Considering the short time that Black Mountain College existed, there have been an unusual number of books written about the college. Only one contains personal reminiscences of people who actually attended the college and the writings included in it are very brief. I have read most of the other books and they seem to describe a different college from the one I attended. I was there for three years starting in late 1944 and can see that the books are scholarly, but depict such a different institution because the college was always in transition. Many of the faculty and students were there for a very short time, especially in the summers, when some were present for only a few weeks. Without disparaging these books, I can tell you about my experience there.

I first heard about Black Mountain during the one year I attended Washington University in St. Louis, where I was deeply discouraged by what I saw as a hidebound approach to higher education. As a candidate for a BFA degree, I would be studying drawing for two years consisting of charcoal renderings of plaster casts of classical sculpture. The rest of the offering included no language except English, Art history was the only history offering and there would be no real science. It seemed to me that I would graduate as a trained hand and eye, knowing little about the world in a larger sense.

During Christmas break some young people who had gone to Black Mountain before graduation from high school (not required at BMC) came back with a fantastic report: there were no grades and thus no accreditation; there was no required syllabus; a person could take as many or as few courses as desired, with no prerequisite background; classes were small and most of the work running the college was done by student volunteers with great camaraderie. This sketch was just a start, but I was completely turned on by curiosity and a need to break out. With only this glimpse of the college I applied for admittance and was accepted. I found out later that the admissions committee was composed of only two students and two faculty.

When I arrived at the tiny train station of Black Mountain, I paired up with another arriving student and cabbed out to the college. The college looked like what it had been, a boy’s camp. The road was gravel, the frame buildings were squat and showed their age. It didn’t look too promising until a dump truck groaned by filled with students coming back from a detail unloading lump coal from a flatcar. They were black with coal dust, singing rounds in four parts and loving it. My spirits were lifted.

The Appalachian mountains of Western North Carolina are astoundingly beautiful. The soil is rocky and glaciated, so most of the area is uncleared hardwood forest, with farm fields only in the bottoms. The streams and rivers are clear and cold. The vegetation consists of everything that grows from as far South as Florida and as far North as Vermont. There are usually no clusters of similar trees, but instead a very mixed forest of great beauty. In autumn there is a gradual drying out rather than a cooling that brings on a cathedral of color in the tall forest. The mountains are extremely old and eroded to graceful soft female ridges and valleys. The college owned over a thousand acres of forest including a ridge 1500 in height, a small lake at the bottom and thirty acres or so of farmland.

That first day, I was introduced to the details of meal service, mailbox, library, a place to sleep and the “studies building”, a large barge-shaped building with small rooms assigned to each student. A list was posted showing the courses each of the faculty planned to offer this term. Art courses included design, drawing, painting, weaving and something called “matiere”. There were several Math courses, American History, History of the Middle ages, French, German, classical Greek, Russian, Music performance and theory, Economics, Woodworking, Psychology, Literature and Writing…a mind-blowing set of opportunities without the need to take any introductory courses. The real gift was that during the following week, sample classes of all the courses were offered enabling me to audit as many as I wanted. And audit I did, fascinated by the options. I spent so much time sampling that I neglected to inspect the study space assigned to me until the end of the week. I found it to be an 8′ x 12′ room in the Studies Building, with absolutely nothing in it. I asked around and was told to go downstairs to a storeroom to find desk and chairs. Arriving there, it was also empty. When I asked about the dearth of furniture, I was told: “Why not go up to the wood shop and make something?” I found the shop and it was a hive of activity, with people almost too busy to answer my questions. With almost no prior experience, I was left to my own devices and concocted a desk made from a door, which I suspended by a chain to the ceiling on one end and attached to the wall at the other. My steamer trunk became my seat. “Werklerhe” or “Learning by Doing” was the mantra I heard tossed around. This was to be a do it yourself education, a far cry from my background and I started to love it immediately. I signed up for Woodworking, based on my first experience at the shop, also went for Psychology, Modern Literature, Descriptive Geometry and Chemistry. I was greedy for learning.

