Tuesday History: Isaac Dickson and the YMI

CREATING COMMUNITY: In 1876, Dickson purchased property in Asheville; it included Thomas Patton's former slave quarters. Dickson rented its rooms to freedmen. The area was known as "Dicksontown." Mural by Asheville Design Center & Just Folk Organization. Photograph by Thomas Calder

The Triangle Park Mural on South Market Street, completed in 2013, was created by Asheville Design Center, in collaboration with community organization Just Folks. Local artist, Molly Must was recruited as the project’s lead designer. The mural captures some of the history of the African American experience in Asheville. Among its many images is one of Isaac and Delia Dickson. As the mural states, Isaac, a former slave who came to Asheville around 1870, “influenced the establishment of Asheville’s public school system as the first black man appointed to the school board in 1887.”

In a Sept. 28, 1919 article in The Sunday Citizen, titled, “Historical Sketch of Local Public Schools,” a Mrs. M.K. Williamson describes Isaac as a “scrupulously conscientious” member of the school board.

The Triangle Park Mural also highlights Isaac’s role in the creation of the Young Men’s Institute (YMI), which would be completed in 1893.  The mural notes that the YMI “promote[d] social & economic opportunities for the African-American community … including a 12 piece orchestra, a basketball court and swimming pool, and eventually [a] public library that served black patrons before integration.”

THE BAND PLAYED ON: Part of the Triangle Park Mural, the image shows the 1900 Young Men's Institute jazz band. Mural by Asheville Design Center & Just Folk Organization. Photo by Thomas Calder
THE BAND PLAYED ON: Part of the Triangle Park Mural, the image shows the 1900 Young Men’s Institute jazz band.  Mural by Asheville Design Center & Just Folk Organization. Photograph by Thomas Calder

Below is a Sept. 1, 1890 article from the Asheville Daily, titled, “Colored Y.M.C.A : The First Meeting Well Attended and Very Promising.” It reports on the initial step of what would eventually lead to the construction of the YMI.

Yesterday afternoon, Mr. E Stephens, principal of the Colored Graded Schools, organized a Y.M.C.A. for the colored people of Asheville. The meeting was held at the house of Isaac Dickson. Besides the pastors, there were present thirty young men and women of the different denominations represented in the city. Prof. Stephens explained the object of the association be the moral, intellectual and social improvement of its members, and detailed its methods of works, its privileges and its responsibilities. Until the association gets a building of its own, the meetings will be held every Sunday afternoon at some one of the different churches.

Encouraging remarks were made by the ministers and some of the young men who promised their hearty co-operation to make the movement a success. Much enthusiasm was shown by all present. It is hoped that it will last, and that before long the colored people will have a large and flourishing association. There is a crying need for such an institution here, a great work to be done, and much good can be accomplished. The officers of the association are: President, E. Stephens; secretary, H.B. Brown; treasurer, Isaac Dickson; musical director, Miss Hattie High.

For more on Isaac Dickson, see “Up from slavery: Isaac Dickson, Asheville pioneer,” Feb. 14, 2012, Xpress. 


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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.

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