When Olivia Gibson Metz graduated from N.C. Central University in 1972, she didn’t intend to return to Asheville. However, her mother, Louise Gibson, was struggling with health issues and her father, George Gibson, and her siblings needed help with caretaking. So Metz came back to the Kenilworth neighborhood where she grew up.
She’s remained there ever since, building a life for herself and starting a family with her husband, Richard Metz. Though she’s thought about moving to another city many times, she’s happy with the decisions she’s made.
“I think back on that and wonder what would have been, but I don’t think I’ve missed anything,” Metz says. “I’m where I’m supposed to be. I’m taken care of here and looked after by God. People should do what they can in their own community. Together, we can climb mountains and make things better.”
Central to Metz’s positive attitude is her commitment to service as a lifelong member of St. John “A” Baptist Church and her involvement with the South Asheville Cemetery Association, which maintains the burial ground adjacent to the church. Metz’s father inspired her to aid in the cemetery’s preservation and the two were instrumental in having both church and cemetery added to the National Register of Historic Places in November 2021. The recognition is mostly honorific but increases the chances of receiving certain kinds of preservation or restoration grants and, more importantly, serves as an acknowledgement of both institutions’ importance to local and national history.
Xpress spoke with Metz about growing up in Asheville, why preserving historic sites is important and how she’s seen the city change in unforeseen ways.
This interview has been condensed for length and edited for clarity.
What are some of your favorite memories from growing up in Asheville in the 1950s and ’60s?
Kenilworth Park used to be a wooded area with the middle cleaned out where kids would go. We called it “The Flat,” and we’d play ball and games there. Across the street was St. Mark [A.M.E.] Church, and it had a cemented little pool where you couldn’t do much but sit and put your feet in the water. … It was a good life. We’d walk to a stream behind our house and play with tadpoles. I wish my grandkids had that freedom to just get out and play.
What are some notable changes you’ve seen in Asheville during your lifetime?
Closing up Black schools ruined neighborhoods and communities. And urban renewal desecrated property that people did have. It might not have been a lot, but to be moved out with nothing was terrible. There’s nothing to look back at or be connected to. And now, the people not wanting [critical race theory] taught in schools is taking it further down the road to destruction. It’s a Pandora’s box of confusion. The community has fallen apart, but it’s more in the governmental arena — county, city and up. Decisions have been made that haven’t been good for the city.
On the flip side, Ken Michalove [1989-93] and Terry Bellamy [2005-13] are some of the best mayors we’ve had. But political parties have tied our hands. It’s a constant battle. Life isn’t Democrats and Republicans — it’s humankind. We should support, take care and provide for everyone, not just the “haves.” We’ve lost sight of that.
How did you start helping out at the cemetery?
When I was learning to drive, I was trusted to drive my dad from the house to the church and back home. There were days when my heart would melt — I’d look back and see him weeding, whacking away, pulling bushes and I’d go back and help him. That was before I went to college, and it was still going on when I came back and I got pulled into it more. Working there has been a lifelong side job for me.
What was involved in getting the cemetery and church added to the National Register of Historic Places?
There was an application process, but with COVID, the process got slowed down. It took about three or four years total, but we hired a consultant to do the paperwork. Clay Griffith [owner of Asheville-based ACME Preservation Services] did extensive background on the church, down to the different wood and trimming in the church that date it. And he collected a lot of pictures and interviews. It was a process!
What’s the significance of the National Register of Historic Places recognition?
It’s important for the preservation of the church and cemetery. Nobody knew [the cemetery] was there for years. It was just left there until my dad started cleaning it. Mr. [George] Taylor [who passed away in 2016] helped, too, but it was overgrown. It’s consecrated, holy ground, so it’s important to maintain. People who had nothing are buried there — slaves, children, people who died in the Depression. They had nowhere else to be buried. Now we’re using it as a public platform to speak to our community and others to encourage people to clean and maintain older cemeteries. There’s so much history there.
How can we better care for historic properties?
Public perception needs to change. Anytime property is transferred, especially in the mountains, there should be requirement to tell if there’s burial sites there. Both buyer and seller should be aware. It’s an obligation that shouldn’t be taken lightly. … For every cemetery — especially abandoned ones, but also any new ones — there should be a law to plan for the future and put something in place for its ongoing maintenance. You don’t want to lose the history. Families find families through cemeteries, and that connectivity keeps the world going. We need to be more educated and more connected.
How else do you spend your time these days?
I’m working part time now for the pharmacy at Givens Estates [a retirement community], encouraging and supporting people. I have a wonderful time there with the residents and employees. It’s an over-the-counter shop and is good for people there because they don’t drive anymore and it’s hard for some to get on the bus and go shopping. It gives them a sense of responsibility. People just need a hug some days — me, too. And it’s great hearing the stories. There are some well-traveled, interesting people there. I love it!