Protecting Asheville's Rapidly Disappearing Black History

Feb 6, 2017

NPR will be in Asheville on Tuesday February 7th for the latest 'Going There' event.  Weekend All Things Considered host Michel Martin will lead a night of performances and discussion on the topic 'What Happens When Your Hometown Gets Hot?' at the Diana Wortham Theater.  Tickets for the event have sold out but there will be a live stream that night to watch.  You can also join the conversation on Twitter by following @NPRMichel and @WCQS using the hashtag #HotHometown.  In the week before the event, the WCQS news team will feature stories on issues facing Asheville because of its increasing popularity.

Asheville’s rise as a tourist destination has changed the face of the city.  The real estate website Realtor.com ranked Asheville as the second most gentrified city in the U.S.  Gentrification is something deeply rooted in the city’s history.  And nowhere has this been felt more than in Asheville’s African-American community.

Buxton Hall Barbecue is a perfect example of a place that makes Asheville such a popular destination.  “Typically it’s whole hog, cooked over wood with coals.  And it’s a vinegar pepper kind of mop", says owner and chef Elliot Moss.  “It’s not your typical red sauce.  I think a lot of people think of barbecue sauce as a tomato product.  This is mostly vinegar and chiles.”

The acclaim for Buxton Hall goes far and wide.  It’s been written up by many national outlets, including Bon Appetit magazine, which called it one of the 10 best new restaurants of 2016, while also crowning Buxton Hall’s fried chicken sandwich the best such sandwich in the U.S.  “The thought behind that sandwich was to give the barbecue a little competition", Moss says.  "We can only cook so much barbecue at a time.  This a big old restaurant, and we can’t be running out of food.”

Moss wanted to feature the ‘hall’ part of Buxton Hall when he opened, maximizing the airy and open feeling of the building on Banks Avenue.  “We looked at it and tried not to do too much with it.  We wanted it to look like we just fell inside of it.  We didn’t want to touch too much of the original stuff because it’s so beautiful.”

The history of this building is unclear - though not for lack of trying on Moss’s part, who has poured over city records trying to discover more.  “We had heard that this was an African-American skating rink.  And the Orange Peel was the whites only skating rink.  I’ve never been able to document that, that’s just what I’ve always heard.”  The Orange Peel is now one of the top live music venues in the U.S.  Records show the Buxton Hall building first opened as the ‘Asheville Skating Club’ in 1936.  That was an Olympic year, and murals on the wall opposite the kitchen painted in black feature icons of both winter and summer sports.  “There could be some truth behind that that this was inspired by the Olympics”, Moss muses.

Asheville’s South Slope where Buxton Hall is located was an African-American neighborhood in the last century, so the likelihood this was once a segregated skating is rink is strong.  The South Slope today is awash in hip restaurants and craft breweries popular with city residents and out-of-towners alike.  That’s a far cry from the days when it was known as the Victoria neighborhood.  Dr. Darin Waters is a history professor at UNC-Asheville.  He’s African-American and grew up in the city.  Waters says blacks have been here since Asheville was founded - first as slaves, and then forming their own communities following the Civil War.  “It was quite the vibrant community.  Especially the area known as ‘The Block’, which is the east end community.  The Eagle & Market Street area”, Dr. Waters says.  

A big reason why that area was so important to African-Americans is the Young Men’s Institute, or YMI. “It was a part of what was known in the late 19th and early 20th century as ‘racial uplift ideology.’  The idea was to train young men to be leaders of their homes and their communities.”

The YMI operates today as one of the oldest African-American institutions in the U.S.  But the area around it has gentrified, something Dr. Waters says isn’t surprising.  “Thomas Wolfe was talking about this in 1921, with his play ‘Welcome To Our City’.  He talks about that east end community, and the efforts of community leaders to get their hands on that property.  It’s a big theme of that play.  It’s almost as if he was projecting what was going to happen later.”

For most of the 20th century, Asheville’s African-American population hovered around 12% according to Waters.  Now, it’s half that.  Waters says most of the migration has been to rural parts of Buncombe County, which he says raises something he feels is often misunderstood - the experience of rural African-Americans.  “After Emancipation, when so many African-Americans moved into cities…we tend to know much more about the city or urban experiences of African-Americans then we do the rural existence.”

Dewayne Barton has a term for this - 'Afrolachia'.  “When we say ‘Afrolachia’, a lot of times these are invisible people.  And a lot of times they’re just ignored.”  Barton founded Hood Huggers International, which he operates out the Burton Street area, an historically African-American community in West Asheville.  The name Hood Huggers comes from tree huggers Barton says, because it’s what he’s trying to do - protect the remaining African-American neighborhoods in Asheville from being washed away by new development and gentrification.  He gives tours of those areas in a colorful bus.  “If you take away four businesses and five homes, how are you going to build ten businesses and ten homes?”

The speed of gentrification can be blinding, and Barton witnessed this in his own work.  He was born here, but left the Burton Street community returning in 2001, when he began to create the ‘peace garden.’  “There was just so much drugs.  It was crazy.  So much trash, so much drugs.  It was a dark place.  People didn’t feel safe.  I didn’t feel safe, and I grew up in DC.  14th Street Southeast.”  The peace garden is full of art made from garbage they picked up over the last 15 years.  Barton wanted it to become a safe and stabilizing space in the middle of the neighborhood.  “And it worked.  It worked.  But when it worked, they started building $400-thousand homes in the neighborhood.”

But Barton is mostly hopeful for the future, in part because of Asheville’s growing popularity.  “If we’re that popular, that means we have to be the ones who are the example for the rest of the country.  We are the ones who responsible to figure out who do you not move your most vulnerable communities out.”

With its national profile on the rise, whatever comes next in Asheville will be some kind of example.  Either a new path, a continuation of the present trend, or somewhere in between.