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Asheville's Black Cultural Heritage Trail a beacon amid efforts to restrict teaching about race

Local leaders including Catherine Mitchell, Matthew Bacoate, Vice Mayor Sandra Kilgore, County Commissioner Al Whitesides and others gather for the unveiling of Asheville's Black Cultural Heritage Trail in December 2023.
Felicia Sonmez
Local leaders including Catherine Mitchell, Matthew Bacoate, Vice Mayor Sandra Kilgore, County Commissioner Al Whitesides and others gather for the unveiling of Asheville's Black Cultural Heritage Trail in December 2023.

On a cold but sunny winter morning, dozens of Asheville residents gathered in the River Arts District for a momentous occasion: the launch of the city’s Black Cultural Heritage Trail.

What started as an idea in the mind of nonprofit leader Catherine Mitchell more than a decade ago became a reality. As one of the trail’s signposts was officially unveiled, 78-year-old Mitchell beamed with pride.

Later, at a gala to celebrate the trail, Mitchell said she and others gathered hundreds of stories as part of the project — far too many to include.

"Asheville’s Black community has a long history of involvement in civic affairs, in church life … It is a vibrant community. It remains a vibrant community," Mitchell said.

Many among the older generation of Black Asheville residents said the trail is especially meaningful because it tells the story of their own lives.

Business and civil rights leader Matthew Bacoate, Jr., in his 90s, was hailed as an “Asheville Icon” on the trail. The trail celebrated his work to integrate city establishments and for his leadership of the largest Black-owned business in Asheville’s history.

Matthew Bacoate at the trail's unveiling in December 2023.
Felicia Sonmez
Matthew Bacoate at the trail's unveiling in December 2023.

The Bacoate Branch Creek in the River Arts District was named after his late mother. Bacoate said it is impossible to pick one part of the trail that is most significant.

"I would have to almost go to each one, because they all are so important to past days and the input from so many people, many who are not here today," Bacoate said.

The trail serves an important educational purpose at a time when teaching about race has become increasingly politicized.

In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis (R) led efforts to restrict how teachers can discuss topics related to race.

North Carolina lawmakers in the state House passed similar measures. In 2021, Governor Roy Cooper vetoed one such bill. Last year, the state House passed a bill that would limit the discussion of race in the classroom. The Senate has yet to take up the measure.

State Representative John Torbett (R), the bill’s sponsor, has previously argued that the legislation’s goal is to create “an education system that unites our children, not divides them.”

"We should all be able to agree that no student, no teacher, no parent, no school employee should be made to feel inferior solely because of the color of their skin or their gender," Torbett said in 2021.

Educator and artist Shirley Whitesides gestures toward a signpost during a tour of the downtown part of the trail in December 2023.
Felicia Sonmez
Educator and artist Shirley Whitesides gestures toward a signpost during a tour of the downtown part of the trail in December 2023.

Some scholars cited the way legislative efforts across the country underscored the need in all places to make sure that local Black history is taught and remembered.

Michael McElreath, an educator and historian working with the North Carolina History Center on the Civil War, Emancipation and Reconstruction, said it is important to teach "honest history."

The center is based in Fayetteville but held a symposium earlier this month for teachers in Weaverville and Asheville.

“That reaction against what's happening, supposedly, in classrooms, whether it's the claim that we're teaching CRT, which is not true, or the claim that we're trying to bring some deep bias, anti-white bias or whatever to our teaching – all of that is really about power," McElreath said.

"It's about maintaining power in the hands of those who have had it. I just think it's really important for teachers to be aware of why that's happening and also to share that with their students.”

Learning Asheville's Black history

Dolly Mullen, a retired professor at UNC-Asheville, attended the trail opening. She said the need for teaching Black history is crucial.

"There is way, way too much that Black people have done, contributed, struggled with, suffered. It has to be taught," Mullen said.

"And it's especially important for the children who are African American, quite frankly, because they need to understand that they have a place in today's society," she said. "And of course, the majority population needs to understand that, too, because it's too easy for us to move back into a negative place.”

George Luther, a 77-year-old who works as a tour guide in Asheville, participated in the inaugural trail tour. He agreed Black history is important for people of all races.

"I'm very interested in the Black history of Asheville," Luther says. "I'm a tour guide, and so I'd like to add this to my repertoire, because I think that people should know this. … You know, it's part of who we are. And, you know, unless you know the whole picture, you really don't know who we are.”

The unveiling of Asheville’s Black Cultural history trail was followed by a tour of the trail markers.

Buncombe County Commissioner Al Whitesides speaks to participants in a tour of the downtown part of the trail in December 2023.
Felicia Sonmez
Buncombe County Commissioner Al Whitesides speaks to participants in a tour of the downtown part of the trail in December 2023.

One of the tour's leaders was one of the city’s most well-known Black figures: Al Whitesides.

Whitesides, who became the first Black Buncombe County Commissioner in 2016, is also featured on the trail’s website as “a living touchstone to the city's struggle to eliminate segregation.”

As a student, he and a group of his classmates at Stephens-Lee High School worked to desegregate Asheville’s businesses and public facilities through ASCORE, the Asheville Student Committee on Racial Equality.

He said the trail is about preserving that history for current and future generations – and that the work isn’t over yet.

"Most people - and you will see somewhere a quote from me – they ask, 'Where are the Blacks in Asheville?'" Whitesides said. "This will show them that we've been here -- for several generations. And I hope we'll continue. That's why I've charged my daughters and grandsons: 'You've got to take the baton and carry it and keep going.'”

Felicia Sonmez is a reporter covering growth and development for Blue Ridge Public Radio.
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