Trail connects visitors to Affrilachian history and ever-evolving cultural experiences, multicultural events, Black-owned businesses and new ventures from artists, chefs and entrepreneurs
ASHEVILLE, N.C. , /PRNewswire/ — For the first time, Asheville’s Black heritage and culture is on permanent display around the city through a new walking trail. Unveiled in December 2023, the Asheville Black Cultural Heritage Trail is the first of its kind in Western North Carolina and one of a few Black heritage trails in the 13-state Appalachian region. It marks a significant milestone in the growing effort to amplify and preserve Affrilachian heritage, granting visitors an opportunity to retrace compelling narratives that make up Asheville’s Black history – including stories that have never been shared in a public space.
From well-known figures like Nina Simone, who attended boarding school in Asheville (her nearby childhood home will soon be open to the public), to community landmarks like the YMI Cultural Center, one of the oldest Black community centers in America, to everyday citizens like William R. “Seabron” Saxon, who refused to give up his bus seat four years before Rosa Parks, the Asheville Black Cultural Heritage Trail unearths intimate and fascinating stories of dignity, struggle and resilience. The trail comprises 14 stops and 20 panels across three historically significant Black neighborhoods.
Community activist Catherine Mitchell, who shepherded the trail to completion after years of extensive community efforts, said, “Our goal was focused on lifting up Black history in an inclusive way by illuminating stories of resilience and resourcefulness. The trail’s completion represents a moment of celebration, unity and remembrance.”
NEWS HIGHLIGHTS: Featured below are insights on how to experience the three-part Asheville Black Cultural Heritage Trail (and ideas for where to step off the trail and into local culture), how to plan a trail visit around a variety of new and ongoing multicultural festivals, as well as other important community efforts reclaiming Affrilachian culture.
“Where are the Black people?” – The Broader Context of the Asheville Black Cultural Heritage Trail in Reclaiming Affrilachian History
“Affrilachia” is a term coined in 1991 by Kentucky poet Frank X Walker to describe the Black legacy in Appalachia, a region where Black history and culture is deeply rooted but has historically been erased. As Asheville native and Buncombe County Commissioner Al Whitesides, who is featured on the digital trail, stated at the ribbon cutting, “Asheville’s Black Cultural Heritage Trail will finally tell the stories of our unsung heroes and under-recognized achievements so that Black communities, students and visitors can answer the question you often hear: ‘Where are the Black people?'”
Pulling forward the legacy and history of Affrilachia has informed numerous local businesses, artists and creators in the Asheville area. Examples include artist and activist DeWayne Barton who pursues the vision of “Rebuilding Affrilachia” through his Hood Huggers Tours of historically Black neighborhoods; and national recording artist Moses Sumney who was drawn to Asheville and inspired to release the full-length concert film Blackalachia in 2021.
How to Experience the Asheville Black Cultural Heritage Trail – Three Historic Neighborhoods and Exclusive Digital Content Provide an Immersive Experience
Trail-goers can explore each leg of the three-part trail – Downtown, Southside, and the River Area, also known as the River Arts District – and gain an uncommonly immersive experience of the past, walking past historically significant sites.
- Downtown: a Renaissance of Black Businesses on The Block | In the Downtown section of the trail, visitors can learn about the enduring legacy of the YMI Cultural Center, one of the first Black community centers in the country that was designed by Biltmore architect Richard Sharp Smith and will host a grand re-opening in 2024 after extensive renovations. The YMI anchors The Block, historically a center of Black innovation and creativity that is experiencing a renaissance of Black-owned small businesses like Noir Collective AVL, a boutique vendor for Black artists and creators, and LEAF Global Arts, a gallery and retail space that produces an annual multicultural festival.
STEP OFF THE TRAIL AND INTO COMMUNITY:
- Shoppers can connect with a variety of Black-owned small businesses, such as Different Wrld, an underground arts collective and performance space in West Asheville, or Healed Skin and Candle Co., where groups can craft personalized candles that transform into luxury skin care.
- Visitors to The Block can stay at The Foundry Hotel, which once crafted the bricks for the Biltmore Estate, and now hosts a free Live Jazz Night every Saturday.
- Southside: “Urban Renewal” and a Green Book-Era Landmark | Stops on this portion of the trail explore the dark history of urban renewal – a series of policies in the mid-20th century that ultimately demolished the homes of half of Asheville’s Black residents. The trail also celebrates local Black luminaries like Dr. John Wakefield Walker, the first Black pulmonologist in America who opened a tuberculosis clinic in 1915 when patients were flocking to Asheville for its clean mountain air.
STEP OFF THE TRAIL AND INTO COMMUNITY:
- Ashleigh Shanti, who was a James Beard semi-finalist for “Rising Star Chef of the Year” and competed on Season 19 of Top Chef, has described her cuisine as “Afro-lachian”, a signature blend of traditional Southern and foraged mountain ingredients.
NEW RESTAURANT: Shanti’s first brick-and-mortar restaurant, the highly anticipated Good Hot Fish (a classic North Carolina “fish camp”) opened in January 2024 along the Southside portion of the trail.
- Art-lovers can explore Southside’s rich collection of public art with Mountain Mural Tours, including artist Jenny Pickens’ “Black Lives Matter” mural in the center of downtown.
- SoundSpace@Rabbit’s was once Rabbit’s Motel, a Green Book-era landmark that provided safe lodging for traveling luminaries like Richard Pryor and Duke Ellington. Now it’s an art studio and music rehearsal space co-owned by 30-year Ween drummer Claude Coleman, Jr.
BLACK MUSICAL HERITAGE: R&B singer Roberta Flack is honored in a mural in Black Mountain, NC where she was born.
- The River Area: Trailblazer Matthew Bacoate Counseled Presidents | The River Area, also known as the River Arts District, exists today as a colorful mecca for creatives of all stripes (and the new art-inspired boutique hotel, The Radical). However, the River Area was once a historic center of Black business. One stop honors Matthew Bacoate, Jr., an Asheville Civil Rights icon who integrated a local bowling alley and golf course, opened the first Black-owned textile factory in North Carolina, counseled Presidents Nixon and Carter on Black entrepreneurship, and continues to run the Skyview Golf Tournament, the oldest Black golf tournament in the nation.
STEP OFF THE TRAIL AND INTO COMMUNITY:
- Black Wall Street AVL continues this legacy of Black commerce with its business incubator and events space. Co-founders J. Hackett and Bruce Waller Jr. own GRIND coffee shop, also located in the River Area.
- Digital Content Brings History to Life with Inspirational Music and Augmented Reality | QR Codes on interpretive panels along the trail open up a well of supporting multimedia content on the trail website and app, including:
- The Swannanoa Tunnel Song was a stirring folk song created by incarcerated Black laborers, many of whom died while building the Swannanoa Tunnel in the 1880s. Watch local musician Leeda “Lyric” Jones perform an emotional tribute to the lives lost with this Appalachian folk song.
- Dr. Oralene Simmons was the first Black student at Mars Hill College (now University) which, in a previous era, used Dr. Simmons’ enslaved great-grandfather as collateral for its founding loan.
- Sylvester Owens went from chauffeur to head gardener at the Biltmore Estate where he grew and photographed award-winning azaleas (his photos grace the back of trail panels).
- Step into history with an augmented reality experience at the YMI Cultural Center.
Time Your Trail Visit Around Asheville Multicultural Festivals – Newly launched multicultural festivals join long-running events that celebrate Black joy, resilience, and entrepreneurship in the Blue Ridge Mountains (2024 dates in parentheses).
- GRINDfest (May 24-26): Produced by Black Wall Street AVL, GRINDfest is an annual celebration of Black entrepreneurship in the River Arts District.
- Asheville’s Juneteenth Festival (June 19): Launched in 2021, Asheville’s Juneteenth Festival is a chance for all communities to celebrate Black freedom.
- Skyview Golf Tournament (July – 2024 dates TBD): Skyview is the longest-running Black golf tournament in the nation. Now in its 64th year, Skyview has helped launch the careers of 29 Black PGA golfers and is run by Asheville Civil Rights legend Matthew Bacoate.
NATIONAL DOCUMENTARY: Narrated by rock and country star Darius Rucker, “Muni” is a tale of the Donald Ross-designed Asheville Municipal Golf Course during the segregated 1950s, when Black caddies became the players and launched the groundbreaking Skyview Golf Tournament, which continues to this day.
- Goombay Festival (September – 2024 dates TBD): Created in 1982 to celebrate the richness of the African diaspora and Asheville’s African American community, Goombay is hosted by the YMI Cultural Center, one of the oldest Black community centers in the nation.
- Lovely Asheville Annual Fall Festival (Oct. 12-13): The third annual fall festival in downtown Asheville, Lovely Asheville celebrates nature and humanity with a backdrop of stunning Fall color.
- LEAF Global Arts Festival (Oct. 17-20): A long-running and beloved Asheville institution, LEAF Festival is a celebration of world music and global culture that takes place in the Lake Eden area.
For more information about the Asheville Black Cultural Heritage Trail, please visit BCHT.exploreasheville.com.
For the most up-to-date insights and happenings, visit ExploreAsheville.com.
SOURCE Explore Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau