Upper Right: John Darity, owner of Darity Cab Co., (at far left), stands with his fleet of Plymouth Coupé cabs, and drivers. This photo was taken in front of the Phillis Wheatley YWCA on East College Street, close to what is now the 240 East bypass.
Every community includes unsung heroes along with recognized and honored leaders. During Black History Month, we hope the following profiles of a few of Asheville’s unsung pioneers can be a small step towards recognizing the many African Americans whose talents, intelligence, vision, and determination helped build our community.
Mrs. Willie Ford-Hennessee
Owner, Willie’s Beauty Nook, and the Wilson-Hennessee Funeral Home; First Black Voting Registrar in WNC
Mrs. Willie Ford-Hennessee was a native of Columbus, Ohio who moved to Asheville as a girl. A graduate of Allen Home High School in Asheville, she earned a degree in education and science from St. Augustine College in Raleigh.
After attending Poro Beauty College in Chicago, she opened and managed Willie’s Beauty Nook in Asheville. She held the positions of president of the N.C. State Beauty Culturist and Cosmetologist Assn. and secretary of the National Beauty Culturist League.
A member of Theta Nu Sigma Sorority, she also became owner and manager of Wilson-Hennessee Funeral Home 133 Valley Street, and she was a member of both the N.C. and the National Embalmers and Funeral Directors Associations.
Mrs. Hennessee was also the first African American appointed a voting registrar (1960-1970) in Western NC. She was active in the Catholic churches of St. Anthony’s and St. Lawrence (now St. Lawrence Basilica), serving as a lector, choir member, and president of the St. Lawrence Altar Society.
Mrs. Maggie Jones
Pioneer among black women
Mrs. Maggie Jones was a great organizer of clubs for community improvement, working especially for the empowerment of black women. She organized the first Asheville branch of the NC Federation of Negro Women’s Clubs and was a charter member of the state organization. She organized the Girl’s Industrial Club, whose aim it was to develop Christian leadership and skilled employment and which later became part of the Phyllis Wheatley Branch of the YWCA.
Mrs. Jones was a charter member of the Negro P. T. A. in the Asheville community, and an active member of Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church. Her husband, a pharmacist working in the early 1920s, was one of the first black doctors to practice here.
James Vester Miller
Owner, Miller & Sons Construction Co.
James Vester Miller was born into slavery April 21, 1858 in Rutherforton, NC. He came to Asheville as a young man with practically no formal training but armed with a firm understanding of what he wanted to do in life and how he would do it.
Miller worked for some of the best contractors in Asheville before starting his own company, Miller and Sons Construction Co. The company earned a name for itself and was credited with having the best brick masons in the city of Asheville and the surrounding region.
The Miller Construction Company specialized in building churches and commercial buildings. Most of those Miller built here are still in use, and in very good condition, including businesses along Patton Ave. and College Street that were originally owned by the Tench Coxe and the Millard families.
The churches Miller built speak for themselves. Among them are Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, Hopkins Chapel Church, St. Matthias Episcopal Church (which he built at the age of 19), and a number of smaller churches and business buildings. He also built the Municipal Building housing Asheville’s fire and police departments and the U. S. Postal Office building on Otis Street. These two buildings are visited by hundreds of people every day.
Miller, who died in 1940, served his community and its people well. He was very active in civic and political affairs and will always be remembered as one of Asheville’s great leaders. His granddaughter Andrea Clarke presently resides in Asheville.
Rev. Ronald Scott
Founder of Saint Anthony’s Catholic School
Rev. Ronald Scott, O. F. M., arrived in Asheville in 1935. He bought the house at 55 Walton Street, where he lived until he completed St. Anthony’s School in 1936, and then moved across the street to No. 56, which had been used as a chapel until the main building was complete. With the new chapel built into the new school building, 55 Walton became the convent house for the teaching staff.
A Franciscan priest, Rev. Scott was the organizer, builder, and head of the school as well as church missionary of the Franciscan Order. A pioneer among the black people in the South from 1933 to 1945, he built three churches in North and South Carolina. In Paso Robles, California, he was a fatherly guide to boys who needed help, and in Phoenix, Arizona, he served both the Little Sisters of the Poor and their guests and patients at Good Samaritan Hospital. The final ten years of his life were devoted to pastoral ministry to the people at Our Lady’s Chapel in New Bedford, Mass.
Ronald Scott was popular in the Franciscan sense of the word: people liked him and he liked people. When he was celebrating the fortieth anniversary of his priesthood, he said: “If I’ve been successful in my work, it’s because I’ve always had a smile for everyone.” No-one ever doubted that he was successful in his work.
Owner, Baxter’s Transmission Service
John Baxter was born in the Chunn’s Cove section of Asheville. The grandson of slaves, Baxter moved to New York City where he studied automobile repair, and returned to Asheville in the 1950s to open Baxter’s Transmission Service.
Over the years, Baxter taped and interviewed many black musicians who performed in Asheville. In the 1970s, he spear-headed an active campaign to save and revitalize the YMI Cultural Center.
J. H. McGinness
Owner, McGinness Tailor Shop
J. H. MCGINNESS CLEANING, PRESSING, DYEING – That was the familiar sign on a front window of the Masonic Temple Building at 44 S. Market Street on The Block. There J. H. McGinness worked from the early 1900s to 1942. During this time he taught tailoring to veterans of World Wars I and II.
In July of 1942, Mr. McGinness and his wife Carrie moved to Washington, D. C. to join his children, John Henry, Jr., a chef, and Sarah Amarintha, a registered nurse; in Washington he again taught tailoring to war veterans, working at the Lofton School of Tailoring. He retired at the age of eighty-eight – still able to thread a needle.
E. W. Pearson
Born, in Glen Alpine, NC, Mr. E. W. Pearson moved to Asheville in August 1906. He was a builder and developer who created a subdivision in West Asheville exclusively for African American residents; the grand opening celebration was held on Labor Day in September 1912.
Mr. Pearson was the founder and organizer of the Buncombe County District Agricultural Fair; the first fair was held in Pearson Park in West Asheville on November 20, 1914.
Lucy S. Herring
For more than half a century Lucy S. Herring dedicated her life to teaching, spending 35 years working in Buncombe County and Asheville City Schools. She taught at Swannanoa, Hill Street, and Stephens-Lee schools and served as principal at the Mountain Street School, later renamed for her to honor her 52 years as an educator.
Mrs. Herring was founder and director of a summer reading clinic for teachers at NC College in Durham and was Associate Professor, Director of Reading at Livingstone College in Salisbury, NC. She was a member of the Asheville Chapter of the American Association of University Women, Gamma Gamma Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, and a life member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She served as an officer of the Retired Teachers Association, the Council on Aging, and the Asheville City and Buncombe County Human Relations council.