris ©, 2010, Contributing Writer 

Mary Emma Harris is an independent scholar and author of, The Arts at Black Mountain College (The MIT Press, 1987). She is Chair of the Black Mountain College Project, Inc. ( www.bmcproject.org), a not-for-profit organization devoted to the documentation of the history and influence of Black Mountain College.

____________________________________ 

Legend 

BMC Project. Black Mountain College Project, Inc., New York, New York. 

NCSA, North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, Division of Archives and History, Raleigh, North Carolina. 

BMC Papers, Black Mountain College Papers. 

BMC Research Project Papers. Black Mountain College Research Project Papers. 

References: 

[1]  The American Association of University Professors investigated. Their report essentially vindicated Rice and his followers. See Arthur O. Lovejoy and Austin S. Edwards, “Academic Freedom and Tenure: Rollins College Report,” Bulletin of the American Association of University Professors, 19 (November 1933):416-39. 

 [2] [Joseph Walford Martin], “Black Mountain College: 1933,” NCSA, BMC Papers. 

 [3] Interview with Sewell Sillman by Mary Emma Harris, 7 March 1971, NCSA, BMC Research Project Papers. Permission Sewell Sillman Foundation. 

 [4] For a detailed description of the architectural program at the college, see www.bmcproject.org – architecture. 

See a related article on Black Mountain College alumnus, Sewell Sillman at:  http://www.artesmagazine.com/2010/03/griswold-museum%e2%80%99s-krieble-gallery-features-modern-art-of-sewell-sillman/

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7 Comments

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  6. Jed Busbin November 24, 2010 10:52 am

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