Asheville Archives: Imaginary melee at the Biltmore Estate makes front-page news, 1891

REFUTED: On Sept. 14, 1891, the Asheville Daily Citizen falsely reported that roughly 600 Black workers nearly broke out into a riot at the Biltmore Estate. Subsequent letters to the editor refuted the paper's unfounded claims. Xpress was unable to locate an image of the estate’s Black workers from this time period. Shown here is a group of Biltmore House stonecutters. Photo courtesy of Buncombe County Special Collections, Asheville

In 1891, workers at the Biltmore Estate were in the midst of laying the foundation of the South Terrace. That same year, the Asheville Daily Citizen ran a short piece based on an unverified tip, promoting a popular racist trope: white men protecting communities against violent Black males.

Featured on the front page of its Sept. 14 edition, the paper asserted 500-600 of the estate’s Black employees had arrived intoxicated at the property to receive their weekly pay. Cursing and fighting soon commenced, the article claimed. “[A] riot was for a time probable,” the paper declared, “avoided only by the coolness of two white men.”

The story elicited a series of letters to the editor refuting the Daily Citizen‘s claims, including a detailed account of the day’s events by Charles McNamee, the estate’s first manager and George Vanderbilt’s attorney.

McNamee began by correcting the paper’s figures, noting that the estate employed roughly 300 Black workers. In addition, employees were paid on an alternating schedule to avoid an overwhelming number of workers arriving on a single day. “Last Saturday, when it is stated that a riot was imminent, there were 228 men in all on the roll for payment,” McNamee continued. “A large number of these 228 were white men.”

Not denying the presence of alcohol, McNamee wrote, “It is a fact that liquor is in some way procured at Biltmore, and there is consequently, at times, some intoxication, among both the white and the colored men.”

Furthermore, McNamee acknowledged, “There is doubtless more or less cursing [among workers], though I do not remember that it has ever been so loud or deep as to attract any attention.”

The estate’s manager concluded his letter by “emphatically denying practically everything that the informant of THE CITIZEN stated[.]”

In response, the paper briefly noted the information it had received “was perfectly sincere,” and thus “THE CITIZEN printed it in good faith as a matter of news.”

Five additional citizens signed their names to letters denying the paper’s account.

Racial tension and violence marked subsequent headlines throughout the 1890s and its surrounding years. Less than two weeks after the false report of a riot, Hezekiah Rankin, a local African American brakeman, was lynched — one of three reported lynchings to occur in Buncombe County from 1889-97. (For more, see “Asheville Archives: ‘A growing evil,’” May 15, 2018, Xpress)

Asheville’s subsequent decade began with a July 30, 1900, white supremacy march on the city’s downtown streets. The event took place three days before North Carolina’s eligible male voters approved an amendment to the state constitution that actively sought to disenfranchise Black voters.

“The amendment has been ratified, and the government of state and county has been committed to the party which stands for white supremacy, by overwhelming majorities,” the Asheville Daily Citizen wrote on Aug. 2, 1900. “And it is hoped that the lesson of this result will not be lost on those partisans and theorists, here and elsewhere, who have thought it possible for the white men of their country to yield any considerable share in their government to an alien and inferior race.” (For more, see “Asheville Archives: ‘White supremacy made permanent,’ 1900,” Feb. 6, 2018, Xpress)

Editor’s note: Peculiarities of spelling and punctuation are preserved from original documents.


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 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.

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.

5 thoughts on “Asheville Archives: Imaginary melee at the Biltmore Estate makes front-page news, 1891

  1. Voirdire

    I think the Biltmore House needs to be dismantled block by block vis-a-vis the Vance Monument. Obviously a cover-up by/on their uber privileged end of things. Leave no stone unturned you know. That, or it needs to be turned into a low-income housing venue… now that would make a statement our more progressively minded Ashevilians could proudly and loudly tout in regard to the whole who goes first and biggest in the reparations drama. I’m down for it ;) Oh, and thank you for this brief article… it is important that we’re reminded of these awful things… injustices.

    • Taxpayer

      The Biltmore Estate is privately owned. Why don’t you buy it and you can do with it as you please. It shouldn’t be more than a couple hundred mil.

      • Voirdire

        No, really…. it’s privately owned? You don’t say. Those Vanderbilts… they don’t know quit, do they? Who knew? Lol…

  2. bsummers

    Disenfranchise Black voters? Unthinkable. Thank goodness nothing like that could happen today.

  3. Alex Netherton

    It isn’t the Vanderbilts who know not when to quit. They donated The Breakers a long time ago, and now it is run for the benefit of the public and run by a non-profit. Biltmore Estate is owned by the Cecils, who are descended from William Cecil, the advisor to Queen Elizabeth I.
    I knew a fellow who said that the only way that George Vanderbilt could make Cornelia a lady was marry her to a Lord. Said Lord’s sond and progeny run it now, and the Vanderbilts have little to nothing to do with it.

    This is just another Gilded Age mansion, paid for and constructed with the sweat and sometimes blood of poor people. The Vanderbilts had the decency to donate The Breakers (or did it just cost too much to operate?) to the American People, but the Cecils are not going to do that, as the Estate is such a big money machine.

Leave a Reply to bsummers ×

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.