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Striking A Balance: Community Weighs In On African American Heritage Trail

Cass Herrington
BPR News

Tourists versus locals. It’s one of the defining conflicts at the heart of Asheville.  It’s also playing out in how the city chooses to preserve and retell the history of its shrinking black community.  

About 20 people gathered at round tables at the Stephens Lee Recreation Center Friday for a community listening session designed to gather input for the proposed African American heritage trail. 

A consultant opened the session with a prompt: “If Asheville were a person, what would be her characteristics?”  Each group answered with one positive attribute, and one negative. 

“Eclectic and tourist.”

“Well-intentioned and siloed.”

“Elitist and optimistic.”

It’s an exercise designed to get participants thinking about audience. In particular, the people who will someday visit sites along the proposed walking trail. 

Credit Cass Herrington / BPR News
BPR News

It’s a conversation the moderator, Dina Bailey of Mountain Top Vision, knows well. In her previous role, she directed educational strategies for the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta. 

“The thing that was so interesting about helping to open a museum, was really how we balanced and thought about the local community, different communities within the Atlanta community and then also balancing this idea of tourists coming, national tourists,” Bailey said.  

Much like Asheville, she adds. 

But there are challenges that come along with highlighting black history. For one, Bailey says it needs to offer a broad scope of stories that include both the suffering as well as the achievements of African Americans. 

The other challenge is that many of the sites significant to Asheville’s black history are just steps away from the Vance Monument in Pack Square -- the 65-foot high obelisk that honors North Carolina’s Civil War governor who fought against civil rights as a U.S. Senator. 

“The Confederate monument has come up during some of our calls previously,” Bailey said. “In terms of an acknowledgement that talking about African American contributions, must be acknowledged in terms of the rest of the context.” 

As for suggestions about what to do with the Vance Monument... 

“Either one it needs to be removed, or two there needs to be a plaque that states what kind of individual he was and what he had done here,” West Asheville native Charles Lee said. He was one of the participants during the listening session Friday. 

“There needs to be something here so that when schoolkids or other people are here and reading it, they don’t just read the glory side of it,” Lee said. “They understand the total history of what occured here and why it was erected.”

Apart from that story, Lee says he’d like to see places and stories from his childhood preserved. Like Mr. Shiver’s barbershop on Eagle Street. 

“And it’s tragic here because when I was growing up, they had black businesses, and there were opportunities. There were places where we united and really worked together,” Lee said. “Then I think a lot of the economic redevelopment that tore down a lot of the black businesses here just forced blacks out.”

The listening session at Stephens Lee was one of four put on by the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority, which is funding the project. The consultant says feedback will be compiled with recommendations for the next phase, which includes designing and locating stops along the walking trail. 

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