By Leslee Kulba-The main reason the Buncombe County Commissioners’ meeting ran twice as long as usual was the consideration of a resolution to establish a Joint City/County African-American Heritage Commission. The room was packed with people wanting to sway the minds of the commissioners.
After hearing from members of the public, Chair David Gantt spoke somewhat about what had been said. He repeated several reasons cited for preserving history. One was that things have not always been as they are, and people have not always lived as well as they do now.
In the past, African-Americans would have been afraid to come before the commissioners to request such a commission. Gantt said it was “disturbing” that a couple citizens who had spoken still retained that fear. He wanted to be clear that the commissioners support all members of the county.
He and Mike Fryar wanted those in the audience to know that what they had said had been worthwhile. Whether it had changed their minds or not, it provided new insights. It wasn’t that the commissioners were racist so much as setting up a new commission, a new level of government, in these days of mind-boggling bureaucracy, is something they wanted to approach with caution.
One reverend said people who come to Asheville ask him where the black people are. Another told the commissioners about the economic development the commission could engender. He observed that Atlanta and Charlotte were the greatest centers of tourism in the region, and they both had the best black history initiatives. Storytelling was becoming a great job creator, he added.
In the formal presentation, Marvin Chambers had spoken of the days of segregation. Slides on the screen showed photographs of separate bathrooms and drinking fountains. The resolution itself states, “Pack Square was the site of the first and second Buncombe County courthouse and was the same location where enslaved people were sold on the courthouse steps and bills of sale recorded inside at the Register of Deeds. Except for the recent publication of these records, there has been little or no public acknowledgement given to the existence of the institution of slavery in Asheville and Buncombe County.”
Wallace Bohannon supported the creation of the commission because children today don’t know about their heritage. He described a “gimme gimme gimme” and “entitlement” mentality. There is a notion not just from outsiders, but from members of the black community themselves, that skin color leads to dependency.
Bohannon said it was not that way at all in the old days. Others had told how “urban renewal” had herded Asheville’s African-Americans. A big highway had been run right through their vibrant and self-sufficient community. Bohannon said before that, blacks in Asheville had been hard-working and respectful. They had a spirit of entrepreneurism and courage.
Al Whitesides, who described himself as coming from six generations of taxpayers in Asheville, summarized the comments with a saying from his father. “To know where you’re going, you have to know where you’ve been.”
Richard Graham, Ph.D., representing the Western North Carolina Historical Association, welcomed the committee. He told how his organization would enjoy working with them, should they choose. He told how the historical association changes exhibits at the Smith-McDowell House about twice a year, organizes tours, and may even have opportunities for film productions.
After a few comments on the importance of history for all peoples, and statements of sorrow for past injustices, the commissioners approved forming the commission with a unanimous vote.
50 Years After –
Commissioner Ellen Frost wanted to present the proclamation commemorating veterans on the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. She recalled how, in high school, she had gone to the airport to pick up her brother, a returning vet who had been wounded and had lost all his hair in the war. Like many, she told how the carpet had been rolled out to greet soldiers coming home from previous wars, but Vietnam vets were punished for their courage and patriotism. “That’s just wrong,” she said.
Listing statistics, the proclamation notes almost 3 million American troops went to Vietnam, 216,000 North Carolinians served in the military during the war, 4200 were wounded, and 1624 were killed. One vet who spoke to accept the proclamation shared some more statistics. She drew gasps when she said on average 22 vets commit suicide every day.
In Other Matters –
The commissioners took another opportunity to recognize Bob Collier and his family for dedicating a steep slope with 2.5 miles of hiking trails to the county to be used as a public park and nature preserve.
Following an acceptance speech that looked like typical footage from a home movie, the commissioners received an annual report from the Land Conservation Advisory Board. Chair Greg Hutchins shared that in 2004, 57,000 acres of Buncombe County land had been conserved. As of last year, the acreage had risen to 73,000.
Last year, the county only spent $187,644 acquiring the parcels. Other parties, including property owners, the state and federal government, and private-sector grantors, contributed $2,609,205. For this, Hutchins said the county’s return on its investment was 14:1.