What happened to Hill Street?
Hill Street was a historically Black neighborhood in Asheville, NC. Have you heard of it? Likely not. Its story, like the homes which once stood there, has been lost. It’s a story I’ve been studying deeply, wanting to fill in as many details as possible and to find and interview former residents before writing about it. But a recent tragedy has motivated me to go ahead and share some of what I know now. There will be more to be revealed as community conversations and research continue.
While also often ignored/forgotten, the Stumptown neighborhood, a Black neighborhood which was formed in the late 1800s, is somewhat more well known. There are a few resources on this history here, with more to come of course.
The Hill Street neighborhood developed adjacent to Stumptown. These 1891 and 1912 “Bird’s Eye View of Asheville” drawings show a number of houses on Hill Street.
For reasons to be revealed, my primary focus here is the history of the area off Hill Street between Bay Street and Barfield Ave, above what is now Isaac Dickson Elementary, which was a Black neighborhood from as early as 1900, if not before.
The History of Education: Asheville’s Black Community Part II, which can be found in UNC Asheville’s Special Collections, describes how, beginning in the late 1800s, Black leaders such as Isaac Dickson led efforts to build much needed public schools for Black children.
“On Sept. 22, 1899, a special committee [of the Asheville City Schools] was appointed to investigate a location for a school to house Black students. The committee reported on May 31, 1900 that an available house on Hill Street at Maiden Lane could be used. The school board authorized the subcommittee to purchase the property. Plans were made and a contract was set for the construction of a brick building on the site.
However, opposition developed to such a degree among white residents of the Montford neighborhood that it was impossible to secure a building permit from the Asheville Board of Aldermen.
The question of location of Hill Street School was finally settled May 10, 1907 when the school committee, in a special meeting, purchased an adjoining lot on Hill Street. But it was seven years later, June 4, 1914, before a contract was given to construct a building at a cost of $21,551.” The building opened in 1917.
In contrast: The Montford Avenue School, 80 Montford Ave, Asheville’s first public school for white students opened in 1888.
Also during the Hill Street neighborhood’s early history, in 1911, Dr. William Green Torrence opened Asheville’s first Black Hospital at 95 Hill Street, on the corner of Barfield Avenue.
In 1915 the congregation of what became the Hill Street Baptist Church began meeting in a schoolhouse in Stumptown. In 1932, Reverend E.W. Dixon became pastor and the church started publishing one of the first Black newspapers in Asheville, The Church Advocate.
A key moment in this story, in 1937 Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) map “ redlined “ the Stumptown and Hill Street neighborhoods due to the high percentage of Black residents. This prevented access to loans for home repair and other opportunities, and set the stage for future displacement.
According to the Asheville City Directory, in 1947 there were around 89 Black households in the Hill Street neighborhood and 34 in the area of Hill Street we’re focusing on. We can assume that, like Stumptown, this area did not have access to the amenities the white sections of the city enjoyed.
In 1949 Hill Street Baptist was built at 135 Hill Street. In May of 1951, the Reverend Dr. Nilous M. Avery became pastor of the church.
The 2010 NC Humanities Council publication, Twilight of a Neighborhood, includes this map, based on one from 1950, which shows the Stumptown and Hill Street neighborhoods, with significant locations indicated, including the Hill Street Baptist Church, Hill Street School (pictured above), and the Torrence Hospital, as well as other churches, beauty shops, and a grocery store. Stumptown elders have told me childhood stories of walking through the Hill Street neighborhood to go to Hill Street School.
According to Twilight of a Neighborhood, “in the 1950s, the [Hill Street] community included working-class families who owned their homes, small businesses, a school, and several churches. Former resident Daryl Wasson recalls: ‘You had this nice little community. These were all nice homes. They were cared for. There was nothing slovenly about it.’”
“In the mid-1950s, the city started work on the Cross-Town Expressway, Asheville’s first superhighway.”
“Hill Street homes began to fall. Wasson says, ‘My mother and I watched them build the highway. In 1957 the highway department came and took out all the houses except for three on our street (Cross St.). They came through again in ’65, and they cleaned the place out completely in ‘67.’” Researchers have yet to find archival documentation with the details of the property acquisitions for this project, which was the first in the city to tear apart a historically Black neighborhood.
While mostly impacting homes closer to the river, the expressway also demolished homes, churches, and businesses along the south side of Hill Street, as shown in the 1958 photo above (note Hill Street Baptist Church in the photo below).
In conjunction with this road construction, in 1959 the Housing Authority opened Hillcrest Apartments, located on land which was once part of the Hill Street neighborhood, around “Atkinson” on the map above. Black residents who were displaced by the expressway, and later urban renewal, became renters there.
Also in 1959, Christine W. Avery founded a kindergarten at Hill Street Baptist Church, serving Black children from the community. (Today her daughter CiCi Weston carries on this legacy by providing pre-K education and after school and summer camp programs at a center named after her mother at the church.)
In the 1960s, Rev. Dr. Avery played a key role in supporting the civil rights organizing work led by the Stephens Lee High School student members of ASCORE.
As we know, from the 1960s through the early 1990s, across Asheville Black neighborhoods and the social supports they held were torn apart by urban renewal.
