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Layers Of Racist History, Structures Underpin Asheville Protests

Matt Bush
BPR News


After a week of protests against police brutality in Asheville and across the country, local educators are using history to make sense of what feels like an unprecedented moment. 

This isn’t the first time the city of Asheville has seen massive demonstrations, sparked by racial injustice. It’s also not the first time that protests led to a state of emergency and a curfew. 


Katherine Cutshall is collections manager for the North Carolina Room at Pack Memorial Library. Cuttshall says the recent protests following police killings most resemble a massive walkout that took place at Asheville High in 1969. 


"It was peaceful at first. Students were given the option to go to class or go home, after the Asheville police department was called to disperse students from the campus," Cutshall said.  


Six students were injured by police officers, as well as a number of bystanders and news media. Eventually, the mayor and the county instituted a curfew and a state of emergency that lasted three days. 


The students were protesting a number of inequities they saw in the classroom. Among them -  how black history was being taught by a white teacher. Some faculty members referred to their black students as “boy.”  And the cosmetology teacher wasn’t allowed to teach how to style African American hair. 


"There were deeper causes of this unrest. It’s not just school integration, it’s not just having African American history taught by a white teacher," Cutshall said. "There are lots of layered reasons why this is happening." 


Layers of systemic racism, outside of the school building. Similarly, Cuttshall says, last week’s protests aren’t just about police violence, they are about the statistics Asheville’s black community has been living with, day in and day out. 

"Tthat’s all the burning and breaking of windows is trying to get their attention to address," Dr. Dwight Mullen said. He's the founder of the State of Black Asheville, a research effort that has been documenting racial inequities for more than a decade. Mullen has dedicated his work to highlighting systemic racism and inequity in policy areas including housing, health, education and employment. 


Mullen says that while breaking a storefront window won’t change policy, it should be seen as a plea for help -- particularly as it pertains to poverty and the distribution of resources in Asheville. 


"It's a natural knee-jerk response to be upset about broken windows and graffiti," Mullen said. "I think that a better response of the Chamber of Commerce and its members, if they really intend on investing in Asheville, maybe they should begin addressing local efforts to alleviate poverty."


Like Cutshall at the library, Dr. Mullen is also looking at history for context. He compares the racial disparities in public health being exposed by Covid-19 to the Spanish Flu Pandemic in 1918. 


He says, at the time, there was a lack of federal response to the pandemic. So low-income communities took matters into their own hands and formed mutual aid societies. 


“They put their money all in the same pot and used it to bury each other and take care of each other when people were sick," Mullen said. "That’s just a painful example that helps me not focus on the current situation that makes me so very, very upset.”


Upset, because Covid-19 is killing black people at three times the rate of whites. 


But Mullen says he sees one silver lining, comparing the current pandemic to the influenza of the 1900s -- More white people and institutions are becoming vocal about inequities affecting black and brown communities. 


And some institutions are seeking to correct those wrongs. 


Back at the North Carolina Room, Cutshall is helping lead the Black Asheville History Project, which launched in April. It’s an effort to increase its African American collections from its current two-percent to over a quarter of its total collections over the next five years. 


"Humanities organizations, like mine, have a responsibility to highlight those hidden histories and to connect with people who may feel like Asheville’s history isn’t theirs," Cutshall said.  


And she adds, that history includes the chapter that’s playing out right now. The NC Room is collecting photos, videos, and protests signs to add to its collection.

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