Andrea Clark honors James Vester Miller’s contributions to Asheville

Andrea Clark outside Varick Chapel
FIRM FOUNDATION: Andrea Clark stands outside Varick Chapel AME Zion Church, one of many Asheville structures built by her grandfather, James Vester Miller. Photo by Will Hornaday

Entrepreneur. Philanthropist. Patriarch. Former slave.

James Vester Miller was all of these and more, yet the master brickmason responsible for numerous buildings that defined the look of Asheville in the late 19th and early 20th centuries remains far from a household name.

In an effort to recognize this extraordinary person, Miller’s granddaughter, Andrea Clark, established the James Vester Miller Historic Walking Trail, which officially launches Saturday, June 19, at 1 p.m., at the former Young Men’s Institute Pharmacy on the corner of Eagle and South Market streets.

Family history

A native of Cambridge, Mass., Clark moved to Asheville in the 1960s to connect with her father’s family, who praised the many great deeds of “Pa” Miller. Clark lived with and cared for her 96-year-old cousin, and on Sundays the two would go out to eat and drive around, during which the cousin would point to various buildings and say, “Pa built this,” and “Pa built that.”

At the same time, Clark, who studied photography while in Massachusetts, documented everyday life in the Valley Street neighborhood where she lived, carrying on the tradition of the 1930s Dust Bowl snapshots by Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. While walking the surrounding East End neighborhood and other parts of Asheville, Clark noticed how buildings and other markers often honored white historical figures but omitted the contributions of Black residents.

“You’ve got Thomas Wolfe, Thomas Wolfe, Thomas Wolfe. But you don’t have any statues of James Vester Miller,” Clark says. “They should have taken [the Vance Monument] and put him on that obelisk. He may have built it anyway.”

Clark explains that Miller collaborated with the structure’s architect, Richard Sharp Smith, on a regular basis; among other projects, the two constructed the YMI and the Asheville Masonic Temple. The Miller & Sons company went on to win many contracts in the white-dominated construction industry, including the Asheville Municipal Building at 100 Court Plaza, which originally housed the city’s police, fire and health departments, and the city jail. Clark eventually got a plaque honoring Miller installed on that building, and with so much of her grandfather’s work within a few blocks, she began thinking about setting up a walking trail with informational printed maps.

True history

Clark got a grant to cover the project’s costs from local giving circle CoThinkk, which invests in the area’s communities of color. She then recruited Anne Callison Stokely from the Wilma Dykeman Legacy to write and edit the text, John Warner to handle photographs and 828:design for the layout. Printing was donated by The Daniels Group.

At the June 19 kickoff, Clark will speak about the endeavor at the YMI, then head to the first structure on the map, St. Matthias Episcopal Church at 1 Dundee St. The church and several other buildings on the nine-stop tour will be open to the public through 4 p.m., part of the robust slate of local activities taking place on the Juneteenth holiday.

The maps also include information on Miller’s plentiful other projects that aren’t on the walking trail. Among them are the old Asheville post office, which was demolished in 1932 when the city’s growth required a larger building and replaced by Pritchard Park; the 1917 front building addition to Haywood Street Church, which now features a fresco depicting Miller and his tools; and the Violet Hill Cemetery in the Emma community of West Asheville, which he was instrumental in founding and where he and other distinguished local Black figures are buried. Emma, where Miller built a 15-room house and raised six children with his wife, Violet, is also home to numerous other residences that he constructed, including several along Brickyard Road.

Eighty-one years after his death, Miller’s granddaughter is working on placing the maps around town, in locations such as the Chamber of Commerce and the LaZoom Room, and doing her part to preserve his legacy.

“Hopefully the history can be told and be told straight,” Clark says. “Somebody said white folks like to have some kind of a written thing. And [with] Black folks, it’s the [spoken] word — we send our history down through the word. But a lot of times, the written statement’s not true.”

As the map notes, “family stories and local tradition” credit Miller “with many buildings for which there is little documentation,” and the complete number of projects in which he or his company were involved will likely never be known. But with Clark’s combination of written and oral historical traditions, Ashevilleans of all backgrounds can gain a greater understanding of Miller’s achievements and an appreciation for one of the city’s lesser-known heroes.

For more information and to download a map, visit avl.mx/9gl.

SHARE

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 Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for ashevillemovies.com and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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.

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.