Changing minds: A Jew in Asheville

Jerry Sternberg


In my ongoing campaign to persuade the local country clubs to revise their admission policies, what seemed like a perfect opportunity to further the cause presented itself one wet day in 1970.

It happened during the groundbreaking for the current YMCA on Woodfin Street. Just as the ceremony was about to begin, the heavens opened up, and we all scurried for cover. My car was parked close by, and I invited one of the leaders of the fundraising drive to take shelter with me there. I had worked with this gentleman on a number of civic endeavors, and he was always gracious and inspirational.

He was a very successful local businessman who commanded the respect of the entire community. Liberal, caring and very forward-looking, he was also well connected politically. And, even more to the point, I knew he was a member of the Asheville Country Club. So, seizing the moment while we were waiting in the car, I raised the delicate issue of the club’s deliberate exclusion of Jews.

The current policy, which had been in place for several decades, enabled the same two club members to blackball any Jewish person who was proposed for membership. I said it was time for a change, time to acknowledge that Jews were first-class citizens and to show them the respect they deserved.

I told this man that everyone considered him an outstanding community leader and that if he made a proposal to the board to require six blackballs to reject a proposed new member instead of two, I believed they would listen to him and it would go a long way toward resolving the problem.

He sat there quietly as the raindrops pounded on the windshield, and finally he turned to me and said, in all sincerity, “Jerry, I think the best thing the Jews could do is to build their own country club.”

A moment of despair

I was gobsmacked, and I couldn’t help but wonder: If a man of his stature and influence was still afraid to touch that third rail, then who in our community would ever be willing to take a lead role in making this long-needed change happen?

Happily, all was not lost, but don’t take my word for it. Here is how Rob Neufeld, our outstanding and much-mourned local historian, explained it in his “Visiting Our Past” column in the Citizen-Times on April 19, 2015:

“In 1976, another golf-loving newcomer to Asheville stepped in to provide the Country Club of Asheville its next big boost. Mitchell Wolfson, a Jewish multimedia magnate and horse breeder from Miami who bought WLOS-TV in 1958 and also bought the Lake View Park golf course, arranged to have the country club sell its course to the Grove Park Inn and use the money to buy the Lake View course and build a new clubhouse, tennis courts and pool.”

Fortuitously, this was also a time when the club’s older leaders were beginning to give way to a younger generation — one of whom, a very fine young man, operated a business that counted me among its clients.

At my request, he arranged for me to come and speak to his board. I was received with respect and courtesy as I once again gave my “stump speech,” explaining the indignities that members of the Jewish community had endured under the club’s blackball policy while pointing out that the same two members had effectively managed to exclude Jews from membership for decades.

I added that I had spoken to many club members and had the feeling that if Jewish people were allowed to join, they would be welcomed by a majority of the membership. I went on to suggest that changing their requirement from two blackballs to six would more accurately represent current club members’ sentiments.

I also assured them that I wasn’t making this request for myself, stating plainly that I had no intention of ever joining their club but felt strongly that this change would greatly benefit both communities.

The dynamics of change

Shortly thereafter the club did, in fact, revise its policy. I can’t take credit for making that happen, as other influential forces were also in play. And while I would like to think the club had altruistic motives for making this change, I am certain that the looming costs of buying a new golf course and building a fancy new clubhouse meant they needed to recruit a substantial number of new members. So, just as had happened in the 1930s, this discriminatory policy was suspended.

Ironically, a few months later I received a call from the young friend who’d arranged for me to speak to the board. He explained that a certain local Jewish man had applied for membership but had received more than six blackballs and thus was rejected. This was a stand-alone event that had nothing to do with the man’s ethnicity, my friend assured me, and he was greatly relieved when, after he told me the applicant’s name, I said that I knew this person well and that if I’d had a vote I would have been the first one to drop a black ball in the ballot box.

At the end of the day, this was a serious and entirely positive policy change, and in my final column in this series, I will mention others that have played out over the subsequent decades.

Asheville native Jerry Sternberg, a longtime observer of the local scene, can be reached at An anthology of his columns is available from Pisgah Legal Services for a donation of $25 or more. To order your copy, visit, or send a check labeled “Jerry’s book” to: PLS, P.O. Box 2276, Asheville NC 28802. All proceeds support the nonprofit’s work.



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5 thoughts on “Changing minds: A Jew in Asheville

  1. Voirdire

    Let’s see…. did the Asheville Country Club back then allow African-Americans ..or any other minority based on their their non-white skin color and/or any “other”ethnicity -or for that matter any other adherents of non-Christian practicing beliefs- to be members of their club? Of course they didn’t. So finally ( can only imagine how much of a long and painful wait/weight this was while bearing up under the decades of indignity of being excluded from the club’s rarefied gentile confines) they came to their senses ..albeit with some financial incentivisation …that’s how the world often works, oui? Anyway, very happy for you and yours much belated admission ..sincere congratulations ( ..also belated). But I can’t help but think that your people’s exclusion from the Asheville Country Club wasn’t anything compared to the everyday discriminatory plight of African-Americans in Asheville back then. And I mean anything. So can you please stop with this country club thing? …enough already. whew and shalom.

    • MV

      I do often wonder why there are no longtime members of the Black community writing commentary for MX about their experiences in Asheville through the decades, their thoughts on what changes should be made in the form of reparations, the potential renaming of our city and streets so as not to honor slaveholders and what impact (if any) the removal of the monument has had.

      • Voirdire

        Maybe because they have enough sense to… 1. not live in the past, or dwell on the past ( ..though I agree the recounting and hearing of their experiences back then is important) …and 2 ..realize the complete foolishness of renaming our town and streets.

      • Nostupid people

        I’m sure it’s because most have got a life and moved on, and gotten over it. At least that’s what my friends and family say!

  2. Enlightened Enigma

    Until the hypocrites change the name of the city, all the rest is BS.

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