First black students admitted to Asheville School reflect on their impact 50 years later
As Oliver "Gil" Prince walks around Asheville School, he shares memory after memory.
One of his favorite places as a student in the late '60s and early '70s was the basketball gym where, one year, his team went undefeated -- the only undefeated team in the school's history.
"We built our defense around trapping people in the dead spots," he said. "They'd try to dribble the ball, and I'd grab it."
But time spent at the then all-boys school wasn't always easy.
Prince, along with Al McDonald and Frank DuPree, were the first black students Asheville School admitted through the Stouffer Foundation, in the Class of 1971. DuPree left before graduation.
"We didn't want a leg up. We just wanted to get our legs in and that's what this enabled us to do," Prince said.
While Prince saw it as a benefit for him and other black students, that wasn't the main focus of the program. Anne Forsyth, who headed up the Stouffer Foundation, saw the integration of southern private schools as mainly a benefit for white southern elites.
“The fact is they were putting us here, creating those experiences for us, so that we could be a part of creating an experience for others and broaden their horizons,” said Greg Morris, Class of 1972.
Part of those experiences meant dealing with some pretty difficult circumstances, even upon entering the school.
Part of a letter from Asheville School’s Director of Admissions Gerald Shields to the Stouffer Foundation shows Prince almost didn’t get in after McDonald and DuPree were admitted.
The letter states administrators were “hesitant to push our luck by adding a third boy in the ninth grade for next year,” worried having three black students would “upset the apple cart.”
“We certainly had antagonists here, but we also had great support here, as well, and that was helpful. Very helpful,” Prince said.
Some of that help came from Head of School, Jack Tyrer, who Prince said made the final decision.
“There was another memo, the Head of School Jack Tyrer, said, 'I like this student, let’s admit him,' and that’s how I got in,” Prince recalled. “He couldn't comprehend what might happen as a result of his choices, but he knew they were the right choices, and he's been an important part of my life since then.”
Tyrer died January 24, 2018, at the age of 90, two days before News 13 sat down with Prince and Morris.
"The courage of Jack Tyrer back in 1967 seems almost impossible. He didn't ask permission. He just did it," said current Head of School Arch Montgomery.
Prince’s admission letter came in 1967 and his journey began, although it wasn’t easy.
He said someone spit on him his second day on campus and another person booby trapped his dorm room to make a light fixture fall on his head.
“Just by happenstance, I was going in my room and someone in the hall called me for something, and I let the door shut and pshhhh,” Prince recalled.
It missed his head.
A letter, handwritten by Prince’s advisor, seemed to capture the essence of what was taking place.
“Gil is facing the usual problems any teenager faces — trying to find out who he is, gain confidence in himself, etc, but in addition, being a black student in a white boarding school complicates matters for him. Much of his energy is going into dealing with these complications, and I think this is the main reason he is not attaining the academic level of which he is capable.”
He would eventually turn things around, becoming the valedictorian, captain of the football team, a member of student council, a choir member and a basketball player. All of that helped pave the way for those who came after Prince, like Morris.
“I think much of the ice was already broken. I think that many of those who had hostile feelings had already taken those hostilities out on them, and by the time I arrived here, it was less overt,” Morris said.
Now when you look at the school, it’s a different place. Diversity fills the halls, and Prince and Morris even became trustees.
"We've gotten larger, we are more diverse than we were, but that really started in 1967 and there's been a steady, careful commitment to community and building a community that's more reflective of the country and the world for that matter," said Montgomery.
The big question, however, is whether the goal of the Stouffer Foundation was met, whether society, particularly white southern elites, were better off for having known black students.
“On an individual level, we did help round out the perspectives of [white] people that we went to school with," said Prince. "They had the opportunity to see people of color as really people.”
“I think that it made the world be a better place. Is it enough that we can all see that and measure that? I think that we'll never really know the answer,” Morris added.
"As far as the larger social implications of what we accomplished, I don't know, and I don't know how to get my arms around it,” Prince said.
The program terminated in June of 1976 after nearly 10 years.
Reunions still take place.