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Preservation progress with the Black Asheville History Project

Five years after the project began, the Buncombe County Special Collections team is continuing its work of safeguarding the history of African American Ashevillians.

A scrapbook page with eight old photos of people in the 1930s and 1940s

This scrapbook, showing life in the Burton Street neighborhood in the 1930s + 40s, is Cutshall’s favorite piece of the collection.

Annette Pearson Cotton Scrapbook, MS403.001A, Buncombe County Special Collections

In 2019, the staff of Buncombe County Special Collections (BCSC) recognized a gap in their archive. This collection has been home to historical photographs, books, letters, maps, art, and other archival materials about our area ever since its forerunner, the Sondley Library, was bequeathed to the City of Asheville in 1931.

Back then, its contents were the personal library of Foster Alexander Sondley, a local attorney and historian. Now — after decades of merges, expansions, moves, modernizations, and working to correct the history of BCSC — the collection is much more than that. But even though there are thousands of materials within the archive, staff saw that it failed to reflect Buncombe County’s African American community. So the Black Asheville History Project was born.

“It’s important that everyone in our community can see themselves in our collections,” says Collection Manager Katherine Cutshall.

Progress on preservation

The original goal of the project was to ensure that at least 25% of the BCSC catalog related to the history of African American people locally and regionally, with a projected completion in 2025. However, in the last several years, the team decided they needed a less abstract metric, one that would allow them to estimate accurate numbers.

The new collecting goal is that “at least 25% of all new materials brought into the collection reflect the lives and experiences of historically marginalized groups (i.e. BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ folks, women, working-class people).” Because of the shortage of BIPOC stories specifically, though, the focus of the preservation efforts is still Asheville’s Black communities.

In 2022 and 2023, that goal was exceeded. About 40% of all new material was related to historically marginalized groups.

Three scrapbook photos of men in the 1930s and 1940s walking down the street.

The Asheville of decades past is captured in the collection materials.

Annette Pearson Cotton Scrapbook, MS403.001A, Buncombe County Special Collections

Be a part of the project

But the work is far from over, and community engagement is a big piece of what BCSC does. If you know someone who has a story to tell, you can check out an oral history backpack with your library card; the backpack includes materials for recording an oral history interview and resources for donating the recording to the collection (although that part isn’t required).

BCSC also has archivist kits with materials for digitizing photographs or documents for personal archiving projects or donation.

“My hope is that this project is able to build a foundation of historic resources for scholars and storytellers of the future, so that they may craft more robust interpretations of the past,” says Cutshall. “But more importantly, that it serves as an inspiration to everyone in our community to get curious about our shared past, how we talk about it, and how it impacts our present and future.”

Except on Mondays, appointments aren’t necessary to visit the collection on the lower level of Pack Memorial Library. Check out the calendar of events to see what stories are in store.

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