At first, even with the destruction caused by the Cross-Town Expressway, the area we are focused on stayed somewhat populated, with the City Directory indicating that, in 1967, 24 households, which were most likely Black, remained between Bay Street and Barfield Ave. Homes which can be seen in the 1966 NCDOT aerial photo above.
In 1968, Stumptown residents, led by Phyllis Sherrill, protested the City of Asheville’s insufficient sanitation services in their neighborhood as compared to other parts of the city. Again, I suspect those same issues were being faced by Hill Street residents.
Unfortunately, resources were not invested in the neighborhood, and Stumptown fell further and further into disrepair. By the end of the 1970s the majority of homes (around 80) and lots in Stumptown had been acquired by the City of Asheville for the Montford Recreation Complex.
A similar trend of disinvestment was likely happening on Hill Street, and by 1977 there were only 17 occupied homes in our area of interest. However, notably, at that time the children and grandchildren of Dr. Torrence still lived at 95 Hill Street, and the light bill came addressed to Torrence Hospital.
Montford was listed in the national registry of historic places in 1977, with the City of Asheville following suit with a historic designation in 1981. However, the adjacent redlined areas of Stumptown and Hill Street, while equally historically significant, were not included in the boundaries of the historic district.
That number of occupied homes between Bay and Barfield had dropped to 11 in 1987, the year that the “Head of Montford” urban renewal project got underway. The boundaries of the project included Stumptown and Hill Street, and the southern part of Montford neighborhood, or all of census tract 2, as shown on this project map:
There is research being done by UNC Asheville students documenting the specific impacts of this project, which I will share as it becomes publicly available.
The number one goal of the Head of Montford Project was listed as, “preserving the neighborhood’s distinctive diversity — its mixture of races, classes, and lifestyles.” However, demographic numbers show the dramatic displacement of Black families during and after the project time frame (details here).
With the stage set by this project, the neighborhood has since seen the mechanics of gentrification come into play, aspects of which I intend to examine in future writings.
While the plan also listed the goal of “preserving the neighborhood’s distinctive historic character,” this preservation was oriented to houses and buildings in the Montford Historic District, ignoring those in the Stumptown and Hill Street neighborhoods.
There were still 10 occupied homes in our study area in 1997, though I suspect they were in bad shape. In 1999 a zoning overlay to allow the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce to be built at the entrance of Montford (and the top of Hill Street) was passed after a short 6-week process with little public input. It now hosts a visitor center for tourists.
In 2005, developer Frontier Syndicate LLC purchased the property in question (the area circled in the map above). While press coverage about the planned development indicates that the area was deserted, City Directory records still show a few residents in 2007.
After years of neglect and erasure, it makes sense that none of the press about the plans for the property mentioned its historic significance.
The crash of 2008 must have impacted Frontier Syndicate, and in 2012 TD Bank foreclosed on the property. By 2014 Duke Energy purchased the land for a substation — a project which was squashed by neighbors and parents of students at Isaac Dickson.
In 2017, Opportunity Zones were created as part of a federal tax reform package. Described as “a program with potential to attract investment capital into low-income areas,” the City of Asheville received 5 census tract designations for this program — all which were historically Black neighborhoods, including census tract 2. Since then, the only “investment” in census tract 2 that I’m aware of has been a developer building a row of luxury townhouses on Broadway which sold for almost $1 million each.
Which brings me more or less to this year, and the Montford & Stumptown Fund of the Asheville-Buncombe Community Land Trust. Established in 2021 with the goal of creating and protecting permanently affordable homes for Black families in census tracts 2 and 3, the group of us organizing this initiative have been looking at what land is available in our neighborhood. Which of course led us to the Hill Street property.
Since then, we have been dreaming of this property going into the community land trust, and to have it hold owner-occupied homes for Black families once again.
My intensive work gathering information about the Black historic importance of this property was motivated by the belief that, upon learning about this history, Duke Energy, who had recently sponsored the City of Asheville’s Reparations speakers series, would want to walk their talk of, “When it comes to promoting equality, words are not enough.”
As we worked on a strategy for approaching Duke, we got caught up in wanting to be sure we had the best information and players and plans in place before making a move. All while living busy lives which also slowed us down. The land was not on the market, and had been empty for years, so we thought we had time.
Then, last week, we got word that Duke has sold the property on Hill Street to a developer with plans to build “luxury homes.”
That is the tragedy referred to at the beginning of this piece.
And while this loss should not be surprising as it is the same scenario that has played out over and over at every scale imaginable, it still hurts. A lot.
And so I will grieve, tell this story, and continue partnering with Black leaders working for reparations, rejuvenation, and liberation in all spheres of life.
Many thanks to the elders of the Stumptown neighborhood group, and the Stumptown Reparations Commission representatives for their stories and visions; and to Marc Voorhees and Dale Wayne Slusser for their Hill Street research which informed this piece. Thanks also Dr. Darin Waters, Deputy Secretary, Office of Archives & History, and his team at the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources for their assistance.
Image sources: Hill Street School rendering — Asheville Art Museum. Torrence Hospital photo — Heritage of Black Highlanders Collection, Special Collections, University of North Carolina Asheville. Hill Street School postcard — Buncombe County Special Collections.
Originally published at http://amiworthen.com on August 1, 2022.