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International’s Goals for Asheville’s Historically Black Neighborhoods

If you spend any time in downtown Asheville, you’ve probably seen the brightly colored Hood Huggers tour van moseying through the streets or parked for a festival. The van and its driver, Asheville native DeWayne “B-Love” Barton, have become regular neighborhood sights, not only downtown but also in areas like South Asheville’s Shiloh and West Asheville’s Burton Street Community. Barton, advertising his “Affrilachian” tours, is on a mission to promote African-American arts, culture, and businesses in the city.

By Ali McGhee
Photos by E. Paulette Evans

In recent years, there’s been a welcome movement to recognize the multiplicity of Appalachian identities. This more expansive view complicates long-held, mostly outsider assumptions to highlight the rich diversity of a region that stretches from Maine to Mississippi. Even if you’re not familiar with the term Affrilachia, you might already have surmised its meaning. Specifically referring to African-Americans living in the region, the term was originally coined by Frank X Walker, the first African-American Poet Laureate of Kentucky (the accolade was awarded in 2013).

For Barton, a sculptor and poet, the word has weight and significance for this area. He was born in Asheville, and upon his return over 10 years ago he quickly became involved in work that gave back to Asheville’s historically black neighborhoods. Now, he wants to get others involved, too, by highlighting the history and culture of these places.  

The first black residents in the Asheville area came as slaves in 1777. By 1800, close to 6% of the county’s population was African-American. The number would rise to well over 16% by Emancipation in 1865. With the growth in population came a swell in black involvement in the growing community, and black businesspeople like James Vester Miller, a land developer and contractor who came to the area in the 1860s, would help create several thriving black business districts. One such district is the area around Eagle Street, a stop on Barton’s tours.

It’s a remarkable history that goes mostly untold, but Hood Huggers is changing that. If you take a Hood Huggers tour, you’ll get not only the history, but you’ll also see how these areas are thriving right now. Although decades of city planning detrimental to historically black neighborhoods and business districts has left many of the communities at a marked disadvantage, giving back to these areas of town is a vital task that will enrich the lives of all residents.

Barton recognizes that it’s past time for a shift. He is initiating and sustaining change through Hood Huggers, but he’s building on that to go one step further through his project, the Pearson Plan. According to the organization’s website, the Pearson Plan offers “sustainable strategies for building support pillars for resilient historically African-American neighborhoods, providing a framework for community capacity building while increasing the effectiveness of existing service programs. These strategies incorporate the arts, social enterprise, and the environment, building a culture of stability that inclusive and economically just.”

Barton’s multi-directional, multimodal approach is exactly the kind of vibrant, evolving system we need in place so that Appalachian communities—and particularly to communities that have been historically disenfranchised or otherwise—can move forward together.

Holler interviewed Barton about the origin of Hood Huggers, the Pearson Plan, what to expect on a Hood Huggers tour, and the black community in Asheville.


 

Ali: How did you start Hood Huggers?

DeWayne: Hood Huggers is a culmination of working in the community for over 13 years, since I moved back here. Originally I started working right in the neighborhoods. I was cleaning up neighborhoods, picking up trash. And then I started trying to create work and jobs in the neighborhoods for young people in particular, which led me to start a non-profit (Green Opportunities).  After doing a non-profit I wanted to continue to do this type of work, and I thought I'd start a business with the mission to help build infrastructure in communities while creating a blueprint of how businesses can play a more active role in rebuilding and providing maintenance to neighborhoods. African-American neighborhoods in Asheville in particular are being left behind. They lack basic infrastructure, connections, and momentum. We've got to have more of that. Our mission is to help do that. There’s this whole consciousness around prioritizing making money for yourself. But how is that going back to improving conditions in neighborhoods and creating opportunities for businesses? How can we connect businesses so they work more as a team? We are young, but what we seek can be very valuable for communities.

When we do a Hood Tour, we always pass out the “Green Book,” which is a local directory of African-American businesses, non-profits and other groups that are doing work in and around the neighborhoods. I want to help those existing businesses and organizations. On a broader level, the Pearson Plan works to connect those businesses as a team. Hood Tours is the blueprint of how a business can both make money and give back to the community.

How can the arts change communities?

That's the key part right there. I'm doing it by reading poems on the tours, taking people to places where art is made and displayed. Our key components to the Pearson Plan are three focus areas: arts, environment, and social enterprise. We try to stay within those three categories because we're looking at the arts as the healing process.

 We’ve got to work to heal our communities and our environment. We are thinking about this as a whole reconstruction. We all have to redo and rethink how we treat and act within the environment. Social enterprise to me is about staying environmentally and socially conscious in an inclusive and just way. The goal is for Hood Tours to be the thing that gets people together, that lets people know who's who. Hood Tours is the attractor. It’s the bright colors. But the goal of is to use the momentum to get Hood Tours down in the deeper work of the Pearson Plan.

What are some of the tour highlights?

One big highlight is when we have local artists pop up at different stops and perform for people on the tour. In the Shiloh community, there’s a young man that's really sharp. So we pay him—this young boy—to take it from there. We try to encourage young people to be engaged in the history of that neighborhood, so they can take the place of other people who came before them. Because this is a long process. We want to engage young people from different communities, and we want to support the artists on the tour. We pay the artists who perform on the tour. We want money to flow in the communities, to local artists and to local restaurants and businesses. We want to help be that connector.  The whole goal of Hood Huggers International is to promote businesses, people and neighborhoods, and to really put them out there and really let people know what other things are going on in Asheville that they need to be aware of and, of course, support.  We look at the arts as a healing process, and there is some healing that has to be done.

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Hood Huggers International driving tours are approximately 1½ hours and run most Thursdays at 1 pm and Saturdays at 12 noon. Additional times are available by appointment for groups of 5-9 people. Walking tour are also available to book, and explore the Burton Street Community (West Asheville), East End Valley Street (Downtown), and Shiloh (South Asheville).

Price: $25/person for a driving tour, $20/person for a walking tour

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Sources and further reading:

http://www.hoodhuggers.com/

https://www.greenopportunities.org/

http://www.colorofasheville.net/history/

http://www.wresfm.com/avl_black_history.php

http://stateofblackasheville.org/

http://www.hoodhuggers.com/pearson-plan/

http://www.citizen-times.com/story/news/local/2015/02/07/unsettling-state-black-asheville/23055193/