Social Justice at Blue Ridge Assembly

Educator, author and religious leader Willis Duke Weatherford surveyed surveyed the original boundary line of the YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly conference center in 1906.

As a student at Vanderbilt University, Weatherford became involved in the student Young Men’s Christian Association. Traveling to the Blue Ridge Mountains by horse and buggy in 1906, he sought a permanent location for student training sessions he arranged. When he reached the present site of Blue Ridge Assembly, between two steep forested ridges of the Swannanoa Mountains two miles from Black Mountain, he exclaimed, “Eureka, we have found it!” The enterprising educator raised half a million dollars to finance the construction of the Blue Ridge Assembly.

In addition to acting as the conference center’s president until 1944, Weatherford was the president of the Y.M.C.A. Graduate School and faculty member at Fisk University and Berea College. Weatherford’s travels to college campuses across the South in the Jim Crow era made him acutely aware of race relations, and in 1910 he published the widely distributed “Negro Life in the South.”

In subsequent years, he organized interracial conferences on social issues attended by college students, faculty, clergy, and politicians from both the North and the South. In 1964, Weatherford reflected on the inroads initiated during his tenure and the legacy of Blue Ridge Assembly.

“We were doing something about the whole race problem,” he said. Slavery “left a dirty mark on Southern life … We set ourselves deliberately to break that prejudice down. Blue Ridge has been one of the forward-looking institutions … willing to take a step forward, even though sometimes it might not be popular … We knew it was right.”

In a fitting tribute to the social justice ideas promoted by Blue Ridge Assembly’s founder, Robert E. Lee Hall, the architectural centerpiece of the grounds, was renamed Eureka Hall in 2014. Designed by New York architect Louis Jallade, the three-story neo-classical revival building hosted the experimental Black Mountain College from 1933-1941.

 

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