2020 Grant Recipients:
Thomas Chapel A.M.E. Zion Church, Black Mountain – $1800 for grading and site work for erosion control
From the application:
Centered in the heart of one of two known areas of town that have historically been associated with the African American population in Black Mountain, this church served for many years as the literal heart of the community. This building, the third Thomas Chapel building likely located on this same site, was built in 1922, following the original log church built by freed slaves, and a second church which was built sometime between 1892 and 1922. The original Thomas Chapel A.M.E. Zion Church was the first church built for the African American community in Black Mountain, serving as the mother church for later A.M.E. Zion churches and other denominations that were built in later years. This church building continues this legacy, where, from 1922 until 1974, when a new church sanctuary was built on another lot nearby, the chapel served not only as a place of spiritual importance but as a place where families gathered for social events, weddings, singing conventions, funerals, and picnics since there were no other gathering places available for the black community. Through its time as the focus of the community, the church hosted many speakers of all races, and in 1927 was selected as the host church for the A.M.E. Zion denomination’s annual church conference, hosting twenty-four churches in the Blue Ridge District. Small in size, but gigantic in its rich history, Thomas Chapel A.M.E. Zion Church is a property that only gains in significance in these times of change and movement towards continued racial equity.
River Front Development Group’s STEAM Academy – $5000 for equipment and staffing
From the application:
The STEAM Academy’s Portable Digital Photography Lab will be an opportunity for students, interns and residents to explore the people, places and events that should be recognized in the Stephens-Lee African American Heritage Museum. Participants will be tasked with creating digital and story-board presentations of the past and current community assets. By combining photography, research and art the goal is for students and adults to gain an understanding of the importance and need for preserving historic assets. Themes will include business and commerce, religious life, education, sports and social life in the community.
James Vester Miller Historic Trail – $1500 for website development
From the application:
James Vester Miller, an African American master brickmason and entrepreneur, built many of Asheville’s most remarkable buildings in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as well as numerous homes in the Emma community and elsewhere in the Asheville area. The James Vester Miller Historic Trail will be a tour commemorating his work. It will include nine buildings and will reference others beyond the easily accessible walking radius of the trail.
The James Vester Miller Historic Trail and its related projects will educate natives and tourists alike about the important role that one African American Asheville native played in creating Asheville’s architectural footprint. James Vester Miller’s personal story reflects in microcosm the story of relations between the races in Asheville from the late 19th century through the early 20th century. Moreover, the relative lack of public recognition of his role in creating these remarkable historic buildings typifies white Asheville’s general failure to acknowledge the role of the African American community and of specific African American leaders in building what Asheville is today.
Western North Carolina Historical Association – $5000 for traveling and virtual exhibit
From the application:
The not-yet-titled exhibition will focus primarily on the South Asheville Cemetery, a historically African-American cemetery in Asheville, which was founded on land owned by the Smith family in the early 1800s as a burial ground for people they enslaved. The cemetery property was eventually deeded by Sarah Smith McDowell and her husband to representatives of the cemetery. It is now maintained by the South Asheville Cemetery Association, who are partners on this project.
While research for the exhibition will seek to uncover individual stories of people who are (or may be – there are only 93 headstones for nearly 2,000 graves and scant burial records) buried in the South Asheville Cemetery, the overall purpose of the exhibition will be focused on African-American burial grounds in the larger Asheville area and how county, state, and federal policies have passively and activity contributed to the deterioration of these sacred places in a way that has not equally impacted the final resting places of whites. The exhibition will be designed around primary documentation and the voices and input of African American community partners, particularly those with a family connection to the cemetery.
Well into the 1950s nearly all American cemeteries had some version of racial restrictions. Clarence B. Jones, in an op-ed for the Washington Post, wrote, “The neglect of historic African American cemeteries is as widespread as it is unknown. Throughout the 19th century and much of the 20th, African Americans were segregated even in death, often buried in off-the-beaten-path Black cemeteries that, over the years, received little funding and fell into disrepair.”
Examples from the South Asheville Cemetery will illustrate how systemic racism has caused such neglect, disrepair, and – even – desecration of Black cemeteries resulting in the loss of African American history and culture.
For instance, George Avery, a blacksmith who had once been enslaved by the McDowell family, became caretaker of the cemetery after emancipation. Historians often lament that Avery tracked the burials by memory and did not leave written records, so – when he passed away in 1938 – much of the knowledge of who was buried in the cemetery – and where they were buried – was lost.
There is much more to the story, however, than Avery not leaving written records. Avery was enslaved until he was almost 20 years old. He was not allowed to attend school. North Carolina law prohibited teaching enslaved people to read or write. So, by digging deeper, and understanding more of the history of systemic racism, we can better answer the question – “Why don’t we know who is buried at the South Asheville Cemetery?” with more than the surface answer of “Well, George Avery didn’t leave any written records.”
