Global, National, Regional Change, 1950-1957

The final years of Black Mountain College were a creative zenith for writing and interdisciplinary arts on the campus, and a new era of broader human transition, turmoil, and invention. The United States fought the Korean War between 1950 and 1953, leading to a stalemate that suggested the limits of global American power. Conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union drifted into a global “Cold War” between rival superpowers. Domestically, the fight against communism moved dangerously into a period of political persecution, often unwarranted, under the direction of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy and Federal Bureau of Investigation Director J. Edgar Hoover. Black Mountain College was investigated by Hoover for this reason. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned decades of education discrimination for African American children in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. Shortly thereafter, Rosa Parks initiated the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-1956 by refusing to give up her seat in the “whites only” section of a Montgomery, Alabama bus. North Carolina, like many other southern states, resisted desegregation efforts even to the point of attempting to rewrite the state constitution to prevent integration in 1956. Nevertheless, African Americans began testing the state’s resolve to enforce discrimination by staging restaurant sit-ins beginning in 1957.

Advancements in the sciences matched the pace of social and economic changes, sometimes with equal controversy. Francis Crick and James. D. Watson were credited with discovering the structure of DNA in 1953, which continues to influence research in medicine and science. Later, it was revealed that Rosalind Franklin’s X-ray photograph of a DNA molecule was instrumental in this discovery but she was not given credit, which reflected deeper issues facing women in the sciences. The first organ transplants occurred in the United States and Europe in 1954. Dr. Jonas Salk introduced the first polio vaccine in 1955. IBM developed the programming language Fortran, which would set the world on the path towards another technological revolution in computing. In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first satellite to orbit the planet, and thus began a space race with the United States.  

The 1950s were also a period of national development as government and industry committed the United States to an oil-based, automobile-driven future. Under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Interstate Highway System was introduced through the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. North Carolina was a national leader in road construction, including the further development of transportation networks in its western mountains. Despite general trends toward economic growth in America’s consumer-based society, work opportunities were comparatively fewer in Appalachia. In 1950, labor force participation for the region was 8% lower than the national average; for Appalachian women, the difference was 17% less.  However, Buncombe County, which had grown from 108,755 to 122,557 residents between 1940 and 1950, fared better than many Appalachian counties in addressing economic shortages. By comparison, the county was better-diversified economically than the surrounding mountain counties, which translated into higher employment rates and lower rates of public welfare assistance.  

Click here for photos