Ask many people about the history of entrepreneurship + development here in Asheville, and some familiar names come to mind – George Vanderbilt, E.W. Grove, Rafael Guastavino, Douglas Ellington. But many community founders and entrepreneurs of color also left lasting legacies, even though there is far less written about them.
Today and in honor of Black History Month, we’re highlighting four African-American entrepreneurs + movers and shakers in the 828 – who left their mark on cultural centers, the local tourism industry, agriculture, sports, and even entire neighborhoods. Read on to meet – or revisit – these remarkable Ashevillians.
Born into slavery, Tempie Avery was a midwife for the family of Nicholas Woodfin (who was a state senator + the largest slave owner in Asheville). She became renowned for her skills delivering black and white babies in Asheville. After the Civil War, Tempie received an acre of land at 34 Pearson Dr. (the current location of the Montford Community Center) from Woodfin.
That land was adjacent to the area that would become Asheville’s Stumptown neighborhood – a vibrant black neighborhood where she was a community leader. Stumptown was cleared during Urban Renewal in the 1960s and 70s, when around 250 families were displaced, and their homes destroyed.
Young Men’s Institute (YMI) and Dicksontown, Downtown and North Asheville
Dickson came to Asheville in 1870. Six years later, he bought land near modern-day Charlotte St. and rented properties on the land to freedmen – the area was known as Dicksontown.
In 1890, Dickson and Edward Stephens, another black entrepreneur + developer, worked together to hold the first meeting about creating the YMI, which was built in 1892 and was dedicated to supporting social + economic opportunities for African Americans, including an orchestra, basketball court, pool + a library, in Asheville’s Block neighborhood.
He was also instrumental in founding Asheville’s first black Masonic lodge, Venus Lodge No. 62. Dickson also supported the creation of the public school system here, through generous donations and actively sitting on the school board. Isaac Dickson Elementary (125 Hill St.) bears his name.
Burton St. neighborhood, West Asheville
This former Buffalo Soldier moved to Asheville in 1906 and helped develop West Asheville’s Burton St. neighborhood, where he ran a grocery store (at 3 Buffalo St.) that included a beauty shop and was a center for the community. It became the Blue Note Casino when his son took over it after Pearson’s death.
He was trained in law, religion, merchandising + real estate and also organized Asheville’s first semi-professional (and very successful) African-American baseball team – the Royal Giants. He also established Asheville’s chapter of the NAACP, and in 1914 he started a huge agricultural fair that brought thousands of people to Pearson Park in West Asheville.
Rabbit’s Motel, 110 McDowell St., Southside
Opened by Fred “Rabbit” Simpson in 1949 during segregation, Rabbit’s Motel welcomed guests to its rooms + legendary soul food restaurant. Although it wasn’t officially listed in The Green Book (which listed safe hotels, restaurants, gas stations + other travel accommodations that would welcome black patrons), Rabbit’s was known as a safe haven for black travelers in the South – and hosted celebs like Richard Pryor, Duke Ellington + Count Basie. DYK: Fred Simpson earned the nickname “Rabbit” because he was a fast runner.
After closing in the early 2000s, the building sat empty until last year, when local entrepreneurs Claude Coleman Jr. (the drummer of Ween) and Brett Spivey purchased it. They’ll open SoundSpace, which will include affordable rehearsal rooms for musicians as well as a soul food cafe in homage to Rabbit’s, this year.
Bonus: Check out Claude’s interview with Dr. Darin Waters and Dr. Marcus Harvey, all about the history of Rabbit’s and its future, on The Waters & Harvey Show.
Want to explore more of black history in Asheville? We recommend hopping on a Hood Huggers driving or walking tour ($25+). Founder DeWayne Barton will take you to historic sites throughout town, plus bring in special guest performers + speakers along the way. DeWayne also sells a new Green Book that lists black bizzes + community orgs.
For more news, resources + updates on Asheville’s African-American community, check out The State of Black Asheville and The Color of Asheville (which has a directory of black-owned businesses + entrepreneurs in town).
Want to follow the City’s efforts to preserve local black history? Head to a meeting of the African-American Heritage Commission, which meets monthly at City Hall.