Cash for House – IBuyHomesLLC.com
She came home for work one day and it was gone. Everything, even the foundation. As if it had never been.
This is how we were told about the destruction of Pearson’s Store, of how the city came that day without warning and demolished the small grocery store that E.W. Pearson had opened in the Burton Street neighborhood in the early 20th century.
While telling us the story, Vivian Conley’s demeanor remained calm and endearing, but she warned us that she couldn’t speak too much about the community’s experiences without the pain and sadness rising.
I am with eight other people on a tour of the Burton Street neighborhood in West Asheville. The tour began at the Burton Street Community Center — once the segregated Burton Street School — made a stop at the site where the store once stood and concluded in the Peace Garden behind the school.
To place the loss of the store into some sort of perspective, we might consider the importance of Pearson to the history of Burton Street, to the history of Asheville as a whole and, in fact, to the history of the nation.
As a young man, E.W. Pearson was a member of the Buffalo Soldiers, the segregated 9th Cavalry unit of the U.S. Army that fought alongside Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War. When he moved to Asheville in 1906, he used his real estate training from his studies in Chicago to create subdivisions for African-Americans in West Asheville, including in 1912 the Burton Street neighborhood.
In 1914, he organized the Buncombe County and District Agricultural Fair, which ran for 33 years, coming to an end the year after his death in 1946. Thousands of people attended this fair, Ms. Conley told us on the tour. Blacks and whites together, she said.
Two years after establishing the fair, he organized the first African-American semi-professional baseball team in Asheville, the Royal Giants. He had loved to watch baseball but wasn’t allowed into whites-only games in the city. In 1921, he helped to found the Blue Ridge Colored Baseball League and became its first president. The league brought together teams from North and South Carolina: Charlotte, Asheville, Spartanburg, Greenville, Gastonia, Concord, Winston-Salem, Rock Hill and Anderson.
Then, in 1933, he established the Asheville branch of the NAACP and became its first president as well. E.W. Pearson, in other words, was a leading force in the community, along with his wife Annis Bradshaw Pearson, who often joined in his efforts and was herself involved in various community and civic organizations.
I think about the store, about this man who ran it, photographed again and again in his three-piece suits and fedoras, the man who was known for the catchy phrases he created for the fair. I think of the store that sat across the street from the Burton Street School and a stone’s throw from the 1890 Wilson Chapel A.M.E. Church, two other monuments to African-American leadership and community.
I imagine the people who entered the store on a daily basis, maybe to buy a cool drink, maybe just to say hello to neighbors, maybe to see what Pearson was up to that morning, this man was who had done so much to create community in his world, the sort of man who had brought fair rides and baseball and penny candy into the neighborhood, even as he addressed the pressing social justice issues of his day.
I think of Pearson’s son, the man known as Professor Bop, who in the early 1950s became the first African-American disc jockey at WLOS Radio and who later turned the store into the Blue Note Casino, a music hall established in that historical moment when rock ‘n’ roll, with its deep and rich African-American roots, was about to explode on the national scene.
And I think of Vivian Conley, an activist who has worked diligently to hold together her neighborhood. I think of the shock she must have felt on that day she returned home from work to find the store not only demolished but missing, carried away by some rapid and unfeeling, if not hostile, force.
The day after our tour, I returned to the vacant lot. I walked up the remnants of a driveway, now broken asphalt that turns to cracked red dirt. Black walnuts litter the dry grass. A hemlock tree covered in vines attempts to survive at the edge of the lot. Off to the left, someone has nailed a sign to an old telephone pole. The sign is faded, horribly weather beaten, but you can still make out the name Jesus.
The calls of the tree frogs compete with traffic noise from the increasingly encroaching highway. The city has chosen an aggressive plan for widening Interstate 26, a plan that will roll over the old Wilson AME church, now known as Community Baptist. It will also take out Ms. Conley’s home. When this plan is implemented, it will be the third time the neighborhood has been devastated by highway construction.
I walked to the back of the lot, where someone had dumped a truckload of trash, including a broken white-picket fence. The day before, when our second tour guide — artist and poet DeWayne Barton — saw the trash, he broke into sad and solemn song. As the rest of us listened and watched, he raised his closed eyes to the heavens and voiced both lament and hope.
As it turned out, that lament represented one of the ways that community lives on in Burton Street. And I don’t mean that the community survives only in the vibration of song and broken dreams. I mean that DeWayne and his wife Safi Mahaba have created a peace garden behind the school, one they made from trash left at the site.
When our group visited, we were viewing the garden in the cool shadows of evening, and some of what makes the garden remarkable was lost on me. I laughed at the paintings of Fat Albert and Fred Sanford. I felt awed by the paintings of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X and other leaders in the civil rights movement.
Still, it wasn’t until I returned the next day, in the harsh afternoon light, that I looked closely at the images, at the meaning being conveyed by this garden. It overwhelms the senses — and the imagination — and the mythological stories wrapped into the history of the United States. It is sophisticated art in the genre of junkyard.
Though the artists’ final message is one of hope, peace and love, not for one moment do they shy away from presenting truths about racism, environmental degradation, the despair of war or the inequities of capitalism. Plastic Santa Clauses are mixed with skulls and gas masks, with crosses and tattered currency.
One particular scene in the garden took my breath away. At the base of a tree, you see a bomb half-buried in the dirt. Leaning dead against the tree is the bloodied representation of the body of an African-American woman dressed in white. Long strands of pearls hang around her neck. An Army helmet lies crooked on her bent head. An African-African child lies under her.
Yet overseeing these scenes are the icons of African-American leadership, those portraits of Tubman and King and Parks that give order to the chaos and violence. They stand in peaceful contrast to the images of Reagan and Nixon scattered among those places of the garden where wasteland is paramount.
As I was leaving, I passed a smaller exhibit. This one warned of the impact of drugs, but it also connected the loss of black life to the process of gentrification. And it’s here that I find myself at a loss, knowing that I am a part of the gentrification process of Asheville — in my case, of the African-American community of Shiloh in South Asheville, a community originally displaced by George Vanderbilt when he built Biltmore Estate.
I don’t yet know how to react to my role in gentrification, but I’m glad I took the Hood Huggers Tour of Burton Street. I hope it will make me a better neighbor.
Dr. Darlene O’Dell has published three books, including the most recent “The Story of the Philadelphia Eleven” (Seabury Books, 2014). She has appeared on NPR and has taught at Clemson University and the College of William and Mary. Contact her at [email protected] or visit darleneodell.com.
ABOUT HOOD TOURS
Hood Tours offers driving and walking tours of 90 minutes to 2 hours. Learn more at hoodhuggers.com or call 828-275-5305.
Driving tours run at 1 p.m. most Thursdays and at noon or 3 p.m. Saturdays, or by appointment for groups of 5-9 people. Driving tours typically begin at the Stephens-Lee Recreation Center, 30 George Washington Carver Ave., Asheville. The cost is $25/person.
Walking tours of the Burton Street Community (West Asheville), East End Valley Street (downtown) and Shiloh (South Asheville) are available for groups of 5-25 people. The cost for a walking tour is $20/person.
Tours incorporate history, art, poetry, music, community green spaces, local voices and more to relate the past, present and future of African-Americans in Asheville. Tours are led by artist, poet and community activist DeWayne Barton.
According to its website, “Hood Tours is a social enterprise that provides opportunities for young people while helping to spark more grassroots economic development in these resilient communities.”