Black Mountain was founded in 1933 by John Andrew Rice, Theodore Dreier, Frederick Georgia, and Ralph Lounsbury, who were controversially dismissed as faculty from Rollins College for refusing to sign a loyalty pledge. Black Mountain was experimental in nature and committed to an interdisciplinary approach, prioritizing art making as a necessary component of education and attracting a faculty and lecturers that included many of America's leading visual artists, composers, poets, and designers. During the 1930s and 1940s the school flourished, becoming well known as an incubator for artistic talent. Notable events at the school were common; it was here that the first large-scale geodesic dome was made by faculty member Buckminster Fuller and students, where Merce Cunningham formed his dance company, and where John Cage staged his first musical happening. In the 1950s, the focus of the school shifted to the literary arts under the rectorship of Charles Olson. Olson founded The Black Mountain Review in 1954 and, together with his colleague and student Robert Creeley, developed the poetic school of Black Mountain Poets.
Additionally, the College was an important incubator for the American avant-garde. Black Mountain proved to be an important precursor to and prototype for many of the alternative colleges of today, ranging from College of the Atlantic, Naropa University, the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Marlboro College to Evergreen State College, Hampshire College, Shimer College, Prescott College, Goddard College, World College West (1973-1992), and New College of Florida, among others, including Warren Wilson College located just minutes down the road from where Black Mountain College was located. Bennington College, based on the same philosophy, was founded one year before Black Mountain College.