Reflecting on the Early History of African Americans in WNC

Dr. Darin Waters gave a presentation at Leadership Asheville Forum titled, “Life Beneath the Veneer: Reflections on the Early History of African Americans in Asheville and Western North Carolina.”    

UNC Asheville assistant professor of history Dr. Darin Waters was invited by Leadership Asheville Forum to give a presentation titled, “Life Beneath the Veneer: Reflections on the Early History of African Americans in Asheville and Western North Carolina.”

Waters is the Special Assistant to the Chancellor for Outreach and Engagement at UNC Asheville.

Waters said that in the larger narrative of American history, the African American experience is not a comfortable one. “I have found it interesting that in my conversations with people that there is sometimes a lack of knowledge about it. It’s almost dismissive.”

Waters, born in Asheville in 1967, said his research is intimately tied to his personal experience. In his academic life he frequently encountered others who believed the myth that there were no black people in the mountains of WNC. This inspired him to embark upon the research for which he earned his PhD from UNC Chapel Hill.

“I think we’ve gone a long way to begin to overturn that myth, but we still have a lot more work to do. The research to really dig into the African American experience in this region is an ongoing project, and it is picking up steam,” he said. “Many people don’t realize that the modern civil rights movement has deep roots in the southern Appalachian region.” Waters has traced his own family history through census records dating back to 1850.

Thomas Wolfe wrote a fictionalized version of a real event he remembered that took place in Asheville, the Will Harris murders. “This is the story of an incident that occurred in the area around Valley Street on November 14, 1906. It’s interesting that just days before the episode in Asheville, a ‘Will Harris’ attempted to sue his white employer for non-payment of work he had done. This African American man went on a shooting spree where he killed three other African Americans and two white policemen.” A posse was organized, and Harris was found in Fletcher. Instead of being brought back to trial, he was essentially lynched. Harris’ mutilated body was brought back to Asheville to be put on display.

Waters said there are a number of curious elements pertaining to this event. First, it occurred just a few weeks after a major race riot in Atlanta. There were reactions in African American communities as far away as Chicago and Detroit. “This was a very volatile period, just after the disfranchising movement in the American south which disfranchises African American men of the last blacks serving in the United States Congress.” The last would be George Henry White of North Carolina. No African American was elected to Congress again from North Carolina until 1992.

The response from the African American community days later was expressed in a statement. It denounced Harris for his crimes, rejected him as a member of their race, and exonerated the city’s leaders for Harris’ dispatch. Waters said because southern Appalachia is generally accepted as a minority outside the mainstream of American life, the black community within is something of a minority within a minority. The minority was so small in 1906 that its presence was dependent on the white population to survive, so it becomes easy to minimalize their history.

Waters commends Biltmore Estate for making their voluminous records available to his research for the writing of his doctoral dissertation. “They made the decision that I have access to their archives. When I got there on the first day I couldn’t believe I was walking into this treasure trove of information that has been preserved about the African American community.”

All Waters knew about his great-grandfather Louis Waters was that he was born in 1860, and owned an apple orchard in Edneyville, NC. On that first day in the Biltmore archives, he found three handwritten letters from his grandfather in the database showing he did business with Biltmore Estate.   

Waters also found a telling letter written in 1892 by Edward Stephens, for whom Stephens-Lee High School was named, to George Vanderbilt’s attorney Charles McNamee. “I know that you are often overburdened with special duties, and I, therefore, loathe at any time to bother you with my affairs and troubles, but I also know of your sympathy and benevolence towards my people. And I’m sure you will excuse my intrusion as you have always done whenever I came to you for advice and help, especially as it relates to the unkindness and wrongdoing of certain members of your race. On the part of some of them there is a determination to run out all persons white and black who try to better the condition of the Negroes to help them build manly, self-reliant, Christian character, if not by the brutal Klu Klux methods, than by equally effective bulldozing, misrepresentation, insults, bluffings, and other wicked devices,” the letter reads.

It makes further mention of how in Asheville the white ladies of the Northern Methodist Mission School were in particularly offensive terms warned by a white crowd that if they did not clear out within two days they would be lynched. The mayor and chief of police spurned their requests for protection so they packed their trunks. Some leading citizens later urged them not to depart, realizing the urgency of their concerns. Even back then, some enlightened souls in Asheville were trying to frame it as a progressive locale.

For the benefit of its tourist industry, Asheville really wanted to create an image as a place where we didn’t have these types of conflicts, Waters said. “Now, creating opportunities that African Americans can take advantage of is the major question that we now are trying to deal with. If tourism is going to be the driving engine of the region, how can African Americans more directly participate? Part of the answer is uncovering and understanding the uniqueness of the African American experience in this city and this region of the state,” Waters said. 

By Mark-Ellis Bennett

Photograph by Mark-Ellis Bennett: