Women’s History Month Celebration – Asheville Parks and Recreation Facilities Remember Local Historic Women
Women’s History Month dates back to the first International Women’s Day in 1911. In 1978, schools in Sonoma, California celebrated Women’s History Week with events designed around March 8 ( International Women’s Day). Following a conference on women’s history in 1979, President Jimmy Carter issued a presidential proclamation declaring the week of March 8 National Women’s History Week. In 1987, Congress designated March as Women’s History Month.
In Asheville Parks and RecreationAcross ‘s network of parks, community centres, greenways and other facilities, some are named after women who have helped shape our city’s progress and left significant achievements along the way. In honor of Women’s History Month, we will be highlighting these public spaces throughout the month of March.
Building on the momentum of downtown revitalization that began in the late 1980s, the Asheville Urban Trail was launched in 1991. Grace Pless was the guiding spirit of the focused volunteer committee that worked with the City of Asheville to install public art and storytelling to tell the compelling story of our community along a 1.7-mile circular route through downtown.
Although Grace’s Garden is technically not part of the beloved civic amenity, the small, shaded park with benches is a short walk from Stepping Out, the trailhead station that pays homage to theaters and the Grand Opera House that once blossomed. formerly along Patton Avenue.
A block away, another station pays tribute to Asheville resident Elizabeth Blackwell, MD, the nation’s first woman to receive a medical degree and founder of the world’s first four-year medical school for women.
Stephens-Lee Community Center
Known as Castle on the Hill, Stephens-Lee High School opened in 1923 on the former site of Catholic Hill School and was for many decades the only high school in western North Carolina. North for black students, attracting students from Buncombe, Henderson, Madison, Yancey, and Transylvania counties.
The Lee in the name commemorates Hester Ford Lee, an educator at Catholic Hill School who died suddenly in 1922. She originally came to Asheville to teach in the town’s new public school system, becoming one of five teachers who opened Beaumont Street School in January 1888. After briefly moving to Tennessee, she returned with her husband Walter S. Lee in 1905. She again taught at the Asheville City Schools from 1906 to 1916 and served as principal of the “Southside Building” in 1912 and 1913 at a time when very few women of any race were given leadership positions.
An all-white school board closed Stephens-Lee as part of its desegregation plan in 1965, and most of the campus was bulldozed. The gymnasium remains the Stephens-Lee Community Center.
Wilma Dykeman Greenway
Born in Asheville, Wilma Dykeman has lived her entire life near the French Broad Broad River. A writer, lecturer, teacher, historian, environmentalist and strong believer in the link between economic development and environmental protection, she published 15 non-fiction books beginning with The French Broad in 1955 – making the first full-fledged economic argument against water pollution. She has also written three novels, including The Tall Woman, the story of a mountain woman who works to bring her community together after the Civil War, which has sold over 200,000 copies. For Neither Black Nor White, she and her husband James Stokely won the Hillman Prize for Social Justice in 1957.
She also worked as a newspaper columnist for nearly five decades and her work has appeared in numerous national publications. The City of Asheville and Buncombe County have adopted the Wilma Dykeman RiverWay Master Plan, a 17-mile network of greenways and parks designed to promote sustainable economic growth along the French Broad and Swannanoa rivers. A greenway in the River Arts District that runs from Hill Street to Amboy Road is named in his honor.
Jean Webb Park
Along the Wilma Dykeman Greenway, a small park with river access and benches is tucked under the Haywood Road bridge named after Asheville native Jean Williamson Webb. As executive director of Quality Forward (predecessor of Asheville Green Works) from 1978 to 1983, she led the community’s trash cleanup. With a love for the French Broad and a vision that it could be the center of a clean and vibrant Asheville, Webb organized the community’s first river cleanup day guided by the belief that if people used and enjoyed the river, then they would take care of that.
As president of the French Broad River Foundation, Webb later helped organize Riverfest to support the foundation, worked with city and county leaders to expand access to the river, and organized Streamwatch groups to monitor Pollution. Slowly, all of these efforts started to make a difference and led to the formation of river link. She was also president of this organization, working closely with founding director, friend and fellow visionary Karen Cragnolin (whose enormous contributions will be commemorated with a park bearing his name along the French Broad River greenway).
She once said, “I am attached to this community. I just hope people realize the value of the beauty around us. His work, his hope and his commitment transformed not only the river, but Asheville.
(Special thanks to Laura Webb and Julia Webb Gaskin for photos and biographical information.)
Check back next week for the history of the Tempie Avery Montford Community Center, Augusta Barnet Park, Leah Chiles Park, Ann Patton Joyce Park, and Hazel Robinson Amphitheater. Previously, we highlighted Community centers and parks named after prominent black personalities.