Gene Hyde Presents on Isaiah Rice Photographic Collection

A racially mixed crowd of spectators watching a parade in Asheville. /From the Isaiah Rice Collection

A major repository for everything from features to footnotes pertaining to Asheville’s history is celebrating a significant milestone. The D.H. Ramsey Library at UNC-Asheville is celebrating its 40th anniversary.

Gene Hyde, head of Special Collections at the library recently gave a presentation about the Isaiah Rice Photographic Collection for the Old Buncombe County Genealogical Society.

The collection includes about 1,200 images taken by Isaiah Rice that document Asheville’s African-American community from the 1950s through the 1970s. “Asheville native Isaiah Rice (1917-1980), a World War II veteran, was active in the community and civic affairs. He was a recreation supervisor at the Burton Street Community Center in his neighborhood and served on the Asheville-Buncombe Community Relations Council. He was employed as a warehouseman and beverage delivery man for 40 years,” reports the UNC-Asheville Special Collections website.

Rice’s grandson, Darin Waters, originally invited Hyde to view the collection. “These weren’t just snapshots of the family cat,” said Hyde. “These were medium format slides from someone who had some nice camera equipment. I was blown away by the high quality of the images, by the subject matter, and the sheer volume of the content.” Hyde’s first priority was to digitize Rice’s pictures for a new library collection.

These photographs are evidence that defy the misconception that there was virtually no African-American presence in post-war Appalachia. Census records further inform us that in 1950 the “non-white” population of Asheville was 12,723, or 21.8 percent of the city’s inhabitants. By 1970 the definition on the census was changed to “negro or other races,” and they numbered 10,671, or 18.5 percent of the population within the city. “So you’ve got roughly one-fifth of the population documented as being African-American during Rice’s time, and this is consistent throughout central Appalachia,” Hyde said.

One iconic Rice photograph in the collection shows an intermingled group of African-American and white spectators watching a parade. Another features Maria Beale Fletcher, Asheville’s 1962 Miss America pageant winner, waving to the crown from atop a parade float. Hyde said that one of the things he tries to figure out from the pictures is how Rice represented the state of race for the African-American photographer in the segregated South. “This is about as blatant as it gets. Here we have Miss America and the professional photographer who is up here literally in front of the line, whereas Ike’s back here. He doesn’t have the privilege of being able to go directly up front to take his pictures,” he said.

The UNC-Asheville Special Collections was founded in 1977 as the Southern Highland Research Center under the leadership of history professors Bruce Greenwalt and Milton Ready. Hyde invites interested parties to visit the library by appointment to view more of the collection, part of which will be featured in an upcoming book he and Waters are planning to publish. A small subset of Rice’s photography is on exhibit now at WCQS Public Radio. Admission is free.