Asheville Archives: 3 local historians speak of 2021’s historical achievements

ONE FOR THE BOOKS: Local historians, scholars and archivists discuss 2021 highlights from local history projects, as well as present-day events that are historical in nature. Featured, from left, are Crystal Cauley, Ellen Pearson Holmes and Heather South. Photos courtesy of Cauley, Pearson Holmes and South

As the year nears its end, Xpress reached out to three local historians to discuss historical moments from 2021, as well as highlights from this year’s local history-focused initiatives and projects. Featured are Crystal Cauley, business owner and founder of Black History Collective of Hendersonville County, NC; Ellen Pearson Holmes, Roy Carroll Professor of Arts & Sciences and professor of history at UNC Asheville; and Heather South, lead archivist at Western Regional Archives.

What 2021 local event or community decision will make its way into future history books?

Cauley:  At the first Hendersonville City Council meeting this year, Joseph Knight, CEO of Hands On! Children’s Museum made a proposal for a new museum, The People’s Museum. Knight received unanimous support and $120,000 fund agreement to help with this expansion of a space that will celebrate diversity in Henderson County. The People’s Museum will highlight the African American experience with topics concerning slavery, religion, education, Black-owned businesses and true stories regarding The Kingdom of the Happy Land. The space will also have original artwork by myself and Diamond Cash.

Pearson Holmes: Mine is a tie between Asheville City Council’s vote to remove the Vance Monument (and its subsequent removal) and the City Council’s appropriation of $2.1 million for community reparations to address the historical discrimination, oppression and denial of liberties to Black residents of Asheville. Either way, it’s the Asheville City Council for the win!

South:  The addition of Pisgah View State Park is definitely one for the history books.  The mountains and our wild and wonderful natural areas are such a draw. Adding a new state park in the region is going to help land conservation, preserve nature and allow more hiking, nature watching and fun.

Outside of your own work, what 2021 local history project stands out to you the most and why? 

Cauley: This year the African American Neighborhood Project group came together to discuss how to preserve African American history, especially as it relates to former historic neighborhoods in Hendersonville that were removed during urban renewal. Brooklyn, for example, was once a predominantly African American community that was renamed in 1972 to the present-day Green Meadows community. Meanwhile, Black Bottom, previously located behind today’s Chamber of Commerce, was once an area filled with homes until businesses were built and former homeowners were shifted to federal public housing projects. The other historic neighborhoods are West End and Peacock Town, which were not impacted by urban renewal. Upcoming projects include the installation of historical markers, as well as an interactive app showing landmarks of former Black businesses and communities.

Pearson Holmes: For me it’s got to be Andrea Clark’s James Vester Miller Historic Walking Trail, which offers a walking tour of the buildings that her grandfather designed and built. Mr. Miller was a formerly enslaved man who became a master brick mason. He designed and built landmarks such as St. Matthias Episcopal and Mount Zion Missionary Baptist churches and the old Asheville post office, which was built around 1892 and demolished in 1932. Ms. Clark’s beautifully constructed trail uncovers a compelling story about Mr. Miller’s career during the Jim Crow years and his important contributions to Asheville’s architectural history.

South: Many historic sites and museums made new strides in 2021 to shine a light on stories and people that haven’t been given the attention they deserve.  A great example of this is the Vance Birthplace State Historic Site’s True Inclusion Initiative [an online campaign using the hashtag #TrueInclusion].  The site’s thoughtful research and Juneteenth installation is not only bringing awareness — they are changing the cultural conversation surrounding enslaved individuals and their lives here in Western North Carolina.

What is one project that you worked on this year that you’re particularly proud of as it relates to local history?

Cauley: I am most proud of is the monthlong events I organized celebrating Juneteenth. I had two public displays at the Henderson County Public Library and Hola Cultural Center. I advocated for a Juneteenth proclamation that was approved by city Mayor Barbara Volk. There was an invitation to speak to youths of different ages at the Boys and Girls Club of Henderson County about Juneteenth’s history, official flag, our local proclamation and the fact that President Joe Biden recognized Juneteenth as a federal holiday, which is awesome! The events featured dance performances by Carolina Diva Diamonds, spoken-word poetry by Tony Robles, a musical performance by singer Jewel Ward and African drumming. What stands out to me the most, however, is the spoken word poem “Ashes to Ashes” that I wrote and performed. It pays homage to the countless African Americans who were enslaved in Henderson County. The poem also included a dance interpretation performed by Indian Jackson.

Pearson Holmes: My proudest moment during 2021 was watching Mr. George Gibson, founder of the South Asheville Cemetery Association, receive the Historic Resources Commission’s Historic Resources Champion Award. The award was actually presented to both Mr. Gibson and posthumously to the family of Mr. George Taylor. “The Georges” devoted decades to preserving the South Asheville Cemetery, a historic African American cemetery in the Kenilworth neighborhood. The cemetery and St. John “A” Baptist church was also named to the National Register of Historic Places in 2021. I am proud to chair the South Asheville Cemetery Association and to benefit from Mr. Gibson’s mentorship.

South: My role has been small, but I’m really proud of helping with the River Front Development Group on the Asheville African American Heritage Trail project, expected to be completed in 2022.  The wayfinding signage and markers will bring light to the underrecognized contributions of Asheville’s Black community.  My hope is that this connection of people, place and past will continue to expand and be here for generations to come.


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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

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