During the first breakfast, an announcement was made that volunteers were needed to cut field corn, haul it up to a chopper and to pack it down inside the silo. I was game and ended up with a corn knife in my hand, cutting and piling it at the row-ends for others to pick up and load onto a horse drawn wagon. I did this for 6 or 7 hours, was worn out at the end and realized that this was the first time in my life I had done something really hard and useful with my body. I had been “raised as a pet”, as a friend later told me and had been secretly feeling like a parasite. I was being offered the chance and challenge to engage in new ways to expand my options beyond anything in my life so far.

Life at BMC was collegial; dining was at eight-person tables with no seating plan. Students and faculty ate three meals a day together in the camp-styled dining hall with no seating plan. This made it possible to get to know all of the faculty personally and most of the 125 students. The approximately 14 faculty members were non-conformists, who had chosen to teach at BMC despite almost no pay, but with the freedom to teach what and how they wanted. Several of the faculty were refugees from Europe who were highly qualified but lacked reciprocity between their homeland and academic America. The students were from a wide variety of backgrounds, ages and countries with a shared need to discard tradition. Everyone seemed to be driven to learn, to experiment and to grow. Ages were from 16 to 25, many of the men had already served in the army or navy, with the GI bill paying for most. The Rosenwald Foundation, which was set up in the 30’s to help African-Americans get higher education was winding down and paid for some fifteen talented black students to attend BMC, despite the fact that the college was in the heart of the deep South. This was a marvelous opportunity for me to get to know a black person up close and as an equal. There were dormitories for most students, with separate facilities for the few who were married. The sleeping arrangements in the dorms were styled after the boys camp the campus had previously been.

Music played a big part at the college. There was a large chorus and a smaller a capella group. There was an impromptu barbershop group and one for singing spirituals, both led by students. Individual classes were available for advanced students of piano, instrumental and voice, as well as musical theory. Every week or so there would be a recital of one of the musical groups or individuals. On Saturday nights, after dinner there would usually be great jazz offered by some very talented students. This music incited some fine swing dancing. Often, after lunch, in a corner of the dining hall, a session of round singing would get going. These were four-part pieces mostly composed in the 16th Century, not all of them in English but very easily learned and were sung from memory. This was my introduction to making music instead of being an audience. I found out that I could sing on tune and was a good listener. I couldn’t sight-read music but was a good faker, at least I thought so. It led to my joining both the choral groups as well as the barbershop and spirituals. I had none of this in my family and it opened the way to a joy throughout my life.

Before I went to BMC, I had always assumed I would be a visual artist. I’m not sure how that happened, but I had been taking art lessons since I was 6 or 7 and hadn’t looked at this future in a practical way. But now I was beginning to do this, wondering how a person made a living as an artist except by teaching, which didn’t interest me at all. That first exposure to the woodshop sparked a love affair that has lasted all my life. Woodworking has the challenges of utility, the three dimensional characteristics of sculpture, the touch contact of furniture and the ultimate goal of beauty. Importantly, woodwork offered challenges that suited my skills and sensitivities. Had I not gone to BMC, I am not sure I would have found my life’s work.

Anything was possible at BMC. A friend, Harry Holl, wanted to set up a blacksmith shop and without spending any money found or made the necessary equipment and built a shelter for it. Arthur Penn, a student, produced several marvelous theatrical performances with people with no acting experience. John Cage and Merce Cunningham got people doing modern dance. Buckminster Fuller made his first geodesic dome there, which collapsed. A print shop was rescued from abandonment and added to my awareness of the graphic arts. A group of students designed and alone built a new faculty residence. Many people of prominence visited the school, perhaps just to see for themselves what they had been hearing about.

