As a tourist city, Asheville, AKA Beer City, is known for its craft beers, great local food, beautiful scenery and a wide variety of art—from music and visual art to theatre and beyond. Every year, thousands of visitors flock to Asheville to party, have fun or get hitched.
In the past five years I have lived in the area, I heard very little about the history of Asheville. Of course there were stories here and there, but it wasn’t really until the hotel The Foundry opened its doors in late 2018 (and the influx of foot traffic from tourists wanting to know more about the historical neighborhood in which the hotel was located) that I began to learn more of Asheville’s past.
In my effort to help preserve the powerful culture and history of this area, I want to share the 5 things you probably didn’t know about The Block.
“The Block” included the entire area south of Pack Square.
That’s right, The Block was much larger than just the YMI building, storefronts and the Foundry. It incorporated the entire Eagle/Market Street area, including Mt. Zion Baptist Church down to Soce’s Salon near Biltmore Ave, and stretched back past Triangle Park. The Block was the central business district for the African American community during the late 19th-20th centuries, serving as the home to hundreds of Black owned businesses.
Mt. Zion Baptist Church was built by a Black-owned construction company.
The Mt. Zion Baptist Church that we know and love at 47 Eagle St. is actually the 2nd location that was built after the first was outgrown. This second location was built in 1919 by the Miller Construction Company, dedicated to building churches and commercial buildings, and owned by James Vester Miller, child of a former slave.
The YMI Cultural Center was paid for in full by the Black community.
In 1892, George Vanderbuilt, the owner of the Biltmore Estate, was approached by Mr. Isaac Dickson and Dr. Edward Stephens to build an organization for black men who built the Estate to help them “to improve the moral fiber of the black male through education focusing on social, cultural, business and religious life”. The request was granted and the doors were opened in 1893. The YMI, known as the Young Men’s Institute, served as a center where community members could enjoy the library, gym and classes for children and adults. In 1906, the Black community paid the Vanderbuilt estate $10,000 for the building through collective effort.
The Foundry hotel owners purposefully sought to preserve the historic Asheville Supply and Foundry Co. building.
After opening its doors in November 2018, there has been an increase of steady foot traffic on The Block. Aware of the distinct history of the area and buildings, developers sought to maintain as much original structure of the converted building as possible, even allowing the name “Asheville Supply and Foundry Co.” to remain on the exterior wall as it has for a century.
As of 2019, after over a century of being home to over 100 Black enterprises, the current number of Black owned businesses on The Block is zero.
Despite its history as a Black business district and home to the YMI, the oldest Black cultural center in the US, after integration the bounty once found on The Block was no more. While there have been African American business owners who have rented storefronts, there is no Black equity to be found on The Block.
May we never forget that from which we come…
By Eboné Graham