FBI Investigations of Black Mountain College

At the height of mid-20th Century communist paranoia, the Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted a secret investigation into Black Mountain College. Students and faculty of the college have told stories of how troubling and ridiculous it was to see trenchcoat-wearing FBI agents sneaking around campus, but finally last year, the bureau declassified the investigation file at the request of the Carolina Public Press via the Freedom of Information Act. Now available for public viewing, the file elucidates the motives and methods behind the investigation.

On April 3, 1956, Mr. Cecil Pate, Chief Attorney of the Veterans Administration Regional Office in Winston-Salem, arranged a meeting with a regional FBI Special Agent and another VA head. He stated that his VA office had already been conducting a Compliance Inspection of BMC, and voiced concern over certain issues at the college which “might involve a matter of internal security”. Mr. Pate was concerned that veterans might be supplying their G.I. Bill funding to BMC without merit, claiming that it seemed that they were not regularly attending classes. He showed that the college kept no regular record of student attendance, and advised that the FBI conduct a deeper investigation into the daily activities of the college.

Shortly after this meeting, VA officials ended up “taking steps which have resulted in the school’s approval by the State Board of Education of North Carolina being withdrawn, thus cutting off subsistence of veterans.” In the mid 1950s student enrollment at BMC was on the decline, and the college’s funding was on the wane – students and faculty from the college recall selling the school piano and other pieces of property to aid funding. In 1956, nine out of the twenty-three remaining BMC students were veterans, and the college was fairly dependent upon G.I. funding. The actions taken by the VA led to a significant cut in BMC’s funding, and many believe that the VA’s actions greatly exacerbated the college’s demise.

Paraphrasing the college faculty, FBI agents stated that BMC faculty are “conducting a very unusual type of school, for example, a student may do nothing all day and in the middle of the night may decide he[sic] wants to paint or write, which he does, and he may call upon his teachers at this time for guidance. They advised that everything is left to the individual.” The overall liberal atmosphere of the college garnered much public attention, and aroused suspicion that the college was fostering communist sympathies.

“The times then were quite hostile,” says Robert Creeley, a poet and college faculty member. “The FBI had a person come check out Black Mountain College on a regular basis, ‘Frank’, who was amiable enough, as it happens, and even gave us advice as to how we might have secured government grants.” Charles Olson, however, was especially vocal about his disdain for the intrusions, saying that they had disrupted the creative peaceful atmosphere of the campus. While the students at BMC were not always cooperative in answering questions with the FBI, they did legitimize their educational experience in court.

Although names of interviewees remain blotted out, the documents supply indisputable evidence that Jonathan Williams was tracked down and interviewed by two FBI agents at his residence in Highlands, N.C. In his words: “While there may appear to be some laxity in the keeping of records by the college, I do not feel that there has ever been any intend [sic] to misrepresent anything to the Veterans Administration,” he said, adding that “because of the free nature of the college the student is equally responsible for maintenance or requirements, and, in my own mind, I consider that this has been done at all times.”

Paul Radin, an anthropology teacher at BMC, was among the most suspected faculty, and the FBI even enlisted one of his students as an informant. The informant reported that Radin was a “self-proclaimed radical leftist”, as well as a supporter of racial equality and integration, painting him as a potentially dangerous progressive during both the height of the Red Scare and the early years of the Civil Rights Movement. The informant even reported that Radin himself professed to be a card-carrying communist.

For Charles Olson and others, the snooping G-Men signified a dark and intimidating spectre looming above the entire college, and the harassment of the agents sparked anxiety of possible bureaucratic turmoil, unjust prosecutions, and even blacklisting.

According to Dorothea Rockburne, who studied painting at the time, students would play tricks on the FBI agents as minor acts of rebellion. As Rockburne stated, “They showed up all the time, and looked like something out of a grade-B movie. They always had trenchcoats on and you could spot them from over a mile away. And of course we put on an act for them – one of our favorite tricks was to not have shoes on in the middle of the winter, and crunch out a cigarette butt with our bare feet. It confirmed their worst opinions, and we did not answer any of their questions.”

The final pages of the document show that on June 21st, 1956, U.S. attorney James M. Baley met with the Charlotte FBI agents involved in the investigation, and stated that the evidence against the college was “indefinite”. The concluding sentence of the document states that “he believed no further investigation was necessary and that he would decline prosecution in the matter.” The FBI’s investigation of BMC was terminated on that day, and within a matter of months the college closed due to lack of funding.

The declassified documents can be found here:

Written by: Carmelo Pampillonio & Chava Krivchenia