We can begin to understand why he might not have left written records by looking at written records. Documents available through the Buncombe County Register of Deeds show that Avery signed his name with an “X” throughout his life. It then becomes likely that there are no written records because laws written by white officials did not allow enslaved people to learn to read or write – and shows that black families are still feeling the repercussions of laws written and abolished over 150 years ago.
Likely, however, there is even more to the story. Placing grave markers would have been the responsibility of the family. Many families, however, could not afford markers – and based on oral history – many could not even afford the $1 fee due to the McDowell family to dig the grave. Graves were then marked with wooden crosses, field stones, or topography that constantly changed and did not indicate the name of the deceased. Understanding why graves were left unmarked means understanding why an African American family might not have the money to place a grave marker.
It also means, however, better understanding African American funerary traditions and how and why they originated. In a 2016 article in The Atlantic, Tiffany Stanley wrote, “Particularly in the 17th and 18th centuries, if slaves were allowed to bury their own dead and craft their own rituals, away from the overseeing eyes of whites, they could plan for their freedom, spiritually and physically.”
The South Asheville Cemetery was closed to new burials in 1943 because the City of Asheville annexed the area and burials were not allowed in the city limits. (More research is needed to better understand the motivations behind this annexation; however, at some point the cemetery was the location of a proposed condominium project.) As time passed and the cemetery became overgrown, aging descendants could no longer navigate the terrain and many of the graves were forgotten. We hope that with this exhibition we can help remember some of those interred within the cemetery and increase community participation in its continued upkeep.
The exhibition will also seek to document stories from other African-American burial grounds in Asheville and Buncombe County, including (segregated) Riverside Cemetery, various church and family cemeteries, and the unmarked graves of incarcerated railroad laborers, who were buried near the tracks and tunnels they died constructing.
Shiloh African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and Cemetery – $4600 for a National Register of Historic Places nomination
From the application:
Shiloh African Methodist Episcopal Zion church has been in existence since 1874 and there is evidence that it was active as early as 1871. Shiloh was an African American settlement populated after the Civil War by African American freedmen on a small parcel near what is now known as the Cedarcliff Gate on the Biltmore Estate. That former community is referred to as “Old Shilo”.
The church was most likely built of logs. Church history states that the founders raised $7.00 to purchase the original lot and establish the church. In 1888 when George Vanderbilt’s agent Charles McNamee was buying the land for the estate he approached Rev. William Logan, a member of the Shiloh community. Mr. McNamee offered the congregation of the Shiloh AME Zion Church $1000 to move their congregation, church and cemetery across the Asheville- Buncombe Highway to a two acre lot. Unfortunately, the original Shiloh AME Zion Church burned to the ground before it could be moved. The congregation obtained an unused Presbyterian Church for the move. The graves were dug up and re-interred at the new location and New Shiloh was born.
After the move, the church was used not only as a place of worship but also as a community center and as a school for the children of Shiloh. Laborers on the Biltmore Estate whose children went to the school were encouraged to set aside a portion of their salary to help pay for a teacher.
In 1923 the Trustees of the Shiloh AME Zion Church took on a mortgage to build a new church. By 1928 the church was built and the debt was paid. This is the church that exists today.
Western North Carolina Historical Association – $4150 to research, design, print and install a new permanent exhibit in the Smith-McDowell House.
Photo credit: NC Room, Pack Memorial Library
From the application:
Our new permanent exhibit will seek to present a more balanced and holistic picture of what life was like pre- and post-Civil War for all people who resided on the property. Staff will design new interpretive panels that will take visitors on a journey through time beginning with early white settlement and removal of native populations, which will be viewed prior to entering any of the period rooms.
The tour will then continue into the basement of the house – home to the winter kitchen. Here, visitors will view one interpretive panel which gives a broad overview of slavery in the mountains before entering the kitchen and “meeting” a woman – Tilda – who, along with her husband and children, was enslaved by the Smith family.
The tour will continue to the second floor, where visitors will encounter other residents of the home – including James McConnell and Polly Patton Smith, Sarah Smith McDowell (the daughter of James and Polly, who owned the house in the 1860s and 1870s), William Wallace McDowell (Sarah’s husband), George Avery (enslaved by the McDowells), and Mary Francis Garratt (an immigrant, whose father purchased the house to bring his daughter, who was suffering from TB, to the mountains).
High Top Colony Neighborhood Association – $2800 for a National Register of Historic Places nomination
From the application:
High Top Colony in Black Mountain, North Carolina was founded in 1919 by Roy John, a secretary with the YMCA, and associated with the neighboring Blue Ridge Assembly of the YMCA (founded in 1912 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979), the district includes a grouping of primarily 1919 to early 1920s Rustic Revival cottages. The cottages were built for use as summer homes for those attending conferences at the Blue Ridge Assembly, but through the years have become a mixture of year-round residences and summer cottages.
