Asheville’s Emancipation Anniversary

[cw: slavery, war, execution]

The dogwoods are blooming, reminding me that it is almost Asheville’s Emancipation Anniversary. I first learned this fact in 2015. That spring, I supported Date My City and the Center for Diversity Education in organizing an event in Pack Square to commemorate this extremely significant moment in local history. Speakers included DeWayne Barton, Carmen Ramos-Kennedy, and Dr. Dwight Mullen. There was music, remembering, and calls for reckoning.

“Two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the Union Army of General George Stoneman, led by Brigadier General Alvan Gillem, approached Asheville on April 23, 1865,” the event announcement read. “After signing a truce with the home guard, the general led 2,700 troops and hundreds of newly freed slaves along the Main Street of Asheville (now Biltmore Avenue). As they proceeded to leave town on April 26, the troops were joined by newly freed slaves from Asheville who sought safe passage out of the mountains to a new life elsewhere.”

Union General George Stoneman and staff

“This liberation of enslaved Black people in Asheville by the Union soldiers is a complicated history for most,” the announcement continued. “Rather than being remembered as an ‘Army of Liberation,’ historical markers refer to April 26, 1865 as ‘Stoneman’s Raid’ with a focus on the ransacking of the community by the soldiers as they exited the area. That is the kind of messiness that history, and heritage, require us to face.”

In recent years there has been more widespread acknowledgement of Juneteenth, a holiday which marks the day when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas to bring the news of emancipation and ensure that enslaved people were freed. That was in June 19, 1865, mere weeks after freedom came to Asheville. The first Juneteenth celebration was in 1866, and it became a federal holiday in 2021. 

It is important for me to name that I have white owning class ancestors who were living near Galveston in 1865. While I do not have documentation that those particular family members were enslavers, they very well could have been, as others were, and I know some fought for the Confederacy. It is likely that many if not all of my ancestors who were alive at that time were not happy about emancipation. That is a legacy I continue to wrestle with. 

Reading the first hand accounts of the liberation of enslaved people in Asheville, I try to imagine how my ancestors reacted when they witnessed the end of slavery. As Mary Taylor Brown (an enslaver) wrote in her account of April 1865, “we realized it was the beginning of the general emancipation which would cause a complete revolution in our lives.”

Eagle Hotel, late 1800s (Buncombe County Special Collections)

Another of the eyewitness accounts in Asheville was written by Frances Louisa “Fanny” Patton, the daughter of James W. Patton (1803-1861), who owned the Eagle Hotel and was a developer of the railroad. She wrote that, on April 26, “we saw the troops were going to move and also that a great many Negro’s were going to leave with them. About 20 of ours went off which, with those that had gone a few days before, made 29. They left all Mother’s things open in the houses so we went down and brought up what we could of our clothes and vessels. When we got back, Margaret [a slave] told me that Uncle Joe had just brought out our dear old carriage….and he and Mammy and some of the other old women and children [all slaves] were going off in it.”

I love imagining that joyful departure in the carriage.

A story worth sharing and celebrating. 

As the significance of Juneteenth became more known and embraced, Asheville’s Juneteenth Festival, which for years had been held in Hillcrest, moved to the center of town. While the Hillcrest gathering had its own power, Black organizers wanted the event reach more people, thus the new location. Of course, Hillcrest will always hold the honor of hosting those first local Juneteenth events.

As April 23 -26 approaches again, Asheville has the opportunity to commemorate our own “Juneteenth.” The dominant narratives about Buncombe County continue to obscure how chattel slavery and the subsequent exploitation of Black labor and land made the tourism industry, and much more, possible. The fact that Asheville’s Emancipation Anniversary is relatively unknown is not unrelated to the racial disparities that plague us today. 

Just as I must face and take action in response to my family history and the ways I benefit from racial capitalism, our community has a responsibility to remember and respond to our local history.

One way we could acknowledge our Emancipation Anniversary is by donating to the Reparations Stakeholder Authority of Asheville

How else will we remember and renew liberation? 

Hidden in Plain Sight

Another piece of history I am compelled to share can be found on the North Carolina Civil War Trails marker, “1st U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery,” located at the corner of Broadway, Mount Clare, and Chestnut Streets (Five Points). The marker has been there for quite awhile, and most of that time it has been covered up with overgrowth. Now the lot where it stands is for sale and the vegetation has been trimmed back, though thankfully the lovely Kwanzan Cherry is still there and in full bloom right now. Living nearby, I’ve looked at the marker many times, pondering the history it contains. 

Excerpt: “Gen. Davis Tillson raised the 1,700-man 1st U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery in Tennessee and North Carolina in 1864. The unit encamped nearby while garrisoned in Asheville in 1865…To many white Southerners, the appearance of African American soldiers symbolized defeat. Local resident Forster A. Sondley wrote, ‘Negro sentinels were placed at the approaches to the town in order that no insult might be spared to a devoted people.’ Sarah Bailey Cain recalled, ‘We passed through an immense crowd of . . . privates and insolent Negroes in U.S. uniforms. One of the Negroes called out to my father ‘How do you like this, old man?”

A pull out box reads: “Four soldiers of the 1st U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery were executed nearby on May 6, 1865. The next day, Col. Chauncey G. Hawley reported that the men ‘who committed the rape, except one witness, four in number, were shot yesterday, before the whole regiment.’ Gen. Davis Tillson wrote that they ‘stole out of camp on the march to Asheville and committed a brutal rape on the person of a young white woman, after nearly killing her uncle and aunt, two very old people, who tried to prevent the outrage. I am much gratified that they have been found and shot.'”

“The execution and burial of Pvts. Alfred Catlett, Alexander Colwell, Washington Jackson, and Charles Turner of Co. E took place at the present-day junction of Broadway with Mt. Clare Avenue and Chestnut Street (Five Points). About 1900, workers on Mt. Clare Avenue uncovered their graves. They were reburied nearby, but the location is not known.”

This story leaves many questions for me, as I know how common it was for Black men to be falsely accused of raping white women. It was a time of war, and violence was in the air. Later, when found, these men’s bodies were treated with disregard. I wonder exactly where they were reburied.

It is possible that they lay where the new fire/police station is being built, and are now a part of the dirt at that site. 

There are plenty of layers to unpack.

Other Notes

Reparations Conversation

A new local podcast, The Overlook with Matt Pieken, recently featured a conversation about Reparations with Rob Thomas of the Racial Justice Coalition. Listen here

Tourism Taxes for Housing

A coalition has organized around calling for the Buncombe County TDA to use their newly established LIFT fund to support affordable housing for service workers, and to make certain service workers are strongly represented on the committee (now forming) which decides how these funds are distributed. Sign the petition here.


One thought on “Asheville’s Emancipation Anniversary

  1. Ami, thanks for continuing to enlighten me and others with your blog. I did not know about the anniversary of those who were enslaved leaving our area in April, 1865. Ron Katz


Comments are closed.