Multimedia: African-Americans in WNC conference discusses overlooked history

Professors Darin Waters and Sarah Judson of UNCA at the African-Americans in WNC conference. Photo by Carrie Eidson

UNC Asheville and the YMI Cultural Center hosted the inaugural African-Americans in Western North Carolina conference on Thursday-Friday, Oct.23-24. The event, designed to discuss an overlooked historical narrative, included speeches by Asheville civil rights leaders and scholars from UNCA and other regional universities.

“The things we hoped to accomplish with this conference include furthering the work to dismantle the longstanding myth that there was no African-American presence in this region,” said the event’s principle organizer and UNCA professor Darin Waters. “Also, we wanted to provide educators with a way to integrate this work into the larger narrative of the region, the state and the nation…. And the third was to demonstrate to a largely neglected group of our population that one of the leading institutes of higher education in this region, which UNCA is, takes their presence, their history and their contributions to this region very seriously.”

The event’s keynote was delivered by James Ferguson, a civil rights activist and founding member of the Asheville Student Committee on Racial Equality, and included recognition of Asheville resident and centenarian Julia Ray.

Early panels at the conference focused on slavery and emancipation in WNC with lectures presented by regional scholars John Inscoe of The University of Georgia, Steven Nash of East Tennessee State University and LaGarrett King of Clemson University.

Waters and Sarah Judson, both professors at UNCA, and photographer Andrea Clark spoke at the afternoon panel, which focused on segregation and civil rights.

Waters presented a paper focusing on the founding and early history of the YMI Cultural Center, including a discussion of the what he called “the myths” and mistaken oral tradition that “George Vanderbilt built the YMI for the workers on his estate… [when] this was the idea of the African-American community themselves to resist the marginalization that was taking place at this time.”

Judson’s presentation focused on a tenant strike that occurred at Hillcrest Apartments in 1967-1968 and its effect on two other public housing sites, Pisgah View Apartments and Lee Walker Heights. The strike “yields important insight into the challenges of the black freedom struggle outside the larger cities of the United States,” Judson said.

Excerpts from Sarah Judson’s discussion of tenant strikes in the late 1960s. Listen to the full audio of her presentation here.

Clark shared photos she took in Asheville’s East End neighborhood in the 1960s and ’70s. Clark’s photographs have been previously compiled in the Twilight of a Neighborhood project, sponsored by the N.C. Humanities Council, which documented the East End neighborhood before and after urban renewal.

Waters told the audience that he hopes the conference will encourage more students at UNCA and more members of the WNC community to interact with the ideas and information discussed at the conference, and the history of their communities.

“Turn your televisions off,” Waters said. “Read these books that these historians are writing …find a way to incorporate this information into your life.”


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

About Carrie Eidson
Multimedia journalist and Green Scene editor at Mountain Xpress. Part-time Twitterer @mxenv but also reachable at Follow me @carrieeidson

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

One thought on “Multimedia: African-Americans in WNC conference discusses overlooked history

  1. MG Massey

    bout time.. “till you do right by me nothing will go right for you” Celie to Mister in The Color Purple. Till ASheville does right by ALL it’s residents and former residents (The Cherokee) THis town will be plagued by the rich and their woes.
    I have never stopped being disgusted by the racism in this town.Subtle , endemic and entrenched
    , it is the cancer that will kill this town.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.