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BLACK MOUNTAIN—The Federal Bureau of Investigation probed Black Mountain College during its waning days and may have accelerated its demise, according to a recently declassified FBI file.
BMC, the influential avant-garde institution located in Buncombe County that ran from 1933-1957, was a “very unusual type of school,” the bureau noted in a secret 1956 report, paraphrasing descriptions by the college’s leaders while noting an allegation that BMC could pose a potential threat to “internal security.”
Previously released records have shown that several of BMC’s faculty members came under FBI scrutiny over the years, but the newly released file, which can be read below, appears to be the only one revealed so far that focused on the college itself.
The file, obtained by Carolina Public Press through a Freedom of Information Act request, mostly concerns an investigation into whether BMC was complying with G.I. Bill requirements for a handful of students who were military veterans.
The college was ultimately cleared in the matter, but not before FBI agents grilled students and faculty members, focusing their questions around the college’s unconventional approach to higher education.
A suspected faculty
According to accounts from historians and BMC alumni, along with previously released documents, several members of the college’s teaching staff caught the FBI’s attention, and the bureau’s agents became fixtures at the Lake Eden campus.
“FBI people showed up all the time, and they looked like something out of a grade B movie,” Dorothea Rockburne, a renowned painter who was a student at BMC in the early 1950s, remembered in a 2002 interview for the Black Mountain Studies Journal.
“They always had trench coats on, and you could spot them a mile away,” she said.
“And of course the students at Black Mountain put on an act for them. One of the favorite student tricks was to not have shoes on in the middle of the winter, and to crunch out a cigarette butt with their bare feet. … It confirmed their worst opinions, and we did not answer any of their questions.”
The FBI’s presence at the college wasn’t always so evident, however.
In the early 1940s, for example, the bureau recruited an informant in a class taught by the college’s anthropology professor, Paul Radin, to spy on him, according to Radin’s FBI file. The bureau suspected that Radin, a self-professed radical leftist, was a Communist operative.
The informant, reporting on classroom discussions, told the FBI that Radin was a staunch advocate for racial integration and indeed a Communist Party member, according to historian David Rice’s 2004 book, Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI’s Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists.
A string of other BMC notables fell under official suspicion, and the FBI dogged the college’s last leader, the poet and writer Charles Olson, at least twice, in 1952 and 1956, while he served as rector.
In the first instance, some of Olson’s associates from government service almost a decade prior were being investigated for suspected Communist ties, and the agents questioned him about their loyalties.
Olson recounted his brushes with investigators in letters to Robert Creeley, a fellow BMC figure and writer, not mincing words about his interactions with the FBI.
“I have had to feel that shadow,” Olson wrote in one letter, likening the FBI to “the secret police.”
Final FBI investigation accompanied BMC’s demise
The second time the FBI came to see Olson was in the summer of 1956, as the college was on the verge of closing.
BMC was strapped for cash and short on students, turning, in part, to G.I. Bill funds for its military veteran students to try to stay afloat. Suspicions from the Veterans Administration sparked the FBI investigation, the newly released file shows.
In May of 1956, the FBI’s Charlotte office alerted headquarters in Washington that regional VA officials suspected fraudulent use of G.I. Bill funds at BMC.
“The veterans do not attend the classes in the normal sense and on a regular basis,” one FBI memo said. The college’s own records, now on file at the state’s Western Regional Archives in Asheville, show years of back and forth with state and federal agencies about this matter.
And that wasn’t all. The VA’s attorney in Winston-Salem “felt that the information which had been developed [about BMC] might involve a matter of internal security,” the Charlotte FBI office advised, while noting that the VA men “furnished no specific information indicating subversive activity on the part of the students or instructors at the school.”
“School officials have advised that they are conducting a very unusual type of school,” the FBI special agent in charge in Charlotte reported to Director J. Edgar Hoover in a May 31, 1956, memo.
“For example, a student may do nothing all day and in the middle of the night may decide he wants to paint or write, which he does, and he may call on his teachers at this time for guidance,” the agent added. “They advised that everything is left to the desires of the individual.”
The agent further noted that VA officials had moved to end BMC’s accreditation with a state education agency, “thus cutting off subsistence of veterans” at the college.
The following month, in June of 1956, FBI agents interviewed three of BMC’s nine military veteran students to check if they were receiving enough instruction to merit G.I. Bill support.
Disputes over how the college kept attendance records became a sticking point, but were ultimately resolved to the satisfaction of the federal district attorney’s office, according to the FBI file.
Students under scrutiny
The names of the BMC students interviewed by the FBI are excised from the documents, but it’s clear from details in one record that Jonathan Williams, an Army veteran and student who would become a noted writer, photographer and publisher, was a main interviewee.
Two FBI agents went to see Williams at a home in Highlands, N.C., while BMC was on summer break in 1956, according to the file.
Williams told them that he was doing work worthy of G.I. Bill support, in “advanced verse and professional writing,” the FBI noted.
“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,” Williams said, according to an FBI transcript in the file.
“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,” he added.
Two other students interviewed by the FBI also said that while the instruction was unusual in its structure, it was substantive.
In a follow-up meeting in late June between the U.S. attorney for Western North Carolina, James Baley, and regional FBI agents, Baley said “he believed no further investigation was necessary and that he would decline prosecution in the matter,” one of the last documents in the file says.
With that, the FBI’s investigation ended, and a few months later, the beleaguered BMC closed.