At the end of my first year there, the woodworking instructor was leaving and the availability of the shop was in doubt. Someone suggested that I talk to the business manager, Theodore Rondthaler, to see if something could be worked out. I explained that I had finally found my passion with woodworking and would dearly miss the shop. Rondy (his nickname) looked me over and asked if I would like to take responsibility for keeping the shop open. I gulped and said sure, having no idea what was involved. With no ceremony, he gave me the key. He had expressed confidence in me and I had sure as hell better deserve it. I decided to teach myself the doing part of woodworking. I got a few books, but they were elementary level and not much help. I didn’t understand the power tools and mostly was afraid to turn them on. I taught myself to sharpen a plane, to smooth rough sawn lumber by hand, to true the edges for gluing, to make mortise-tennon joints by hand with hammer and chisel, to steam bend curves and to figure out on my own what most woodworkers learn from a boss or teacher. I was re-inventing the wheel, a process that took a lot more time, but I came to understand wood in an intimate way. This became my approach to wood problems, both an advantage in questioning the old methods and a disadvantage by missing some of the tried and true.

I took the “learn by doing” mantra to the extreme, when the blacksmithy turned out a genuine adze (a kind of sharp pickaxe for hollowing wood things out.) I decided to make a dugout canoe. I chose an American chestnut, of which there were many dead ones around, having succumbed to blight in the early 1900’s. The wood is very resistant to rot, so they stood like sentinels in the hardwood forest. I chopped and gouged and chipped and hacked for days on end until I finally had something that vaguely resembled a canoe. I launched it and to my surprise found that the thousands of wormholes leaked abundantly so that the craft slowly filled with water. Not to be set back by this development, I got the idea of plugging the holes with wooden matches. One trouble with this was that I had to hammer them in on the striking end, so that each one flared up covering me with sulfur fumes. I re-launched the boat and on a dead flat day it had about 1″ of freeboard. The last time I saw it was on a Sunday just before lunch when a fellow student, dressed in his best decided to take a spin. He got out about ten feet when the craft slowly settled below the waves. I pretended I didn’t know who had made the boat.

The college was actually owned by the faculty and even new instructors had an equal stake. This made the college quite unstable which was coupled with the fact that the “Board” consisted of two faculty and two students and that no endowment existed. The board was elected by the faculty, so decisions were always in line with the sentiments of the current faculty. During 1947 a new teacher of economics arrived with four or five disciples. It didn’t take long to figure out that they were Communists and saw the fragile structure of the college as an opportunity for seizing control. Soon it was apparent they might take over the college as the artists and musicians didn’t seem prepared to defend against such a move. After a brief but emotional war of wills, the communists left the school and art and music were restored to first position.

The college included a farm of about 40 acres. During my second year, two conscientious objectors and their families signed on to run the farm. They both had farm backgrounds and the operation became serious and productive. We grew corn for silage and to feed the chickens and pigs, grass and hay for milk cows. Students milked the cows, separated the cream, made cottage cheese and butter. The productivity of the farming effort wasn’t very important to me, instead it was the chance to have a farming experience. This included learning to harness up and drive the mother and daughter workhorses Whitey and Pearl. I never got very good at it, but was permitted to attempt to plant an acre or two of corn with the horses, trying my damndest to keep the rows straight. I heard later that they had to replant it. We also used the horses for logging, as the college needed wood for repairs and the property contained plenty of timber. Several of us volunteered to get some White Oak logs and take them to a mill. The trees had no leaves in that season, so we mistook Hickory for Oak. We got a lot of negative feedback on our poor recognition of tree species, as it was impossible to drive nails in hickory when it was dry.