A few of the cottages were built after this initial development time, from 1939 – 1940, in the Bungalow style, and there are also a few modern additions into the neighborhood of cottages built in the 1960s and 1970s, with one as late as the 1990s. The district is significant for its association with the YMCA and the Blue Ridge Assembly, because of the importance of the religious retreat movement within the mountains of western North Carolina in the early part of the twentieth century and for the architectural significance of the Rustic Revival and Bungalow styles of the cottages. Additionally, further research of the association of Dr. Willis Duke Weatherford, founder of the Blue Ridge Assembly, and his connection to the High Top Colony will be important pieces of history to be included in the nomination.
2019 Grant Recipients:
Hood Tours offer bus tours of Asheville’s African American neighborhoods and landmarks. The mix of the history and community with place is the perfect fit for our grant program. In their words, “Hood Tours tells the long-overlooked stories of African Americans in Asheville. We showcase history, art, greenspaces, and current-day grassroots initiatives. We’ve given tours to numerous school groups, university students, and church groups.”
PSABC is pleased to fund $5000 towards the purchase of a new bus for Hood Huggers International which will allow them to offer more tours.
Built in 1948, Rabbit’s Tourist Court was a premier African American motel of its time. After sitting vacant for more than a decade, the family who owned Rabbit’s for five generations was all that stood between this iconic place and almost certain demolition. Multiple offers to purchase the property were ignored before Claude Coleman Jr. and Brett Spivey shared their vision for a music rehearsal space, soul food kitchen and cultural landmark called SoundSpace @ Rabbit’s.
As Coleman points out, “Rabbit’s Tourist Court has been a part of the African-American community for more than 60 years. It is intrinsically connected to the story of Asheville. These connections must not only be preserved, but recreated and strengthened.”
PSABC is excited to contribute $5000 in funding towards Phase 1 of this project. These funds will be put towards efforts to stabilize and water proof the foundation at Rabbit’s.
Last May one of two newly installed Montford bus shelters with history panels was destroyed by a suspected drunk driver. The driver was never caught and it was left to the neighborhood association to figure out how to pay for a new installation.
When PSABC received the grant application in early 2019, we were inspired by the dedication shown by the individuals and businesses in Montford who had worked to raise nearly all of the funds needed to replace the bus shelter. The damaged history panel told the story of “Lost” Montford homes and Montford’s African American community – making it the perfect fit for an education preservation grant. PSABC is honored to fund the $2000 funding gap for this bus shelter to the Montford Neighborhood Association.
Founded in 1989, the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center is the primary museum of general, local history in Buncombe County. PSABC is proud to provide $1000 of funding towards new exhibit panels for their permanent exhibition, Pathways from the Past, which highlights the settlement and development of eastern Buncombe County. Their efforts to make the project inclusive was important to our decision to fund this project. Executive Director Anne Chesky Smith explains, “Text from the panels will seek to equitably represent the stories of all those who have shaped the Swannanoa Valley, not just those whose voices tend to be loudest in our history.”
Calvary Presbyterian Church – $5000
Calvary Presbyterian Church was founded in 1891 and originally located on Eagle Street. Founder, Dr. Charles Bradford Dusenbury, was also a founder of the Young Men’s Institute (YMI) and he and his wife, Mrs. Lula Dusenbury, started a school in the basement of the church that served African American children and adults.
In 1926 the church moved to its current location in the heart of the East End neighborhood. Still active today, the church has an open and diverse congregation and offers a wide range of services to the community.
This grant will help the church meet funding needs to upgrade the plumbing.
In this age of rampant gentrification – irreplaceable loss of truths, loss of community, history and heritage, loss of life-giving culture, it is imperative that Calvary, and other churches and institutions begun by African Americans continue to stand and thrive. -Pastor, Rev. Patricia Bacon
South Asheville Cemetery Association – $5000
The South Asheville Cemetery began as a burial ground for enslaved people and is the oldest public cemetery for African Americans in Western North Carolina. The first known caretaker was a man named George Avery. Enslaved, Mr. Avery was owned by William Wallace McDowell, of the Smith-McDowell house, who entrusted him as the manager of the cemetery located on the family property.
Though it is thought to be the final resting place for 2000 African Americans, there are only 93 headstones with name and date information. Other graves were marked with field stones or handmade crosses making proper care of the grounds extremely important.
Led by members of the St. John A Baptist Church community, volunteers have worked for decades to maintain the cemetery, but overgrown vegetation is not the only threat. Tucked away in the neighborhood of Kenilworth, this two acre plot is threatened by development on all sides.
This grant will allow for the South Asheville Cemetery Association to complete a nomination for the National Register of Historic Places. Receiving this recognition will be instrumental in building public awareness of the cemetery and will be leveraged to seek additional funding to preserve, restore and enhance the cemetery and education efforts associated with it.