Education Heritage/History Lifestyle

History Feature: When Fate Hides in the Garden Shed

Lucy S. Herring Elementary original trays. Photo by Jordan Diamond

By Lauren Stepp

Garden sheds are often catchalls where mismatched gloves, extra trowels, spare buckets and other sundries pile up out of sight and out of mind. But for Jordan Diamond, a garden shed can harbor more than odds and ends—it can harbor history.

Diamond works for Bountiful Cities as the FEAST program and garden coordinator at Lucy S. Herring Elementary School, formerly Vance Elementary, in West Asheville. As coordinator, Diamond teaches kids to get their hands dirty. Her lessons focus on planting carrot seedlings, observing pollinators and picking blueberries in the Peace Garden, an urban oasis where pear trees and purple basil plants thrive.

For the past nine years, Diamond has used derelict plastic trays she found in the school’s storage shed for class projects like starting seeds and dissecting flowers. The mustard yellow platters are fairly nondescript save for fading block letters that read “Lucy Herring.” It was not until this February, when the Asheville City Board of Education voted unanimously to rename Vance Elementary, that Diamond realized the cafeteria trays are relics from the original Lucy S. Herring Elementary School—a school that served Black students prior to integration.

Lucy S. Herring Elementary original trays. Photo by Jordan Diamond

“It felt like I had found fate hiding in the garden shed,” says Diamond. “Serendipity brought those trays here decades before the school’s name would change to match them.”

In 1916, at just 16 years old, Lucy S. Herring emerged as an advocate for African American education in Western North Carolina. After earning her North Carolina teaching certificate, she taught at the Swannanoa Colored School, a one-room schoolhouse with unpainted walls and a pot-bellied stove. Throughout her career, Herring would connect with hundreds of students at similarly underfunded Buncombe County schools like Hill Street Elementary and Stephens-Lee High.

From 1941 to 1949, she would also act as principal for Mountain Street School. Under her leadership, Mountain Street became the first Black elementary school in the city to be fully accredited. In the 1960s, when the four-classroom building was razed and another one constructed, the new school was named in Herring’s honor.

“It makes me feel humble,” Herring told the Asheville Citizen-Times in 1962. “I feel a sense of gratitude, but deep humility more than anything else. It makes you take a second look at yourself.”

The original Lucy S. Herring Elementary School was open for nearly a decade but closed in 1970 as part of the City’s desegregation plan. Since 1997, the building has housed the administrative offices of Asheville City Schools, says Roy Harris, who served on the Asheville City Board of Education from 1997 to 2004.

“When integration started taking place, many Black schools closed or became recreational centers because whites weren’t about to send their kids there,” says Harris.

Lucy S. Herring Elementary was no different. But today, both the school and its namesake live on.

“The trays give us something tangible in our city’s history to talk about,” says Diamond. “We wind up discussing why the school’s name changed, who Lucy Herring was and the contributions she made to the community.”

To learn more about the Lucy S. Herring Elementary School Peace Garden, visit BountifulCities.org.

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