Learning about the African American Community in Asheville

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Pack Square, in the heart of downtown Asheville. (Photo courtesy of Tony Zeoli.)

My husband and I moved to Asheville this year and quickly realized that there was much to learn about our new community. While there is much to adore here, we quickly became aware of the lack of diversity in the city. The African American population here is approximately 9% and it seemed that they didn’t frequent downtown very often.

What was this all about?   What was the real history of Asheville that I wasn’t hearing and that wasn’t readily available on the internet?

I had several experiences that informed me about my new community. However, these were not conversations that fell into my lap – I had to seek them out and be ok with sitting in the discomfort of the truth of this city to truly begin to understand how deep the fissure is between races in Asheville.  Here is what I learned:

1)  I had heard that African Americans here didn’t like to go downtown because they feel they are being profiled.  They were often eyed up in local stores, as if they were going there to steal or be troublesome.  I had also heard that they would not go outside of their own communities to a place like Weaverville.  As a white woman, Weaverville seems innocuous enough – it is a suburban town just a few miles outside of the city.  Yet, to local African Americans who had been told (through stories passed down from generation to generation) that Weaverville was a dangerous place where one could be physically harmed, it wasn’t this simple. This was such a reminder of the power of storytelling over generations and how we each see the world around us from a different perspective.  The reality is that the stories, for African Americans, were based on true situations that resulted in physical harm.

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This is the Vance Birthplace in Weaverville, North Carolina. The former governor was born here. (What you don’t see in this photo are the family’s slave quarters.)

2) My next encounter was at a Diversity Coalition networking event.  I met a local woman who described some of the history and marginalization of African Americans in Asheville. She explained that the large monument in the city center celebrated the war governor, Zebulon Vance, yet he was a slave owner.  What else didn’t I know?

Sheneika, Founder of "Date my City" and I at James Ferguson's keynote at the African Americans in Western NC conference.
Me with Sheneika, Founder of “Date my City” – at James Ferguson’s keynote at the African Americans in Western NC conference.

3) Thankfully, we were able to offer several scholarships to the Melibee Swarm on Culture, Identity and Perspective which was held in Asheville. I specifically sought out people of color in our community to join the Swarm, as I did not want it to lack in diverse voices and perspectives.

Two local African American women who attended have been incredible resources in educating me about the nuances of African American history and perspectives in Asheville. Sheneika is from Asheville, but only returned to the city three years ago.  She is so committed to increasing dialogue in our city that she started an incredible program called “Date My City,” a unique social organization with multi-faceted initiatives that promote cultural advancement of minority communities. By strategically hosting events and partnering with like-minded organizations, Date My City aims to “raise awareness about issues that directly affect the well-being and growth of black and brown communities in Asheville.”

Me and Itiyopiya at the same event. I was so grateful to meet her and Sheneika (above) at the Swarm in Asheville. The trust that was established there really helped us to open the door to very open hearted dialogue.
Itiyopiya and I arranged to meet up at the same event. I was so grateful to meet her and Sheneika (above) at the Swarm in Asheville. The trust that was established there really helped us to open the door to very open hearted dialogue.

Itiyopiya is a graduate student from Brooklyn, New York, who is completing her degree is education (focusing on ESL). She has taught English in Japan, yet was drawn to Asheville because of her studies and Cherokee heritage. She is an outspoken voice about societal institutions that hold certain groups of people in a cycle of poverty through marginalization. During the Swarm, both women shared their voices about their love of their community and the difficulties that African Americans face locally (and globally).

4)  Since the universe is magical, it lined up a fabulous conference on African Americans in Western North Carolina, within weeks of the Swarm.  This filled in so many of the gaps for me including:

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James Ferguson, center, gave a heart centered keynote. Mr. Ferguson was a young civil rights activist in Asheville, fighting for desegregation.

– addressing the ongoing myth that there weren’t slaves or even black people in Western NC – or that this region didn’t benefit from slavery.

– Asheville is the first city in the United States to put deeds for human sales (e.g. slave records) online.

– A Freeman’s Bureau existed to aid African Americans after emancipation.  Most slaves could not read or write because they were denied educational opportunities for generations, so negotiating and signing contracts for work was difficult.  This bureau also supported blacks in gaining the right to vote, and in their first election in 1868, they were the swing vote in several counties.  (This reinforces why the Republican effort today to require voter IDs is an ongoing attempt to crush the votes of AAs and other marginalized groups in NC.)

–  Perhaps most shocking was that the African American communities in Asheville were taken over by the city in the 1970s and torn down.  The excuse used was that the communities were “blighted,” yet the city failed to address the state of these rented homes with the WHITE property owners. This forced countless African American property owners into public housing, where generations of families still live today. Seeing photos of their families and neighbors’ homes, prior to having them ripped from their hands, literally brought people to tears.  I liken their pain to that of the Native Americans removed and forced to walk the Trail of Tears.

– During the civil rights movement, the people in local public housing went on a rent strike because their homes were not being taken care of (imagine slum like maintenance issues) and they were being watched like criminals (e.g. harassed). They received training on civil rights from colleagues in Durham –  moving forward with their agenda against resistant, discriminatory white administrators.  Sadly, the white community, in an effort to show their support for a prejudiced white administrator, stopped paying their property taxes for a period of time.  In the late 1960s, division by race was especially tense in this city (although it continues to be quite tense today).  Keep in mind that during this same time period, there was STILL a segregated public bathroom for women in the center of downtown (Pack Square) – right next to the Vance monument mentioned earlier.

The truth is beginning to surface, publicly, about the challenges that African Americans in Asheville face.  While I have seen pockets of our community discussing these issues, I also see an ongoing “urban development” that is largely in the hands of the white community and largely benefits them. Building more “affordable housing,” (for who?) in my opinion, is not addressing the deep rooted problems that exist in Asheville. The local government and citizens here need to be ready to be uncomfortable, because these are human rights issues that are not going to be addressed by more “urban development.”  From the history that I learned, the last “urban development” removed families from their homes and relegated generations of people to a life of poverty and trauma, as well as extended the deep mistrust in the local white government.

So, there it is.  My 2 cents on an impossibly complex issue that warrants books vs. a short blog post. I do realize that as an outsider and as a white woman, this post may ruffle a lot of feathers.  My intent certainly is not to be the voice of historically disenfranchised people, but simply to share my observations as a person who has stepped into a new community.  Perhaps by taking a risk to share what I have learned in a public forum, it will encourage other people to be curious about this issue and have some dialogue about it across our community.  I hope others will take a risk too and speak about this issue publicly. UNCA set a great example by doing so at this local conference – and for me, it gave me the push I needed to share my 2 cents.

I welcome your constructive feedback in the comments section below.

Note:  I adjusted this post by removing comments about the Vanderbilt purchase of land used for the Biltmore home.  I was receiving conflicting information about this and therefore chose to remove it until I have a better understanding of this issue.