America’s Most Radical Educational Experiment

Gabriel Benzur via Getty Images
Gabriel Benzur via Getty Images / Gabriel Benzur via Getty Images

The college that produced many of the 20th century’s most brilliant artistic minds is one you've probably never heard of. That’s because Black Mountain College existed quietly in the remote mountains of North Carolina before officially closing its doors 58 years ago.

According to North Carolina's Our State Magazine, in 1933, a passionate professor named John Andrew Rice decided to found a college of his own after years of being disappointed by academia. He had just lost his teaching job at Florida's Rollins College in light of accusations that he was inciting mutiny among the faculty. He brought along some of his fellow dissatisfied colleagues and students, and together they started Black Mountain College in North Carolina’s Buncombe County.

In the beginning they had no plan, budget, or even a physical space to call their own. They eventually found a Christian conference and training center that held most of their retreats during the summer, and were able to rent it during the academic season for an incredible deal. The school’s very first catalog stated that it had been founded to "provide a place where free use might be made of tested and proved methods of education and new methods tried in a purely experimental spirit."

The college was unlike anything else that existed at the time. The entire organization was run by the teaching faculty, and input from students was highly encouraged. Professors were only paid when there was money to pay them with, and they were given room and board on the premises. Most of the food was grown on the college’s farm. The fledgling college was able to stay afloat through the Great Depression, largely thanks to an investment from former Rollins colleague and famous Forbes family member Malcolm Forbes. 

Black Mountain is also notable for establishing an open forum for discussion and acceptance long before such things were a blip in the national consciousness. It became a safe haven for Jewish academics fleeing Nazi Europe, and in 1944 it hosted an African-American student named Alma Stone 12 years before Autherine Lucy enrolled in the University of Alabama. 

Black Mountain College was never accredited and only around 60 of the 1200 who attended graduated (those who did graduate received homemade diplomas). Despite this, alumni were snatched up by some of the best graduate schools in America and beyond. Notable students included the now-legendary “Black Mountain Writers” like Jonathan Williams, Joel Oppenheimer, Fielding Dawson, and Robert Creeley. The college also boasted residences and guest lectures from Aldous Huxley, Langston Hughes, Thornton Wilder, and Albert Einstein

After embracing Dadaism and the beat poetry movement in the decades that followed, Black Mountain College finally shuttered for good in 1957 for financial reasons. The school remains largely unheard of, even within academic communities, but the legacies of its faculty and alumni continue to have a huge impact on today’s art scene.

Curious literary pilgrims interested in learning more about the school's history can visit the Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center in downtown Asheville. Closer to the original site is a humble plaque along Highway 70 that reads "BLACK MOUNTAIN COLLEGE: Est. in 1933: Closed 1956. Experimental school with emphasis on fine arts & progressive education. Campus was 3 mi. NW"—one of the few testaments to the once vibrant campus.

[h/t: Our State]