The 129 year-old history of the YMI Cultural Center

We love the English Tudor Cottage-style architecture. | Photo by Camille Nevarez-Hernandez

Did you know that Asheville is home to one of the oldest operating Black cultural centers in the country?

The YMI Cultural Center, which recently celebrated its 129th anniversary, has served as a cornerstone of Asheville’s Black community since 1893. Today, as the center is in the midst of a $5 million fundraising + preservation initiative, we’re taking a look back at this building’s rich history and continued legacy.

1892 — Community organizers Isaac Dickson and Dr. Edward S. Stephens approached George Vanderbilt about funding a “YMCA”-esque institution for the Black masons, carpenters, plasterers, and laborers who helped construct the Biltmore Estate, with the goal of improving “the moral fiber of the Black male through education focusing on social, cultural, business and religious life.”

1893 — The building, originally named the Young Men’s Institute, was successfully funded and opened its doors. It was designed by architect Richard Sharp Smith, who also designed The Basilica of St. Lawrence and various Biltmore sites.

1906 — The Black community fundraised $10,000 to pay the Vanderbilts for the building, which by then had transformed into a multi-use facility which housed a public library, offices, classrooms, athletic facilities, and beyond.

1910 — The YMI Orchestra — a 26-voice and 12-instrument ensemble directed by professor CH Baker — was operating in full-swing.

1910-1960s — The center continued to serve as a “refuge for African American residents during the harsh segregation of the Jim Crow era,” until it saw a period of decline related to desegregation and urban renewal.

1977 — The building became officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places — ironically, the very same year, the center shuttered due to ownership changing hands + significant disrepair.

1980 — A coalition of nine local Black churches bought the YMI and began making the necessary renovations.

1981-2000s — The center developed a variety of cultural programs and exhibitions of art and artifacts from Asheville to Africa preserving the heritage of African Americans in Buncombe County. Noteworthy programs include the annual Goombay Festival, The Black Experience Book Club, various business + professional development series, and Ladies in Shape fitness classes.

2021 — The YMI launched its $5 million capital campaign fundraiser with the goal of “elevating the look, reach, and abilities” of the organization. Specifically, the funds will go to building preservation + real-estate development, increased staffing and wages for employees, and the creation of an endowment fund. As of Feb. 10, 2022, the center has raised $1.8 million. Support the campaign.

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