BY JERRY STERNBERG
There were three distinct cultures in the Asheville I grew up in, and describing the dynamics and relationships among them is difficult. I want to stress, however, that my purpose in writing this is not to be judgmental but to accurately portray the cultural landscape in which I was raised and, really, immersed.
There was the white Christian community, which seemed to have all the power and made the rules. The Black community, a substantial minority, seemed totally marginalized; and then there was the tiny Jewish community which, for some reason, appeared to be much larger and more influential than its actual numbers. In some circles, this caused great resentment and distrust.
In later years I realized that for the Jews, this was not exclusively a local phenomenon: There are glaring historical examples everywhere, from ancient Babylon and Egypt to Spain and Germany.
Thanks to Jim Crow mandates, neighborhoods and schools were segregated. Most white children had little exposure to Black people except for the domestics and yard workers who came to their homes. Because my dad took me to work at his business on Depot Street, I had much more opportunity to interact with Black people than most of my peers.
Almost all of the employees were Black, the grandsons of slaves. Here in the South, they were deliberately kept in an intellectual vacuum, ensuring that they would remain a cheap source of unskilled labor. There was also a fear that educating Blacks might encourage them to demand better treatment and equal justice, which was dismissed as being “uppity.”
Few of them could read and write, and many couldn’t even count their change when they bought a drink or a pack of crackers at the service station on Depot Street. Accordingly, part of my job was to serve as the designated gofer. Quite often they would send me across the street to buy something because they knew I would bring back the correct change.
Some would ask me to read some bill or note they’d received or to write some response, explaining that they didn’t have their glasses with them. They certainly weren’t going to admit to this young boy that they couldn’t read or write.
Apart from a couple of preachers who would come around to ask my dad for help with their respective churches, I remember meeting only one well-educated Black person up until the time I left for college. Uncle Nelson, an older Black gentleman, had apparently moved to Asheville from somewhere up North and, despite his education, hired on as a truck driver for my dad — probably because during the Depression, it was the best-paying job he could get. His impeccable appearance and quietly dignified demeanor commanded the respect of everyone he worked with, Black or white.
My father sometimes took me with him on Sunday afternoons to visit Uncle Nelson, who cut a handsome figure with his shock of white hair and his Sunday suit and tie. Aunt Bessie, his beautiful silver-haired wife, would graciously serve us sweet tea on the front porch of his small but immaculately kept house, which stood in stark contrast to the many squalid shacks in the area. Ostensibly, my dad went there to talk about the upcoming workweek, but I think the real reason for the visits was that even in the Jim Crow era, this Black man and white man truly enjoyed each other’s company.
The caste system
Of course, illiteracy was not confined to the Black population. I went to Navy boot camp in 1951. My fellow recruits were mostly very young men from farm families in Western North Carolina, mill workers from upstate South Carolina and coal miners from West Virginia. Almost all of them had grown up in challenging financial circumstances.
I was appointed the company’s “yeoman,” or secretary, because I was the only college graduate and I had typing experience. My job was to fill out endless forms and reports in our little office. I was constantly surprised to find that after mail call, several members of my company would quietly come to me and ask me to read their letters from home and help them write back. When I asked why some of the letters they brought me were typed instead of handwritten, they said it was common in those communities to have the rural postmaster write letters, because many residents couldn’t read or write either.
I make this point because Jews have long recognized that knowledge and superior education, combined with a strong work ethic, create a kind of economic and political kryptonite that can neutralize the toxic effects of antisemitism. It’s the reason we’ve survived for over 4,000 years. I have traveled to many places in the world, and I have never met a Jewish person who wasn’t literate and fluent in one or more languages.
One of the most poignant Jewish traditions involves placing a drop of honey on the first page of a child’s first book for them to taste, signifying that learning is sweet. For us Jewish children, studying hard and coming home with top grades was our only option.
When I was growing up, Asheville’s Jewish community consisted of about 250 families in a general population of roughly 50,000. Some of those families had arrived here in the late 1800s and established themselves as successful merchants and professionals, overcoming a great deal of discrimination in hiring as well as the reluctance of many locals to patronize Jewish stores and businesses. Walking the streets of downtown Asheville back then, before the mall turned the central business district into a ghost town, it seemed that Jews owned at least 50% of the retail stores.
The Jewish community looked after its own, making every effort to find jobs and financial help for those in need so they wouldn’t be a burden on the general population. And because of their intellectual and cultural background, Jews were also leaders in local arts, drama and music. In addition, many worked as community volunteers and labored tirelessly in the area’s hospitals, particularly during the war years.
Local Jews were prominent in philanthropy as well. The community strongly supported both Jewish and Christian charities, including Black churches. At least five facilities at UNC Asheville are named after Jewish families whose generosity made those buildings possible. In all these ways, Jewish residents showed themselves to be valuable members of the broader Asheville community.
In the next installment in this series, we will examine the Jim Crow laws and Black employment.
Asheville native Jerry Sternberg, a longtime observer of the local scene, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.