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Go On a Mindful Trip to Explore and Learn From This Destination’s BIPOC Communities

Asheville may be best known for its location among the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains, laid-back atmosphere, stellar restaurants and breweries, and distinctive architecture such as Biltmore Estate. But dig deeper into the city’s storied past and you’ll find an abundance of opportunities to learn about the ways BIPOC communities have shaped the city’s culture.

Go On a Mindful Trip to Explore and Learn From This Destination’s BIPOC Communities

“The Block” in Asheville was an African-American city unto itself and is now the focus of a successful revitalization project today.

Photo by @downtownasheville

Asheville may be best known for its location among the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains, laid-back atmosphere, stellar restaurants and breweries, and distinctive architecture such as Biltmore Estate. But dig deeper into the city’s storied past and you’ll find an abundance of opportunities to learn about the ways BIPOC communities have shaped the city’s culture.

The place known asAsheville was first inhabited by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. And before the start of the Civil War, nearly 2,000 African Americans were enslaved in Asheville. A trip spent exploring how the city’s history made it the unique destination it is today is rewarding for what it reveals about the resilience of Black and other communities—and helps support those communities when you shop and dine atminority-owned businesses.

Immerse yourself in Black culture on The Block

After the Civil War, Blacks formed thriving communities in Asheville, among them a vibrant neighborhood known as “The Block.” Located at the east end of downtown, The Block was a city unto itself and Asheville’s version of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street until urban renewal projects starting in the ‘50s forced many businesses to relocate or shut down.

Thanks to efforts by determined citizens and city planners, The Block is once again a thriving ecosystem for Black entrepreneurs and community-focused gatherings. The neighborhood is anchored by theYMI Cultural Center, which was originally intended to provide a safe gathering space for Black construction workers from Biltmore Estate. Today, it’s a hub for entrepreneurs with its business incubation, workforce development and real estate apprenticeship programs, classes, and scores of youth activities. Tours are available four days per week and from the outside, visitors can admire the work of Biltmore architect Richard Sharp Smith, who designed the 18,000-square-foot Tudor-inspired building.

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Black chef and James Beard finalist Cleophus ‘Ophus’ Hethington’s menu at Benne on Eagle highlights influences from Africa, the Caribbean, and other places in the African diaspora.

Photo by @benneoneagle

A must-visit spot to visit in The Block is Noir Collective AVL, a mix of more than a dozen Black-owned businesses. Here, visitors can shop for fine art, apparel, jewelry, skin care products, crystals, and more. Once your retail itch is scratched, settle in for a feast at Benne on Eagle, a Black-helmed, full-service restaurant which serves creative cuisine rooted in the African diaspora. If you visit in early September, check out the Goombay Festival, an annual celebration of African-Caribbean culture with music, a craft market, food vendors, music, and dance performances.

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The Goombay Festival

Photo by @ymiculturalcenter

Stroll through Asheville’s Black history on the James Vester Miller Trail

In 2021, Asheville officially opened theJames Vester Miller Historic Walking Trail, which honors its namesake, a successful Black master mason who built several of Asheville’s notable buildings (including The Block’s YMI Cultural Center, which is a stop on the trail) and churches during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Born to an enslaved mother and a slave master father, Miller rose to operate a respected construction company during the Jim Crow era.

Support multicultural artists in the vibrant River Arts District

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The River Arts District holds gallery walks with demonstrations, workshops, live music, wine tastings, delicious food, and more, including Black-owned pop-ups, on the second Saturday of each month.

Photo by @incredibletownswnc

You can also support Black businesses in Asheville’s thriving River Arts District, an eclectic mix of artist studios and galleries that occupy old mills and warehouses along the French Broad River. Here, you can watch pottery, glass, wood, metal, jewelry, and visual artists engage with their craft, including at the studio of Joseph Pearson, a painter whose work explores historical events and people through the creative lens of a Black American male.

On Saturdays, Black Wall Street AVL hosts pop-ups from Black-owned businesses as well as a weekly event series. While you’re in the neighborhood, pop intoGRIND Coffee, the first Black-owned coffee shop in Asheville (and located very close to Pearson’s studio). This sleek space does double duty as a fully equipped coworking space serving local coffee, donuts, pastries, and sandwiches.

Learn about Cherokee culture at Oconaluftee Indian Village

About an hour’s drive from Asheville, visitors can learn more about the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the original inhabitants of this region of the Great Smoky Mountains, atOconaluftee Indian Village. At this “living museum” operated by the Cherokee Historical Association, visitors are led on an interactive journey through Cherokee history, including replicas of traditional homes, community structures and ritual sites.

Reenactors engage in activities such as beading, canoe-making, pottery sculpting and basket weaving, and guests are encouraged to ask questions. For those who’d like to learn even more about the Cherokees’ rich history, there’s also a short lecture series which takes place in the Council House replica and the Square Grounds, plus a nature trail featuring indigenous plants that the Cherokee use for medicinal and artistic purposes.

An honest reckoning and a brighter future

Asheville’s civic leadership has spoken candidly about reckoning with the city’s past—much of which has been challenging and painful for its racial minorities. In addition to the City Council’s recent measures that support Black communities, Asheville is working to complete itsAfrican American Heritage Trail, which connects several historically Black communities in and around downtown. Along the path, slated to open in summer 2023, will be a mix of well-known landmarks, informational sites, and homages to heroes—both legendary and unsung—in the local Black community.

The future of Asheville speaks to what’s so special about it on several levels now: warm Southern hospitality, incredible beauty, and a mix of cultures that makes it unlike anywhere else in the world. Next time you visit the “Land of the Sky,” make time to dive into the many contributions of its citizens and support its current-day diverse entrepreneurs, too.

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