Photo by Cynthia R. Greenlee
Photo by Cynthia R. Greenlee
In Asheville’s Triangle Park, a vibrant mural depicts real Black businesses on the Block, such as John Darity’s cab company.
The history of things now unseen and a future not yet made.
Overlooking downtown Asheville, North Carolina, from a vista in the city’s hilly East End neighborhood, DeWayne Barton points to a tall gray-and-white tower under construction.
“At the top [end of the price range], you’ll pay $750,000 to live in that building,” he says.
That future high rise is being constructed on the same ground as quarters for enslaved people who spent their bondage serving guests in one of the city’s hotels before the Civil War.
It’s a sobering message to the four out-of-state visitors on Barton’s Hood Huggers International tour. Tourist-friendly Asheville—a city known for its robust art and food scenes, distinctive architecture, and pleasing location in the Southern Appalachian Mountains—was partly built on enslaved labor and, as Barton explains later, redevelopment programs that leveled Black neighborhoods.
Barton, a 53-year-old who spent his earliest years in the city, gives voice to the city’s Black history amid a growing number of brewery hops and guided tours on bikes or a purple comedy bus.
When it comes to the history of Asheville, what you don’t see is as important as what you do. Historically Black areas require intentional and intense interpretation and narration because they often don’t exist anymore—at least not in the way they used to or in the form of physical buildings or historical markers.
“With all these tours, there wasn’t a Black history tour,” says Barton, who lives in the historic African American Burton Street community a few miles from downtown. He’s a serial entrepreneur and also the cofounder of the neighborhood’s peace garden, where colorful sculptures and canvases (many of them Barton’s) stand over plants that yield produce for residents.
Barton’s tours cover Asheville’s downtown and describe life in historically Black neighborhoods like the East End. To take one of his excursions is to reckon with Asheville’s past, present, and future. His wandering talks often last 90 minutes, and they take visitors to his neighborhood and Eagle Street, a once-bustling Black business district that is slowly repopulating with small businesses. It’s an area that Jim Crow built and tore down, but it embodied segregation’s great paradox: Black Americans maneuvered around racist policy and practices to create vivid community life and scores of eateries, barbershops, fraternal lodges, artisans, and liquor houses.
As University of North Carolina-Asheville historian Sarah Judson has written, in some parts of the traditionally Black East End, particularly Valley Street (renamed South Charlotte Street in the early 1980s and home to that slave village to which Barton referred), “the past was erased to such a degree that it only existed in memories, old photographs, and maps.”
That poses a challenge for the public historian: How to depict history that’s out of sight, and how to depict that very invisibility as a historical and eminently political process, not merely the result of time?
It’s an area that Jim Crow built and tore down, but it embodied segregation’s great paradox: Black Americans maneuvered around racist policy and practices to create vivid community life and scores of eateries, barbershops, fraternal lodges, artisans, and liquor houses.
Barton often starts his tours with musings on the policies that made the Asheville you see, the one that attracts almost 11 million visitors to the area, according to 2019 numbers. His hometown, which didn’t pay off Depression-era debt until the late 1970s, has found tourism success by reframing its art deco buildings, traditional crafts such as ceramics, and natural wonders like the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as unique attractions.
He fills out the story with the occasional dramatic monologue: oral histories from community elders and thoughts on recent policy initiatives such as the city’s intention to offer some form of reparations to Black residents.
On a recent tour, Barton led a private walk for a family from Illinois. Before the pandemic, he offered van tours; but for the moment, all tours are on foot.
This iteration started at the community center built on the remains of the beloved Stephens-Lee High School. The school opened in 1923 in the hilly East End as the only Black school in the region; some students were bused from as far as 80 miles away. On that vista from which Barton scanned the skyscape, it was once called “The Castle on the Hill.” It closed in 1965 due to integration and everything but the gym was bulldozed. Hearing of the demolitions, residents ran and collected bricks as keepsakes of an institution that educated almost every Black student who went to high school there for four decades. Its closure and the transition of Black students to integrated schools was, as a National Park Service report called it, “an opportunity gained and a world lost.”
Barton showed pictures of Stephens-Lee faculty and connected the fraught transition to multiracial schools then with the Black student success in Asheville schools now.
As he marched at a quick clip, he pointed out the silvery-brown bricks of a municipal building. That masonry work, he said, was the craftsmanship of James Vester Miller, a gifted construction worker who had been born enslaved; his bricklaying skills graced almost 10 buildings around the city until after World War I.
From there, the tour hoofed it down Eagle Street and passed another Miller building, the YMI (Young Men’s Institute) Cultural Center, which has hosted Black civic groups and gatherings since 1893. A few blocks away, Triangle Park has a long strip of colorful murals representing Black Asheville. And we ducked into the Noir Collective on Market Street, a shop and art gallery featuring Black entrepreneurs’ creative art.
There are few such businesses around the once-thriving Black commercial district, a problem that Barton laments throughout the tour. The district declined after the formal end of segregation and the destruction of numerous nearby Black neighborhoods through “urban renewal”—a series of decades-long city improvement plans, bolstered by federal money. New roads leveled African American areas. Entire neighborhoods were designated slums and demolished, with little regard for displaced Black residents.
“How is it that things aren’t better? How it is that things are worse now?” he asks, with fewer Black businesses in the city than during segregation. For example, Asheville has hundreds of eateries, but only one full-service Black-owned restaurant. And one of the reasons that Barton is a recognizable figure on Asheville streets is his outfit: He’s often wearing a green cape with matching Nikes and glasses, symbolizing his push for sustainable jobs for Black residents.
Stopping in the George Washington Carver Edible Park (one of the nation’s first public “food forests,” where residents can help themselves to the trees’ bounty), Barton paused his monologue and asks how we and the cities in which we live can make meaningful progress toward racial justice—and keep public officials accountable for thinking creatively and implementing equity-focused programs.
One of the tour participants suggests that corporate investment—of time, money, and true care—could rectify disparities in this city where only about 11 percent of the population is Black (and those numbers are dwindling). Another talks about how their hometown of Evanston, Illinois—one of the few cities like Asheville to propose municipal reparations to compensate Black people for historical injustices—just started distributing $25,000 in housing assistance to a small group of Black residents in its first phase.
As Barton wraps up the tour, the chatter about whether policy is the vehicle for justice continued. He gestures to a parking lot full of white city sanitation vehicles, under the shadow of Stephens-Lee and St. Matthias Episcopal Church, probably the city’s oldest Black congregation and dating back to about 1870 during the Reconstruction era.
“It’s called the Trash Mahal,” he quips. But even a nondescript parking lot in Asheville can hold history. The public property was acquired as a result of urban renewal, that process of government-directed dispossession that leveled many of the city’s Black communities. Last fall, the City of Asheville declared a moratorium on sales of property acquired through such processes.
It remains to be seen what will happen to such properties or the reparations process itself, an effort that has received City Council support but no funding to date. Key downtown streets still bear the names of slaveowners, a fact that went largely unremarked until activists pushed for name changes. And, as of March 23, Asheville announced plans to remove a granite obelisk memorializing former Confederate soldier and onetime governor Zebulon Vance.
“I see the policies, and I appreciate them,” says Barton, who is also a member of the city’s African American Heritage Commission. But he’s admittedly skeptical, noting that Black historical sites need amplification. Black entrepreneurs need capital. Black residents need affordable housing in a rapidly gentrifying city, and Black communities need a bigger say in development.
“We create a lot of policies. We’re doing a lot of talking, but I don’t see the resources to make a lot of this stuff real. We’ve got to organize ourselves and hold each other accountable for making the hustle happen for real.”
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