I haven’t even touched on the formal educational part of the experience. Maybe this is because the rest of the scene was so alive on its own. I took several courses in mathematics from Dr. Dehn (Max to us). He was appointed to be my “advisor”, but in our three-year relationship, he never offered any advice. He was barely over five feet tall, a refugee from Germany always wearing a pork-pie hat and who had a high rank in the math world. He actually knew Einstein personally, having lived in Switzerland when he was young. He taught a course in “Statics”, which is the study of architectural loads, another called “descriptive geometry”, which dealt with geometry using only logic, a straight edge and no measurements, still another was Mathematics for Artists, that started with 15 students but was way above our heads and ended with just four people. Max had a wonderful way of teaching in his classroom, which had blackboards on all four walls, even the door. With chalk in hand he would draw, sometimes standing on a chair to execute the diagrams. Then he would beam a huge smile and say: “Can you see the music?” He saw mathematics as pure and beautiful music. We didn’t always get it, but loved being with Max. He later offered a course called: “The Theory of Numbers” and only one person signed up. He also sponsored a class called “Philosophy”, but which was a rough collection of problems he asked us to solve. One was: “how long is a day?” The class met on Friday evenings and this time it was augmented with some hot mulled wine. The plan was to take sights on a star with our only accurate tool, which was a surveyor’s transit, keep track of the time each observation was made along with the number of degrees travelled, and at the end of the evening to calculate the length of a day. The wine took first place, as we arrived at the day’s length as 23 hrs, and 16 minutes.

The art courses were Spartan, drawing with pen and ink without shading, watercolors which most people don’t realize cannot be altered once the colors are laid down, design which included calligraphy. These were taught by Josef Albers, formerly of the Bauhaus in Munich. Unfortunately, he had extremely high self- esteem and could not tolerate being treated as an equal. This may have given me an added push toward woodworking. Molly Gregory was the woodworking teacher, who had a fine knowledge of the history and technology of woodworking. The first semester, we didn’t do any actual woodwork, only studied the kinds and characteristics of wood and visited factories and craftsmen in the area. It may sound dull, but it gave me a sound technical beginning. John Wallen taught psychology, and as one would expect, in a very unconventional way. I took a course called “Group Dynamics”, which began with fifteen or so students around a large table, with John at one end. He did not say a word of introduction except to greet us. This was followed by a silence of at least ten minutes. Then one of us spoke up: ‘Well, what are we doing here?” This was followed by an equal silence. After a while a conversation about the lack of structure developed between several attendees.

The voices varied from: “What the hell is going on here?”
“Why are we even bothering to be present”
And finally to: “Let’s decide on something to do and see where it leads us.”

Apparently, this was what John was waiting for and he finally suggested that next class we could discuss what had happened at this first meeting. In the end, we tried to understand how groups work, how leaders emerge, how they may be displaced, how rules of behavior develop and what happens when they are broken. It turned out to be a fascinating study. This was the kind and variety of the learning experience at BMC.

The cycle of study, the work program, the constant preparations for chorus and theater performances, the group and individual projects and the mutual stimulation of students and faculty often became manic in intensity. An unique antidote to this frenzy had been thought up called “Interlude”. A student had been elected to a position called “Moderator”, which entitled him/her to meet with a couple of faculty and, without any warning declare that an “Interlude” would begin immediately which meant that all classes were suspended, all work details were postponed and meal service would be drastically reduced for three or more days. This last was to give the several kitchen employees a break. It was like a spring vacation, but not in season and without any possibility for teachers to load up study assignments. This was taking advantage of the flexible structure of the college, without detracting from the educational process. It was usually a time for us to get to know the area with field trips to the A.T. (Appalachian Trail) in the Smoky Mountains or hiking to Mt. Mitchell, the tallest mountain East of the Rockies. Or, just hanging out.

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The college had significant principles that guided the educational process and which set us apart from the then widely accepted curriculum. The first was “learning by doing.” Reading and discussion had their place, but to get learning into our bones, we were encouraged to do the work, the writing, the experimentation, the production of actual things. Theory was only there to be tested, not an end in itself. Only by engaging in the creative act itself, could the new be evaluated. A second was dispensing with a layered system in the teacher-student relationship. One got to know the teachers as people and could measure how close their lives and actions paralleled their words; this also gave the teachers a clear view of just who their students were and whether they were having the learning experience they intended.

