Third Annual African Americans in WNC Conference happens next week

Conference keynote speaker, Michelle Lanier.

The third annual African Americans in Western North Carolina Conference is scheduled for Thursday through Sunday, Oct. 27-30 at the YMI Cultural Center downtown and the University of North Carolina Asheville Sherrill Center.

The conference activities are free and open to everyone, and include a reception at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, panel discussions and documentary films on Friday, and a celebration of Buncombe County’s “Unsung Heroes” at 3 p.m. Sunday.

Darin Waters, assistant professor of history at UNCA, said the conference came about three years ago as a way to increase awareness of African-Americans’ presence and contributions to culture in the Southern Appalachians. Waters was born and raised here, but when he moved away and told people where he was from, most were unaware that Asheville had a significant African-American population, even though it has remained steady for years at about 12 percent.

“This was a chance to get people together who were doing new research on African-American culture in the Southern Appalachian region and to allow other people to learn about it,” Waters says. “What does it mean to be black in Appalachia? What does it mean to be a black mountaineer?”

Thursday’s reception includes a special presentation for community service to DeWayne Barton, founder and CEO of Hood Huggers International. Barton is a sculptor, poet and community activist. His mixed-media, found-art installations have been featured at Duke University, Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of African Art, Upstairs Gallery in Tryon, N.C., and August Wilson Center for African American Culture in Pittsburgh as part of the exhibition Common Ground: Affrilachia! Where I’m From.

Barton also is co-founder of the Burton Street Community Peace Gardens and serves on the African American Heritage Commission of Asheville and Buncombe County, is a founding member of CoThinkk and Everybody’s Environment. He is the co-founder of Green Opportunities, a job training program designed to prepare Asheville-area youth and adults for “green-collar” careers.

A native of Asheville, Barton grew up in Washington, D.C., and is a Gulf War Veteran. He attended Norfolk State University. He is the author of two books of poetry, Urban Nightmare Silent Screams and Return to Burton Street, and has been involved in community improvement and youth development for more than 20 years.

Following the reception, the conference keynote address, The Jesse and Julia Ray Lecture, will be delivered Michelle Lanier, director of the North Carolina African American Heritage Commission and the Traditions and Heritage Program of the North Carolina Arts Council.

Lanier is an oral historian and folklorist. She also is an instructor with Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies. Her work with Gullah communities has led to her being one of North Carolina’s liaisons to the federally designated Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor.

Friday will feature two panel discussions at UNC Asheville’s Sherrill Center, as well as the introduction of two documentary film projects, Beneath the Veneer, which explores race, class and income mobility in a progressive, affluent, Southern city, as seen by its “invisible black boys,” and Testify Beyond Place, a which pays homage to Mount Zion AME Zion Church and its relationship to Western Carolina University.

UNC Asheville also will plant and dedicate a tree in memory of Don Locke at 5:15 p.m. at Karpen Garden on campus. Locke, who died in June, was an author, education advocate and longtime champion for diversity, and served as director of Diversity and Multiculturalism at UNC Asheville.

Finally, the county’s celebration of “Unsung Heroes” will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday in Lipinsky Hall on the UNCA campus. This inaugural event recognizes African American and Latino leaders in the community and is sponsored by Buncombe County Health & Human Services and UNC Asheville. The emcees for the celebration are  Kahlani Jackson, Miss Asheville 2016, and Alejandro Adron. Music for Unsung Heroes will be led by Terry Letman, and the celebration will include storytelling, music, and dancing.


Schedule of events

Thursday, Oct. 27:

6:30 p.m. Reception at the YMI Cultural Center honoring DeWayne Barton and keynote address by Michelle Lanier.

