Community Heritage Festival celebrates an African American neighborhood

HOMECOMING: “We always wanted to keep this neighborhood with that same feeling: that we’re family-oriented and that we’re welcoming,” says Reneé White, one of the organizers of the East End/Valley Street Community Heritage Festival. The three-day gathering includes music, dance, drumming, kids activities, arts and crafts — and a chance for residents to connect with local African American history. Photo courtesy of the East End/Valley Street Neighborhood Association

The best parts of last year’s East End/Valley Street Community Heritage Festival were “the camaraderie and the unity that we were able to exemplify,” says organizer Reneé White, who also serves as president of the East End/Valley Street Neighborhood Association. “We had old and new residents coming together, able to talk about the neighborhood — the things that happened in the past and the things that are new.” The festival returns Friday-Sunday, Aug. 23-25, at Martin Luther King Jr. Park.

The three-day fête includes a parade, car show, drummers, dancing, food vendors, arts and crafts, an expanded children’s area, worship service and more. Among the roster of musical acts are the Otesha Creative Arts Ensemble Experience, Uptown Swagga Band and local groups West Sound and Free Flow Band.

The East End/Valley Street Community Heritage Festival celebrates one of Asheville’s historically black neighborhoods — one that included such points of pride as the Stephens-Lee High School and the black business district known as The Block.

Much of the neighborhood is radically changed from its early iteration, as urban renewal projects in the 1960s and ’70s brought the demolition of many homes, the loss of African American-owned enterprises and the displacement of residents. South Charlotte Street cut a wide swath through the community, physically rending it. But, says White, “East End is rising. History in this neighborhood is huge.” White, who was raised in the neighborhood, notes among its historic landmarks the Lucy S. Herring Elementary School (named for the former supervisor of instruction for Asheville and Buncombe Negro Schools) and the Allen School (a private institution for African American girls).

“We always wanted to keep this neighborhood with that same feeling: that we’re family-oriented and that we’re welcoming,” White says. “We’d like to see black-owned businesses come back in. … We’re looking at what we can do to get affordable housing in our neighborhood, what we can do to have nice green spaces, nice parks. … We’re looking at being able to utilize Martin Luther King Jr. Park. There’s never [before] been anything festive for the neighborhood.”

The East End/Valley Street Community Heritage Festival offers a celebration specific to that section of town and its past and present inhabitants. Organizers will recognize the oldest living residents of the neighborhood — one is a nonagenarian — and Aggie Jean Jackson, author of two books set in Asheville’s East End, will be on hand to discuss and sign copies of her works.

And, because there’s no central place for the documentation of Asheville’s African American history (archives can be found at the YMI Cultural Center and the Stephens-Lee Recreation Center as well as UNC Asheville and the North Carolina Collection at Pack Library), the festival serves as a center for networking — sharing information about the past as well as connecting current business owners and and community organizers.

White is quick to point out that everyone from the Asheville area is invited. “It’s a family time, it’s a fun time,” she says. “There’s no alcohol. Bring the kids, [they] can listen to history.”

Another success from last year’s event, says White, was “so many people loved the neighborhood so much, they traveled to Asheville if they [no longer] live here. They felt like they were coming home.” Among those making the trek for the reunion is saxophonist Stanley Baird, whose eponymous smooth jazz and R&B group will perform onstage again this year. Baird launched his musical career in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where his sound was infused with West Indian and Latin flavors. He was a band instructor in the North Carolina public school system for 35 years, according to his website, but Baird’s roots are in Asheville’s East End neighborhood.

“It’s a chance to get some business involved, the residents involved, Ashevilleans involved. It brings all of us together,” says White. And at the end of the day, she adds, the festival is about fun: “It’s just a chance not to be serious — to eat cotton candy and snowballs.”

WHAT: End/Valley Street Community Heritage Festival, avl.mx/6d2
WHERE: Martin Luther King Jr. Park, 50 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive
WHEN: Friday, Aug. 23, 6-9 p.m.; Saturday, Aug. 24, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sunday, Aug. 25, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Free

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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