There were essentially no rules at the college, no do’s and don’ts. With no discipline being applied from above, it was up to each student to learn self-discipline. Some students failed this challenge and dropped out. There was also an absence of a trade school mentality. Students were not being prepared to perform a job in society, but to be creative, well rounded and open minded members of society. In line with this, there were no grades at BMC and only a token gesture at graduation. During my time at the college, only one person “graduated”, which meant that the student with his advisor decided it was time, an examiner was invited to be a judge, a two or three day grilling took place and a verdict was handed down. The graduation had no reciprocity with the establishment, but many of the students got credits for work done at the college when they later signed on to get a university degree. The student work program was an integral part of the educational concept. It affirmed the respect due to anyone who does physical work. It also provided training in things like plumbing, logging, farming, carpentry and auto mechanics. It taught teamwork, practical problem solving and down to earth economics. Most of the features described above were missing in education until the 1950’s, but many of them have been incorporated into the more liberal institutions today. This, is one reason BMC did not survive beyond 1960, as many of these features became widely available.

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A peculiar aspect of the college was our isolation from the North Carolina mountain community and culture surrounding us. That we were liberal was the least of it: the fact that we had black students raised many an eyebrow locally; the fact that women at the school were working in Levis loading coal was alarming. The local community puzzled about what the college was up to. On the other hand, the college had little understanding of the Southern mountain mind.

Although the college had a tendency to take itself very seriously, at the same time there was a sense that we were absurd, that instead of being in the forefront of thought and action, we were a pretentious bunch of misfits sealed up in our ivory tower amidst a society headed in other directions. An example of this self- doubt shows in the one and only college “song”, that I heard only once or twice. It went like this:

“We’re from black Mountain College, what ho, quite so!
A very peculiar college, so very, very, don’t you know!
We’re from Black Mountain College, just fast, not slow:
Here we go gathering nuts in May, oops! We’re terrific!”

Another instance of self-mockery was when a football game was dreamed up with a printed program that chronicled the first and only game between the “Cromagnons” and the “Modern Neurotics”. There was no referee, very loose rules and no one remembered if either team won.

In spite of our ability to laugh at ourselves, some at the college were so out of touch with the local mindset that disconcerting things happened. Eddie Lowinsky, the second in command of the music program decided we should share our choral accomplishments with the local community. I’m not sure who arranged it, but we were to sing on a Sunday afternoon at the local Baptist Church, which happened to be for blacks only. We had only recently mastered several a capella pieces by Heinrich Shutz and Herman Shein, pre-Bach German composers with words in early German. This was the music we were to bestow on the poor blacks living nearby. We arrived at the church fifteen strong on the back of our flatbed International to find no one around. The building was open, as it had no door. We peered in gingerly to find walls that did not come quite down to the dirt floor, and four or five tin woodstoves were scattered around clusters of benches to provide class settings for the Sunday school. After quite a while, a man came to see what we were up to and Eddie let them know we were expected and had promised to sing. After a long while, ten or fifteen older black people showed up, obviously just having put on their Sunday best for the second time that day. A few very formal greetings were exchanged and we began to sing. I could see the confused looks on our audience’s faces when they heard the strange language we were singing. When we were finished, there was an excruciating silence until one of them decided to leave, followed by the remainder. I was deeply embarrassed and depressed by the whole misguided affair: Eddy’s patronizing reading of what we had to offer and what our audience might think about us white folks.

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The experience of Black Mountain College was catalytic for me. My growing up and becoming more aware of the wider world was accelerated. I came from the calm sleep of Jewish suburbia in the border state of Missouri to a wider view of my life choices. Most importantly, the time at BMC fostered in me the confidence that I was adaptable, resourceful and could continue my education on my own.

© Harry Weitzer