Friday, Oct. 28: 

9 a.m., morning panel, featuring:

  • Diane Tower-Jones and Sekou Coleman, independent producers: “Beneath The Veneer: A Documentary Film Project on the African American Experience in the Appalachian City of Asheville, North Carolina”
  • Phil Jamison, coordinator of Warren Wilson College Appalachian Music Program: “African Americans and Mountain Dance Traditions in Western North Carolina”
  • Forrest Gray Yerman, graduate student at Appalachian State University: “Exhuming Boone’s Past: American Segregation in Life and Death”

1 p.m., afternoon panel, featuring:

  • Catherine Cutshall, UNC Asheville graduate and local history docent, and Catherine Amos, UNC Asheville history student: “Sarah Gudger’s Journey to Freedom: A Digital History Project/Exhibition”
  • Doris Davenport, educator, literary and performance poet with ten published books: “Beauty, Passion & Integrity: Cultural Heritage of Black Appalachia”
  • Enkeshi Thom, doctoral student at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville: “Black Knoxville: At The Intersection of Race and Region”
  • Marie Cochran, artist and founding curator of The Affrilachian Artist Project: “Testify Beyond Place: A Documentary Film Project”

5 p.m., Closing reception

Sunday, Oct. 30:

3 p.m, Unsung Heroes at Lipinsky Auditorium on the UNC Asheville campus. Honorees are:

Educational Enrichment – Keyla Estrada, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico in 2015. A senior at Erwin High School, she is now a leader in the Nuestras Escuelas/Our Schools campaign and an instructor of traditional dance and Spanish language literacy with the RAICES program.

Ally – David Forbes, founder of the Asheville Blade. He advocates relentlessly and unapologetically for marginalized communities through the powerful medium of journalism.

Arts & Entertainment – Oskar Santana (DJ Malinalli) is a DJ who supports community, grassroots organizations, and social justice movements through his work as an artist and entertainer.

Health & Wellness – Kathey Avery, a Registered Nurse for the Asheville Buncombe Institute for Parity Achievement (ABIPA), who works with vulnerable populations providing health services and education

Environmental Stewardship – Eric Howell, who began as a student at Green Opportunities after making the decision to turn his life around. He is now an instructor and math tutor for the program.

Entrepreneurship – Dulce Lomita Mobile Home Cooperative, LLC, Maria del Rosario Segovia Salas, Ricardo Segovia Salas, Patricia Guerra, Bruno Hinojosa, Maria Ruiz, Rosalba Cruz, Abel Gonzalez are member-owners of Dulce Lomita, a resident-owned and governed mobile home park. The group is working on creating a shareable model to prevent displacement of mobile home residents.

Historic Preservation – Priscilla Nydiye, who has performed extensive research on the black community when information and scholarship seemed scarce. She researched, wrote, protested and continues to advocate for difficult issues using history as her framework.

Spirituality – Rosalia del Carmen Islas, a healer and spiritual guide who tirelessly holds space for the Latinx community’s continued healing and spiritual wellness.

Community Legacy – John R. Hayes, who has served the Asheville community since 1977 through the Hillcrest Enrichment Program, Hillcrest High-steppers Majorette and Drum Corp, the NAACP, the Empowerment Resource Center, and WRES 100.7 FM.

Community Legacy – Lucia Hinojosa Hernandez, an instructor for RAICES since the beginning of the program. She holds an important place in the Latinx community as a mother and grandmother figure, because many families have been separated from their elders by migration.

Unsung Heroes is sponsored by Buncombe County, UNC Asheville and Date My City, More information is available at

Related event:

An exhibit from the Isaiah Rice Photograph Collection, “The Way We Were,” at WCQS, Western North Carolina Public Radio, through November. WCQS is at 73 Broadway St.,, Asheville, and the exhibition is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

The full collection contains more than 1,000 images taken by Isaiah Rice, which were donated to UNC Asheville’s Special Collections by Rice’s daughter Marian R. Waters. The exhibition is curated by the photographer’s grandson Darin Waters, assistant professor of history, and Gene Hyde, head of Special Collections at UNC Asheville. The photographs document Asheville’s African-American community from the 1950s through the 1970s, with many on display for the first time. The collection was unveiled on Oct. 23, 2015 at the second annual African Americans in Western North Carolina Conference at UNC Asheville. The 2016 exhibit is sponsored by The McClure Fund, Troy & Sons, and UNC Asheville.

For more information, contact Jo Steininger, UNC Asheville Department of History, 828-251-6415 or



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