The idea for Hood Tours — a guided walk or drive through both contemporary and historic black Asheville — came out of a conversation DeWayne Barton had with his mother. The tour guide and Hood Huggers International founder had asked his mom to share some local history. As the conversation about Asheville’s African-American neighborhoods, businesses and initiatives unfolded, she grew sadder and sadder with the realization that so many of those landmarks and stories have been lost to time and the changing face of the city. During February, in honor of Black History Month, the tour — which grew out of that discussion — will be provided for free to residents of the historically African-American neighborhoods it visits.
“We try to tell the history, what’s going on right now and what the future plans are,” Barton says. “Asheville is bigger now than it was in the 1920s. How can we be growing this much and still forget about these small pockets of the African-American community?”
The tour begins at the Stephens-Lee Recreation Center, the building that used to be the gymnasium of the former Stephens-Lee High School, the only high school in Western North Carolina for African-Americans at the time of its construction in 1922. Barton refers to the school — razed in 1975 following integration of the education system — as “The Castle on the Hill,” a powerful platform for the African-American community. But though its alumni included community leaders such as Oralene Simmons, county Commissioner Al Whitesides, musician Clifford Cotton and civil rights lawyer James Ferguson, nearly all of the awards and accolades garnered by the student body were destroyed when the school was torn down. Similar examples of destruction to features of the black community are noted throughout the tour.
“How can we reinvest in these areas?” Barton asks, and he’s not speaking rhetorically. He would personally love to see the McDowell Avenue property once known as Rabbit’s Motel — a soul food restaurant and social hub — owned and operated again by members of the local African-American community. Barton, a spoken word artist, author and artist himself, also points to the auditorium of the Arthur R. Edington Education & Career Center as a space that, with refurbishment, would provide a platform for the community to hold performances and stage theatrical productions. “How do we contribute to the growth of the city and tie into the growth in a way that can build back these historic African-American neighborhoods?” It’s worth noting that, while U.S. Census Bureau statistics reveal a substantial population increase among most racial groups in Buncombe County, the growth of its black citizenry — just 6.6 percent of the county’s overall populace — lags behind.
The tour does offer hope: The bustling Edington Center houses community-based development organization Green Opportunities (which Barton co-founded), the GO Build workshop, the Southside Kitchen and the Southside Community Garden. Barton shares his own poetry with those on the Hood Tours van; he also features, at an Edington Center stop, HomeWord Youth Slam Team member Devin Jones, who has performed his poetry at the Brave New Voices festival in Washington, D.C.
“We want to focus on arts, the environment and social enterprise,” Barton says of the tour, which boasts the tagline “Art Driving Social Change.”
“The arts play a powerful role in engaging people and [are] a therapy tool. … The environment, because we’re going to have to reconstruct how we do things, buildings, behaviors,” says Barton. “What are the historical things that have happened in and around the environment, what’s going on now and what are the trends in the future?”
Looking at nature-based solutions, Hood Tours include a visit to the Carver Edible Park — named for George Washington Carver — built in 1997 on what was essentially a trash pile in the East End community. It’s currently managed by Bountiful Cities Project with help from the Buncombe Fruit and Nut Club. There are also stops at a community orchard planted at Hillcrest Apartments — a neighborhood especially cut off from the rest of Asheville due to the routing of Interstate 26 — and the Pisgah View Peace Garden, which provides produce to that public housing community. Pisgah View Apartments is considered to be within a “food desert” (an urban area where it’s difficult to buy quality or affordable fresh food), according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Near the Livingston and Erskine-Walton community, on Asheville’s Southside, Barton points to Green’s Convenient Store. The shop was opened by a graduate of Stephens-Lee High School who, despite his education and service in the U.S. armed forces, could not find employment in his hometown. His entrepreneurial spirit helped to feed a community that once boasted 14 grocery stores, according to Barton. Now it, too — though just a stone’s throw from both downtown Asheville and the River Arts District — is a food desert.
Gardens help address that situation. And in poor areas, especially those with histories of violence, “There should be a green space, a space of beauty where we can go and process information. A healing place where we can get a fresh carrot,” says Barton. He created the Burton Street Community Peace Gardens, an open-air art and agricultural plot, with that idea in mind.
Though much of Asheville’s historic African-American neighborhoods and landmarks were lost to urban renewal — city planning initiatives that demolished swaths of buildings deemed “blighted” rather than investing in refurbishment — Barton endeavors to prevent such patterns from repeating. “In the Burton Street community, when they tore down the Blue Note Casino that was built by E.W. Pearson, who did remarkable work in the city, it put more fire under me,” he says. “We need to protect these spaces and highlight these spaces.”
Hood Tours make a stop at Triangle Park on The Block, once the African-American business center. The wedge of property sits across from a lot that recently sold to hotel developers; the city of Asheville leases the park from its private owner and is currently in talks to renew that lease. The park’s boundaries are marked with a mural created by Molly Must in collaboration with community organization Just Folks. Each panel shows an important moment in Asheville’s African-American history, from work crews formed of formerly enslaved people, to the arrival of education advocate Isaac Dickson, to the nightclubs that once hosted soul and R&B artists such as The Commodores and The Bar-Kays.
It’s a good place for Barton to pose a number of questions. “How do you create networks of connection and support?” he asks — something a tour attendee can’t help but begin to ponder. Hood Tours reveal that the diminishing presence of black Asheville and that community’s narrative in this city’s story is a devastating loss to the local community as a whole. “If we don’t know the history of what was done before, how are we going to correct that future and do it a way that will value community and place?”
Barton’s hope — even as his tour reveals disparity and deficit — remains infectious. “I see so much potential, so much opportunity,” he says.
Driving tours run most Thursdays at 1 p.m. and Saturdays at noon, or by appointment for groups of up to nine, $25 per person. Walking tours of the Burton Street community, downtown and Shiloh are available for groups of five-25, $20 per person. Info and reservations at hoodhuggers.com