There was recently a meeting in a room in downtown Asheville that I think the community should know more about. The room has a stately utilitarianism about it, a rugged strength and a straightforward but spare range of decorative flourishes, the overall effect of which is to inspire a feeling of respectable and functional grace but also steely resiliency. To say the room was the least inspiring thing about the event will give the reader some concept of the kind of meeting this was that I intend to write about. As an anthropologist, teacher and father living in the Asheville community, the events that transpired within the room were amazing to behold and enough to make me hopeful for the future of a diverse American community understanding of cultural differences, united together. Asheville could become such a community.
Considering the political climate, and that one of the “sides” reflects the xenophobia and fear of a minority losing its grasp on national politics, this event was even more salient and important to witness.
I’m referring to the meeting room in the upstairs of the Young Men’s Institute, located on historic Eagle Street in downtown Asheville as it was used on Thursday, Oct. 27. This venerable building, a vestige of the history of the African-American struggle for self-definition and an equal stake in the social world of the city, and also a trove of history and artifacts related to the tale of the African-Americans of Western North Carolina creating their own social world, was recently the site for the third annual African-Americans in Western North Carolina Conference.
A multiracial, multigenerational gathering of community members attended a series of talks which inspired everyone present. These talks gave the audience an opportunity to experience the passion with which these community members approach the retrieval and maintenance of their ancestors’ memories and experiences in the region as well as the evaluation of the current state of affairs. A wonderful performance by a young jazz band gave the opening reception an air of historic continuity, which seemed to reverberate in the venerable wooden arches in the ceiling of the space with the ghosts of Ellington and Coltrane.
There was passion displayed by the speakers as well, moving and righteously motivated pride both in the achievements of longtime community members Jesse and Julia Ray and Don Locke, and also in the stories told of African-Americans throughout North Carolina and the South who built lives and communities and created traditions and viability despite great adversity. The keynote speaker, Michelle Lanier, director of the North Carolina African-American Heritage Commission, gave many of these vignettes and created an atmosphere in the room that was inspired.
She pointed out the historical significance and meaning of such a meeting, supported as it was by the senior leadership of UNCA, including the chancellor and a number of vice chancellors and professors. The mover behind the conference, assistant professor Darin Waters, as well as his colleague, professor Dwight Mullen, both shared insight into the importance of the continued study of the state of African-American life in the Asheville area and revealed that, due to factors such as gentrification and continued marginalization and stigmatization, African-Americans face obstacles in our time, in our town, pursuing equality.
The stories told were of heroes and important people in the history of the community, but none touched me more than that of one man: DeWayne Barton, founder of Green Opportunities and recipient of the evening’s honor. He went to the stand to accept the recognition that he has earned from many hours of working for the benefit of others. As he fought through his own emotion, he apologized and explained that generally, the grind of working for the poor and marginalized is a thankless business, and it was because of that that he felt such emotion then. A woman walked up the aisle and gave him a hug, and Mr. Barton told the crowd that she was his mom. Tears were shed by many of the people in the room, and a sincerity and gratitude [for] Barton’s service filled the room. Stabilized by his mom, Barton went on to tell those in the room that the work for equality and social justice continues. Though strides are made every day, the main task remains the same.
It was a powerful feeling of shared responsibility that emerged from the event. Leaving the place and looking across the street at the historic building there, once a part of this African-American “town-with-a-town” that graced Eagle Street and centered the region’s social life, it is painful to see it in the process of being developed: the remnants of a tenuously preserved history teetering on the brink of economic development oblivion.
With such processes underway and the area’s wider community still needing to be educated about the social history of Asheville’s African-American community, I appreciated all the more deeply the importance of the African-Americans in Western North Carolina Conference and the need for each of us to try harder to reach out across whatever social boundaries we have had inscribed around us by history and chance, and to build a stronger and more diverse community together.
— Josiah Johnston