BY JERRY STERNBERG
My transition to adulthood resulted in my being absent from Asheville for about eight years. After graduating from UNC Chapel Hill, I served in the Navy, mostly in the Far East.
By the time I returned to Asheville in 1955, I was married, and my first child was on the way. But even for World War II and Korean War veterans, the Jim Crow and Moshe Cohen laws were still in effect.
There was one change, however: The Grove Park Inn had begun accepting Jewish guests, though African Americans were still barred. The Jewish community had grown substantially in the interim: Many young Jewish families had moved to Asheville or returned here after the war, and the Jewish Community Center was thriving.
Before continuing, however, I’d like to stress a couple of key points. First, it’s not my intention to bash country clubs. Second, only a fraction of the Jewish population had any interest in joining a country club even if they could afford to.
Many of those who were interested in joining were community leaders, prominent in both business and philanthropy. These folks met all the qualifications for membership but were denied acceptance solely because they were Jewish — an obvious attempt to keep Jews in their place.
My sense was that most members of both local country clubs did not agree with this exclusionary policy, but, not wanting to be accused of being troublemakers, they simply averted their gaze and declined to speak up.
Meanwhile, fearing retribution, the leaders of the Jewish community never made any loud protests, either. It was similar to the way most of us kept quiet about the Jim Crow laws in the South because, “That’s just the way it is.”
There’s just one problem …
When many of my peers returned home, having finished their education and completed their time in the service, these bright, energetic, well-educated professionals and trained executives applied to prestigious local firms for jobs in fields such as banking, law, real estate and accounting. Quite often, they were told by the interviewer that they had great qualifications and credentials, but you have to understand that we entertain our clients at the country club and you know (wink-wink) how that is.
So these companies lost out on all that talent because they didn’t have the stones to object to the country clubs’ discriminatory policies. But the irony is that, in later years, many of these young men went on to build very successful businesses that wound up competing with and sometimes inflicting significant economic pain on those same companies.
For the next few years, I worked in my father’s scrap metal business, raised a family, participated in activities at the Jewish Community Center, got involved with local charities and was active in the Junior Chamber of Commerce. The latter group, consisting mostly of young veterans of the recent wars, was instrumental in making some very positive changes in the area’s political community.
In 1962, I went into business for myself, dealing in surplus, salvage, dumpsters, commercial garbage hauling and serving the industrial community by hauling away scrap metals, as well as used and unwanted equipment and machinery. We even did some building demolition work. A sign on our office said, “We Buy Anything and Sell Everything.”
In 1964, plans were announced to build the Northwestern Bank Building, now the Kimpton Hotel Arras, on Pack Square. The project also included razing the Langren Hotel, on the northeast corner of Broadway and College Street, to make way for a new parking garage that would serve both the hotel and the city.
Soon after, our company was contacted by a young man from Charlotte whom I will call Dave (not his real name). He’d been sent here to represent the builder in all matters related to constructing and leasing this new Asheville skyscraper. Dave sold us all the furnishings from the old hotel, which we very successfully sold to the general public. We also assisted him with other property-clearing issues and eventually brokered the contract to demolish the building and provide a dumpsite for the debris.
Over the next year and a half, Dave and I became good friends and enjoyed a number of lunches and dinners together. He even came to our house for Friday night Sabbath dinner once or twice.
The Asheville Downtown City Club, an exclusive gathering place, was planned to occupy the 16th floor of the new building. One day Dave called and asked if I was going to join the club; I told him I wasn’t interested. He pointed out that I could entertain my clients there at lunch, and I said that since I worked in the salvage and garbage business, my attire would not be suitable for a classy place like that.
As an afterthought, I asked him what the club’s policy would be when it came to admitting Jewish members. He proudly informed me that the club would accept a limited number. Of course, I was outraged and told him so in no uncertain terms.
I spent the rest of the afternoon calling up members of the Jewish community whom I thought might be considering joining the club, warning them about the policy and urging them not to join. To my utter dismay and chagrin, many of the people I contacted couldn’t wait to get their names on the list before the quota was filled.
It occurred to me that neither Dave nor my fellow Jews had any understanding of the meaning of this travesty. Dave and his board thought they were being magnanimous by accepting a few of the “others” — but not enough to dilute and contaminate the white Anglo-Saxon population. Meanwhile, the Jews who wanted to join gave no thought to how their becoming a member would dignify and validate this ongoing racist policy.
In the end, however, there was still more irony at work. Before the club even opened, it was having financial difficulties, and later, despite a beautiful setting with spectacular views of the city, it continued to flounder until a successful Jewish industrialist with an interest in culinary art came out of retirement and made it a huge success.
And, of course, that was the end of the quota policy.
Asheville native Jerry Sternberg, a longtime observer of the local scene, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. An anthology of his columns is available from Pisgah Legal Services for a donation of $25 or more. To order your copy, visit pisgahlegal.org/jerry, or send a check labeled “Jerry’s book” to: PLS, P.O. Box 2276, Asheville, NC 28802. All proceeds support the nonprofit’s work.