Ruth Asawa and Alma Stone Williams, Black Mountain College, Summer of 1946.

Within the BMCM+AC Permanent Collection, we house a number of collections specific to alumni and faculty of the school, offering unique insight into what Black Mountain College was like from a wide range of perspectives. In this guest blog post from BMCM+AC Archival Intern Jacob McIntosh, we will be diving into the Alma Stone Williams collection. As the first African American student at Black Mountain College, Williams’ experience is invaluable in understanding a full picture of BMC’s history.


 

In my first month interning with the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, most of my work has been in the Alma Stone Williams collection. This internship is part of my history major coursework at UNC Asheville, where I am a senior. Within the collection, I have recently finished scanning and transcribing typed and handwritten documents related to Williams’ time at BMC, including several letters she wrote to her family. I’ve enjoyed my work so far, learning about archival work as well as learning about Williams. 

 

The Summer Music Institute of 1944

The Summer Music Institute at BMC was a 10-week program for musicians, composers, and teachers to come together for the “closest possible coordination of theory and practice, study and performance.” Students and faculty came from all over the United States and the world to attend the Music Institute, where they attended lectures, went to practices, and joined clubs. Three afternoons a week worked for the college doing maintenance, farming, office work, and other tasks to keep BMC running. All of this was normal for the college and for the students of the Music Institute. 

Alma Stone Williams helped to make the Summer Music Institute of 1944 different from the rest. The semester prior, the school decided to allow one African American student to enroll in the program, and Alma Stone Williams was selected as that student. Following her arrival, Williams remarked on her acceptance from fellow students in a letter to her family, “All of them are quite nice and I really don’t feel any different from any of the others.” Within this the letters in the collection, she never mentioned any racial discrimination while on the campus. From these letters, it seems that she was treated the same as anyone else by all of the students, faculty, and staff at the college.

A selection from Williams’ letter to her family, dated July 3rd, 1944. In it, she discusses her first few days at BMC, how the college is set up and where many of the students are from, as well as the student body’s acceptance of her to the college.

 

Williams took piano lessons with Joanna Graudan, one of the instructors at the school. While Williams was already an excellent piano player, Graudan “said that she thought I have a lot of imagination that I haven’t used, and that if I used more of my body then I have it would be easier — better results would be achieved.” Thanks in part to Graudan’s instruction, Williams left a far better player than when she had arrived. Recalling a September concert, Williams says “Did I get oodles of compliments on my [performance], Saturday night! Practically the whole art department was in ecstasies over it…” In addition to the piano, Williams took interest in the Community Chorus and a capella chorus, singing Bach, Milhand, Schubert, and others, alongside her fellow students at several performances. 

A selection from Alma Stone Williams’ letter to her family, dated September 6th, 1944. In it, she discusses her plans to return home after the end of the summer session, her final performance, and the closing days of the summer session.

 

While at the Music Institute, Williams and Yella Pessl, a harpsichordist and visiting instructor, bonded and grew close. “In the first place she is quite young with an athletic figure, sparkling eyes, fuzzy-ish black hair that grows in a curve within around her high forehead ⋂, and a Viennean [sp] accent. She is a charming person whom I am beginning to like already.” Pessl invited Williams to parties, and Williams helped Pessl during her performances. The last mention of Pessl is in another letter sent to Williams’ family, saying that she had an open invitation to come visit Pessl at her residence in New York.

Throughout her letters, it is clear that Williams enjoyed her time at BMC and gained experience as a pianist and learned a great deal about music. The only negative comments she wrote about were related to the colder-than-expected temperature at night and her disappointment in her peers at one performance. In a later personal account, she wrote, “I have been asked if I encountered racism at BMC, and if so, to what extent. It was 1944, and the college was located in the South. The answer is that I was not looking for instances and I found very few.”

Despite Alma Stone Williams’ acceptance to BMC, the immediate acceptance from her peers, and her exemplary performance as a student, BMC struggled to enroll African-American students. Those who attended for the msot part felt comfortable and were treated as equals while on campus. The Jim Crow South still cast a shadow on life off campus. After 1949, attempts to integrate the campus were largely dropped. 

 

Digging Deeper

Going through the collection has raised many questions for me. For one, the collection did not address what Williams’ musical background was before coming to the College, nor where she went after leaving BMC. It seems that Williams’ race was not an issue for her while she was at BMC, but this collection does not reveal if her gender – or her gender when paired with her race – was ever an issue. I also had questions about what Williams’ life was like at the college outside of what was included in letters to her family. What were some of the student work projects she participated in, and what did she like to do the most? Did she ever leave the campus with groups of friends to go into Black Mountain or Asheville? Did she have any time to have fun, or was her time limited outside of her classes? Her collection does not answer what her life was like as a college student, even if BMC was a non-traditional college that tended to attract non-traditional students. 

In my time at UNCA I’ve only been a researcher in archives, not an archivist. All of the documents I have worked with for my senior thesis and on other projects were already processed and almost entirely typed rather than handwritten. Working in this collection has taught me how to better approach documents written in cursive, in particular being able to identify unknown words using the context of the rest of the document. My next project with BMCM + AC is working to move a large box of donated materials into the archives, cataloging them and breaking them up into archival boxes and folders. 

Learn more about what was happening during the Summer Art Institute of 1944 in this blog post profiling Jean Charlot’s frescos, still housed beneath the Studies Building: Charlot Fresco Conservation + the Summer of 1944.

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