They range from Asheville natives to relative newcomers. Their backgrounds include a broad array of vocations, including educators, nurses, entrepreneurs, and community leaders.
All of them are Black, and nearly all say they have encountered various forms of racism in their lives. They are members of the Asheville/Buncombe County Community Reparations Commission, and to a person each said they are committed to providing reparations to right the wrongs and address the residue of centuries of discrimination against the Black community of Asheville — discrimination that they say continues to this day.
“I’ve lived in other cities and Asheville by far suffers from the most racism,” Aleesha Ballard wrote in her application to be a member of the Commission.
“I have three children currently attending Asheville city schools and the education system is not only failing our children academically, but socially,” Ballard wrote. “My children don’t have teachers that look like them, and many of the ones that come around are not relatable to me or my children.”
“Working in Asheville is also difficult because oftentimes you’re the only black person on staff and it’s not very welcoming or friendly,” Ballard wrote.
Dewana Little, vice chair of the commission, echoed those sentiments.
“Asheville is plagued with systemic racism that maintains the status quo of comfortability for the majority and further minimizes or excludes the minority,” she wrote. “It’s a system that was built at a time that Black people were considered property, so it wasn’t built to include us. With all of the good intentions of people here in Asheville, we have not been able to truly reach equity in a system that was not built to provide that. The systems are broken, therefore black people will keep experiencing some form of systemic racism.”
More than 50 applications submitted
The commission, composed of 25 members and six alternates, was chosen to oversee the reparations process that the City of Asheville and the Buncombe County Commission approved by passing resolutions in the summer of 2020.
Selected this spring, the group met for the first time April 30. The commission has met three times since then, most recently June 27.
More than 50 people submitted written applications to be named to the commission. Asheville Watchdog requested copies of the applications on May 27. We received them on June 23.
Taken as a whole, the responses describe a difficult existence for Blacks living in Asheville, past and present. Many described acute and subtle discrimination in housing, employment, education, and during interactions with the police.
“I have been pulled over multiple times by law enforcement for questionable incidents,” Osondu McPeters, an Asheville native, wrote. “I’ve witnessed minorities receive lesser opportunities for higher education. My career opportunities have also been jeopardized due to indirect racial incidents.”
DeWayne Barton, an entrepreneur and founder of the Burton Street Peace Garden, said he’s dealt with racism for as long as he can remember.
“It’s difficult to be brief when you’ve experienced racism your entire life,” Barton wrote.
One commissioner wrote about being unable to get a home loan here, and being ignored by clerks while shopping. Another said she made considerably less money than her co-workers, despite holding the same job, with the same title and responsibilities. A third said that while in high school, the guidance counselor did not help her and other Black students get into college. Out of 15 Black students that graduated, only five went on to college, she said.
“Our stories matter. Our experiences matter.”
Some of the indignities seemingly were minor, but still stung.
Bobbette Mays, a lifelong Asheville resident who grew up in Stumptown, remembered “as a child going to town with my father and how he would move us off the sidewalk to let white people pass.”
Cici Weston, a local educator for more than 30 years, wrote that the fight for equality in education continues today in various forms, “from white teachers being afraid of our children (especially black boys) to black teachers not receiving the same compensation for the same job done in the schools.”
The time for change is long overdue, Weston wrote, and the reparations process could be a vehicle for inducing such change.
“Our stories matter. Our experiences matter. I am sure that some of what many of us have experienced has been pushed to the back burner,” Weston wrote. “It is time for these things to be brought to the forefront and dealt with so that everyone will have the right to receive what is given to all citizens. Housing that is supposed to be affordable should be affordable. Loans that should be available to all businesses, should be available to all businesses. Land available to purchase should be so that anyone is able to purchase it. Resources to our black communities are often limited.”
Asheville native Dwane Richardson’s grandparents lost their market, Haynes Grocery, at the corner of Blanton and Phifer streets, to urban renewal nearly 50 years ago. But “renewal” never happened, and the lot remains empty today. Except for a funeral home no other Black-owned business ever returned to the area.
Richardson and other commission members acknowledged that the reparations process will likely be long and tedious, but said it is historic and critically important.
“By shining the light on our ancestors and their hard work, discipline, and incredible strength, the Commission has a chance to start a movement that is long overdue. I would love to be a part of that movement,” Richardson wrote.
“For whatever we do with this Commission will be a potential model for our Brothers and Sisters across the nation and beyond,” Richardson wrote. “If we don’t give it our best efforts we will have failed our ancestors. So this Commission has a tremendous responsibility to deliver a well thought out and thoroughly planned proposal for reparations. If it succeeds it will be the beginning of a new dawn in recovering some of what was denied to our ancestors.”
The Commission is focusing on five primary areas for reparations: education, housing, criminal justice, economic development, and healthcare. Each Commission member and alternate has selected one of those areas to focus on. Click on each of the focus areas below to see the members of each group and to read summaries of their applications. They are in each commission member’s own words, with slight editing for style and length.
We suggest you spend some time with them. Together, the responses provide powerful insight into the life experiences of the commission members, their motivations for serving on the board, and what they hope to achieve.
As commission member Shaunda Jackson wrote: “It’s rare that we hear from those most impacted by racism in Asheville; the oppression has silenced them.”
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Watchdog reporter Scott Carroll is a Report for America corps member covering reparations and homelessness. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or message him on Twitter at @scottcarroll15.