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Exploring the impact the Black community has had on Buncombe County

What has changed for African-Americans in Asheville and what has not
Western North Carolina has been a hotbed for tourism since the late 1800s. During that time, there was a boom in jobs filled by Black workers. That’s just a fraction what can be learned at Pack Memorial Library, which has information available beyond Black History Month. (Photo credit: WLOS staff)

It’s no secret Western North Carolina is popular among tourists. But it’s not widely known that this area has been a hotbed for tourism since the late 1800s. During that time, there was a boom in jobs filled by Black workers. That’s just a fraction what can be learned at Pack Memorial Library, which has information available beyond Black History Month.

“From 1792 until about 1825, there were certainly enslaved people in Buncombe County. But not very many,” said Katherine Calhoun Cutshall, who manages the library's special collections. “It changed from, a family might have had one or two slaves in their home."

In the mid-1800s, records show slaves made up 15% of the area’s population and 2% of white people were slave owners.

“Transitioning to large numbers of enslaved people living at one location,” Calhoun Cutshall said.

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After the Civil War in the 1880s, Buncombe County became a tourist destination. It’s similar to what it is today. Traveling was made easy, thanks to a new railroad. There were jobs at hotels and restaurants.

“There was actually a huge influx of African-American folks from nearby locations because Asheville suddenly had a huge number of service industry positions,” the special collections manager said.

Fast forward to the 1940s.

“It all started for me Nov. 25, 1944, when I was born in the colored hospital on Biltmore Avenue,” Al Whitesides said.

The Asheville native is now a Buncombe County commissioner.

“We integrated Asheville High school students," he said.

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In the 1960s, he and others boycotted white-owned businesses and held sit-ins. At the same time, Whitesides noticed more Black-owned businesses.

“Not saying things were better, no. But you had more,” Whitesides said.

But people in the Black community either moved away or were forced out by urban renewal projects. The government bought private property to build roads and buildings, but the goal for redeveloping some of those communities backfired.

“We had no idea back then that we would still be fighting some of the fights we are fighting today,” Whitesides said.

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Recent U.S. census data shows about 10% of Asheville’s population is Black. The rate used to be as high as 20%. Whitesides wants to see growth, and the library hopes to fill gaps.

“It’s really a shame we don’t have a lot to document African-Americans between 1880 and about 1960,” Calhoun Cutshall said.

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