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.