ASHEVILLE — Pack Square has been a public gathering place in the center of this city’s downtown since the 18th century. It’s home to the Vance Monument, fountains, a park, and an amphitheater. Charming bronze sculptures of pigs and turkeys remind visitors that it was once a thriving agricultural market. The square’s shameful past as a slave market is not noted on any plaque or public display, though. Nor is the fact that Zebulon Baird Vance owned slaves and served in the Confederacy.
This kind of whitewashing, so common in the South, is what artist and community activist DeWayne Barton is trying to combat with his local tours, Hood Huggers. Nestled in the mountains, Asheville has long been considered a bohemian haven for the arts. The “Paris of the South” has done an excellent job of attracting attention as both a tourist destination and a desirable place to live. But according to Barton, the founder of, driving force behind, and tour guide for Hood Huggers International, Asheville is more multilayered than it looks. Gentrification is rapidly pushing people out of neighborhoods that have been predominantly African American for generations, and in their place, hotels and expensive new houses are being built.
“We like to market ourselves on diversity, but it’s not accurate,” says Barton of Asheville. “It’s like we’re putting makeup on.”
Barton’s family is originally from the city, but he grew up in Washington, DC, before returning to 15 years ago to help build a community in the then crime-ridden neighborhood of West Asheville, known at the time as “Worst Asheville.” The catalyst for Hood Huggers came from talking to his mother about her education in Asheville and what it was like to grow up in the era of desegregation. “When she started talking about her memories, she was happy, but she soon became angry,” Barton said on a recent tour. “I saw there was a lot of pain about what happened.”
Built in 1921, Stephens-Lee High School educated the best and the brightest of Asheville’s black community, many of whom went on to become Ivy league scholars. However, when schools were integrated in 1965, Stephens-Lee was closed and its students moved. Now only the gym remains, repurposed as a recreation center and small museum dedicated to the school’s illustrious past. It’s the first stop on the Hood Huggers tour. From the grounds, you can look across a busy road to downtown and Pack Square, the site of the old slave market.
Barton uses this location to poignant effect as he tells the audience how all the trophies and awards that students earned at Stephens-Lee were summarily thrown away after the school was closed. Fortunately, the janitor who was tasked with dumping the precious artifacts had the foresight to save some of them. Barton discovered this by coincidence, when talking a woman who had been part of the integration process.
Later on, the tour stops at a beautiful, detailed mural depicting local African American history, in a project led by Asheville artist Molly Must. There’s a portrait of Nina Simone, who was born not too far away in Tryon, and a rendering of the prison-industrial complex, which has for many, including Barton, taken the place of slavery. The mural is part of Triangle Park, a small green space situated downtown in an area that was once full of thriving, African American–owned businesses. It’s also a perfect place to witness the unbridled gentrification of the city. The mural faces a lot that’s swiftly being turned into yet another hotel. Barton points out historical buildings that were part of the black community — a pharmacy, a taxi company — and says, “Today, none of the businesses here are owned by African Americans.”
The tour began two years ago, when Barton was looking for a way to start a business that would combine his passions for art and social justice. “Art validates the story” of injustice and abuse, he says. “It also has a healing component.” To that end, spoken-word poetry performances by Barton himself and interludes by local musicians are peppered throughout the tours. “In the state of Black Asheville / Smoke-puffing metal dinosaurs seek out whom they may destroy,” begins one of his poems, titled “Regentrification Park.” For Barton, these elements are essential, because they help the local black community, whose history has been erased, rebuild its sense of self. And instead of lecturing people on this very real issue, he “uses art as an expression of one’s position creatively.”
Hood Huggers has proven extremely popular and received great deal of local press, though Barton notes that the majority of people who take the tour are white. They’re not the only audience he’s looking for, but their presence can be helpful in countering the tendency among those in Asheville to shrug off comments about the city’s lack of racial diversity by claiming it’s just a small place that doesn’t have many black people to begin with. Hood Huggers reveals that the reality is far more complex. Each building and site that the tours visit (there are two: one of downtown and one of West Asheville) is still in use as a community space — recreation centers, parks, and cultural centers that are a testament to the resilience of the local African American community. But they’re not necessarily known and are sometimes underutilized. Barton says he’s had people come up to him on a tour and admit, “I have lived here for 20 years and never knew any of this.”
In that sense, Hood Huggers is not only a means of preserving the history of black Asheville, but also a call to activism. Barton wants to spread the tours to cities throughout the South, so that the hidden heritage of African Americans around the region is brought to light. In so doing, he hopes, healing can begin and communities can flourish.
More information about Hood Huggers’ tours is available online.