The past week or so I’ve spent in preparation, both for courses I’m teaching this coming term (which starts in just under three weeks) and for more far-off plans.
Tours! Lots of tours. Well, three, anyway.
I spent a couple of hours yesterday morning with Candace and the kids, walking Asheville’s Urban Trail, a 1.7-mile self-guided walking tour of thirty historical sites teaching the walker about everything from the Asheville opera house scene to the horse-head shapes of the water fountains in the old square at Pack Place. I was familiar with most of the trailmarkers, bronze plaques, statues, and other installations, but I did learn some things about Asheville that I hadn’t known before, including details on distinctive Asheville features like the Grove Arcade and the City Building.
One thing the designers of this tour weren’t too keen on including was anything about the African American community and its contributions to the city. Perhaps I shouldn’t be too shocked, given Asheville’s perennial difficulties in reckoning with issues related to food access, affordable housing, and living wages for its thousands of workers in the service sector, but I think I was expecting more than just two of the thirty sites on the tour to deal directly with the African American community. Both a part of the “Age of Diversity” segment of the tour (the Urban Trail’s equivalent of Black History Month, no doubt), thesites occupy the same block on Market Street in the descent down to Eagle street, the center of the once-thriving East End African American community.
Those two sites? One honors James Vester Miller, the mason in charge of the stonework for the Municipal Building on Market Street (about which the Urban Trail marker talks) and, in 1894, for St. Matthias Episcopal Church, home of the first African American congregation in the city. The second site pays homage to Eagle Street itself: a large bronze sculpture mounted on the side of the parking garage, The Block “was based on the collective memories of former residents who recall the days when Eagle Street was a place to shop, go to a doctor, or to meet friends after school” (Urban Trail Walking Tour map). Absent is any description of the force that destroyed the East End community, which fell victim to the “urban renewal” projects of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, a phenomenon about which I’ve written (in the context of my hometown) elsewhere.
My second tour came yesterday evening, when my colleagues Cory, Kevin, and Trevor from the University of South Florida Honors College had me out to the Flat Rock, NC retreat center to which they often bring USF honors students for intensive study-away experiences on sustainability and community-building. Sanctuary in the Pines truly does offer a beautiful setting for such an experience. Featuring nearly 200 acres of land, lake, and trails, and dotted by numerous buildings for on-site eating, meeting, and sleeping, this center may soon serve as the grounds for an initial event that brings together faculty and students from the USF Honors College and my own program here at UNCA. Back at the Southern Regional Honors Council meeting in Orlando, Kevin and I talked about a three-day intensive writing retreat designed for students and faculty currently working on elaborate writing projects (research articles, senior theses, etc.). We might be able to swing this in December, if we keep it simple enough. We also have less-well-developed plans for inter-institutional faculty workshops on honors pedagogy and collaborative short courses on piracy.
The third tour was this morning, The Hood Tour run by Hood Huggers International‘s very own DeWayne Barton, one of black Asheville’s most outspoken and outstanding voices. I was intrigued by the opportunity to take the tour, both personally (to learn more about my city) and professionally (to find new ways to engage my 478 courses). The two-hour tour began at the Stephens-Lee Recreation Center, occupying what was the gymnasium for Stephens-Lee High School, Asheville’s African American high school during the segregation era. Stephens-Lee was one of only a handful of high schools in all of Western North Carolina, and given that its faculty were unable to find work in various white institutions of higher learning, many of Stephens-Lee’s teachers had advanced degrees in their field, enhancing the school’s academic excellence.
Our tour took us to several other sites in Asheville’s East End, including St. Matthias Church and Eagle Street, where we parked for a moment in the shadow of the Young Men’s Institute (YMI) Cultural Center, a building that once served as the heart of the black community but today is filled with hipster book stores and coffee shops, not a single one of them black-owned. We also stopped at Triangle Park, where a mural more than a hundred feet long shows various scenes from black Asheville’s history, including a panel dedicated to Isaac Dickson (see the featured image at the top of the post). From the East End it was up through the Lee Walker Heights housing projects, past the site of soon-to-come riverside renovations that cut through the South French Broad and Depot Street black communities, and onto the Arthur R. Edington Education and Career Center on Livingston Street.
It’s so much. It’s all so much. There’s so much to take in, so much to process, so much to talk to my students about when I teach 478 next, likely in the spring.