Holding History

Who shapes our memory? As my long-time readers know, I have a strong interest in history. Like many others, I believe understanding history is key to understanding our present, and essential if we are to create new frameworks for the future. Recently, three African American history stories came to my attention. How we hold history is how we hold each other. A collective historical narrative is essential to liberation.

The first came from an Asheville Citizen-Times’ “Answer Man Boyle” column. In this particular column, he answers the questions, “Who lived on the Biltmore Estate before the Vanderbilts? And is there really a cemetery on the property? Where is it? How many people are buried there?” When I read the column, I was upset to see the answers given to him by the estate did not include any mention of Native Americans or African Americans. This is what we call whitewashing of history. Native Americans of course lived on the property many years before the Vanderbilts, and there is a Native American burial mound on the estate, which in my mind is relevant to the question about who is buried there. Click here for an article about local Native American history and the burial ground on the estate.

Pictured: Former Presbyterian Church given by Vanderbilt to the Shiloh AME Zion Church. Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Collection at Pack Memorial Library.

Shiloh Neighborhood
As far as the African American connection to the Biltmore Estate, there is the Shiloh community. In a Mountain Xpress article about Shiloh, Virginia Daffron explains, “At the end of the Civil War, African-American farmers established ‘Old Shiloh’ on land that’s now part of Biltmore Estate. That community was mostly situated between Hendersonville Road and Cedarcliff Road and the area where Biltmore House now sits, says Bill Alexander, landscape and forest historian for The Biltmore Co.

George Vanderbilt, working through his agent Charles McNamee, bought 25 to 30 parcels from African-American landowners as he assembled the property that became his estate. Alexander’s research suggests that Vanderbilt paid well above the going rate for the land, which had been cleared of timber and had poor soil. For example, McNamee paid $1,000 for the acre of land on which the Shiloh African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church stood. The money covered the cost of purchasing a new two-acre site, moving and re-erecting a white former Presbyterian church building to become the new Shiloh AME Zion Church and relocating the church cemetery.

‘New Shiloh’ was built just east of Hendersonville Road, close to two existing African-American communities.”


Recently, Darin Waters, PhD was featured in a video where he answers the question, “Did the construction for Biltmore Estate relocate a Black Community in Asheville?” in which he talks about the history of Shiloh, which is the story of the neighborhood where he grew up.

Pictured: Shiloh Community Association event. Photo: The Urban News.

Today, Shiloh has an active Community Association and is proud of it’s history, it’s wonderful community garden, public art, and plans for the future. Certainly a neighborhood well worth mentioning in a story that includes them.

Shelton-Laurel“Dixie Be Damned” 
Looking north to Madison County, I was pleased to learn about a new group that has been formed there called Rural Organizing Against Racism (ROAR). They had an “Y’all Means All” float in the recent Marshall Mermaid Parade, and published their first blog post (first in a new monthly series) about Civil War era Madison County resistance to the Confederacy, and how today’s display of Confederate flags is not aligned with the history of the area. Click here to read it.

Portrait: Lesley Riddle by Mario Zucca.

Affrilachian Music
The third story I will share today is about Lesley Riddle, “an African-American musician whose influence on the Carter Family helped to shape country music” (Wikipedia). Seriously, his influence was huge. Of note is the fact that he  was born in Burnsville, and died in Asheville. You can click here for an Urban News story about Riddle.  Writer Alli Marshall recently wrote “Arts, equity, and the whitewashing of Riddle Fest” about the fact that an upcoming festival in Riddle’s honor features zero African American artists. It’s a great piece, I encourage you to read it. Excerpt: “We need to collectively care about these disparities and not allow them to stand. There’s too much at stake. Too much art, and therefore humanity, is being lost to the revisionist history we have — even if unwittingly — agreed to.” The overlooked African American roots of Appalachian music is a topic I have studying for awhile. I too believe an accurate, inclusive re-telling of that story can be a tool for healing and transformation. More soon.



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