Old buildings are more than creaky floors and rattling window panes: They also contain the histories, memories and culture of the people who they once held.
That rings true for the Young Men’s Institute Cultural Center, which celebrated its 129th birthday Feb. 12. The building, located at 39 S. Market St. in Asheville’s downtown, was constructed in 1893 for the city’s African American community. Today, the YMI holds events and art exhibits throughout the year, including the annual Goombay festival celebrating African-Caribbean culture.
Tonia Plummer, operations manager for the YMI, gives tours to curious visitors, curates the gallery spaces and manages events. She was raised in Old Fort and retired from the medical field in 2014; she says her interest in Black history stemmed from her own experiences growing up in the South during segregation. “I could not go to my hometown school because it was segregated,” she recalls “So we were bussed to a Black school in Marion, which was 13 miles away.”
Xpress caught up with Plummer to discuss the building’s illustrious history, its upcoming “face-lift” and how it has evolved to meet today’s community needs.
What was the original purpose of YMI Cultural Center and what was located in it?
It was founded by [Black entrepreneur and community leader] Issac Dixon and Edward Stephens [principal of Asheville’s first public school for Black children] who approached George Vanderbilt in 1892, about a place … that served Asheville’s Black community. The workers that worked on the Biltmore house constructed the YMI.
It had meeting rooms, a swimming pool, a drugstore, sleeping rooms, doctor’s offices, a library and a gymnasium. It was almost like a version of the YMCA, but it was seated in the African American community called The Block. It was the African American business district, and it was an African American neighborhood center downtown.
It was a place where they would come on the weekends. You had the Del Cardo Building, which was a nightclub. Women would get their hair done. There were hairdressers, barbershops, restaurants and people would just hang out to meet friends in this area.
After urban renewal happened in the mid-’60s, it broke up that community feeling downtown on The Block. You saw a deterioration of Market and Eagle streets when the neighborhoods were dispersed and the houses were torn down. The YMI suffered greatly from people being relocated to different areas of the city.
You joined YMI in 2016. What is the building mainly being used for nowadays?
When I first started, the YMI had started doing events. People could rent the auditorium and the gallery space. We had the “Americans Who Tell the Truth,” which was a big exhibit. Then we had other little events, like people would have wedding receptions and rehearsals.
When Dewana Little became the executive director, the YMI was on a positive fast track to open up the building to more people with programs. We have the Workforce Development Program and peer support. We have the Black book club. We’re restarting our exercise program. We also have Successful Transitions, which helps women who come off of welfare with financial management and support.
This past year, we were tasked with creating art exhibits showcasing African American artists. A-iah McDaniel will be showcasing her artwork here as part of the Young Black Artist Program.
The building will be undergoing renovations soon. What changes or updates will be made?
In March, we are shutting the main building down and renovating the whole building. I like to say she’s getting a face-lift. We have to make her shine once again. Hopefully in September, we will have reopened our doors. But either way, we are still hosting Goombay in September.
We have a fundraiser ongoing right now that will increase our capacity of what we can do when we open back up. We plan to have full access to a basement. And we hope to offer a safe place for kids to come and have games and get help with their homework. We hope everybody will get involved. Every little bit helps.
What do you think the YMI represents in the community today?
The YMI is a touchstone for people who remember what the area used to be, and it’s a touchstone for people who want to see something new happen on The Block. The YMI is one of those places where it never changes, it never leaves but people can come and say, “I have good memories here.”
We want to be able to help people remember and also create new memories. I would like to see the YMI be that base where people who want to know about African American history can come. We will have a library with resources that people can come and look for African American history. We also have African artifacts that will be displayed throughout the building. It’ll be almost like a museum where you can come and see what African American life used to be and learn more about African American history, because kids in school today are not getting that.