Anthony Thomas, YMI President and Board Chairman, is focused on reconnecting the historic cultural center to the community. Photo: Renato Rotolo/Urban News

Continuing the Legacy

Anthony Thomas, YMI President and Board Chairman, is focused on reconnecting the historic cultural center to the community. Photo: Renato Rotolo/Urban News

The YMI elevates black communities through cultural, economic, and leadership development activities.

So says the 125-year-old organization’s updated Mission Statement. And the new leadership of the YMI Cultural Center aims to do so in line with its statement of vision: moving black culture forward.

Storied History

The YMI began life as the Young Men’s Institute in 1895. It was established by a group of prominent black businessmen and professionals to serve African American men who were denied access to the segregated YMCA. Its goal was to offer educational, cultural, creative, and developmental opportunities in Asheville’s black community, both as a means to improve the lives of black youth and to celebrate and honor African American culture and history.

In the century and more since, the YMI has traveled across hills and through valleys; faced rough terrain and occasional crises; turned to those outside the community for sustenance and support; but always remained a bastion of black centeredness in the heart of The Block.

Over the years it housed the segregated library branch for African Americans; offered a swimming pool and gymnasium in the basement, piano lessons upstairs, and affordable meals at the corner drug store; provided accommodations for black visitors barred from whites-only hotels; and supported a vast range of businesses, professional services, and entrepreneurial opportunities for western North Carolina’s black residents.

With that history, and despite past financial and leadership problems—as well as some challenges to the building’s physical structure—the new board has determined that the YMICC’s future lies in getting back to its roots. New programming will be black-focused, and financial stability will be established on a basis of sustainability through leases, partnerships, and predictable revenues. The organization will not return to being reliant on grants for its long-term stability.

How will it get there?

President and Board Chairman (since 2018) Anthony Thomas described the plan succinctly. “Reconnection to the community. That’s what we have to do. Our programming will attract and engage what this historical building was built for—being centered around the black community.”

Thomas views the new board as being more connected, bringing more energy to the YMI, with a focus on “how do we synergize, create a perfect storm to bring our relationships to bear fruit.”

To take the first steps in that process, Interim Executive Director DeWana Little says, “This year we’re not focused so much on implementing YMI programming, but on partnership programming—programming with the community that reengages and strengthens connections. That’s what it’s all about: connections. We have to rebuild some of the relationships, and build new ones as well with other organizations.”

She acknowledges that in recent years the organization has been out of the public’s consciousness. In part that’s because of the decade-long, stop-and-go redevelopment of The Block, which is nearing completion. New apartments have opened in the former DelCardo building directly across Market Street; the Foundry “boutique hotel,” created out of two long-empty loft warehouses and new construction, borders the YMI’s east and south sides; new luxury condominiums are under construction just down Market Street.

During the years of construction disruption, the YMI literally was hidden from public view by cranes and blocked streets, and often difficult to access because so many parking spaces were occupied by heavy equipment. The YMI had to move its most public event, the Goombay Festival, off the Block and onto nearby Pack Square.

Black community focus

Now the goal is to restore the building and the institution to its original greatness.

Little notes that the black community kept YMI alive through its up-and-down cycles. “The churches saved us in the ’80s, and community organizations and nonprofit groups. So we have to know how black people specifically look at this place. To ask the people in the community, ‘What would you like to see at the YMI’?”

One fundamental idea is to develop programming in light of the State of Black Asheville, as reported each year by UNC Asheville Professor Darin Waters and retired Professors Dwight and Dolly Mullin. More crucially, Little says, we need “to empower and uplift the black community as we were built to do.”

The new leaders rolled out “365 Days of Black History” on Feb. 1, with artists, caterers, other leaders and community organizations that are specifically from the black community. Among them: Burton Street’s DeWayne Barton and an artist from the Raleigh-Durham area, Stephen Hayes, who previously showed an installation about slave ships. The gallery will be open all year long highlighting the work of these and other black artists.

Reaching out beyond the black community

In addition to reestablishing relationships with specifically black groups, the YMI has developed a strong connections with some neighboring businesses. “We’ve both reached out to work better together,” says Little. “The folks at the Foundry believe in the YMI. They’re one of our partners in the 365 Days of Black History, and they’ll bring more visitors to the galleries; the owner of their restaurant is going to participate in the Taste of Black Asheville event.”

Thomas notes that the YMI is also reaching out to other groups from across the country to invite them to bring people to Asheville. Not just black groups, he says. “We want to be one of the meeting spaces available for conventions that come to area hotels. To be on the same footing as other locations.”

The organization has earned a major grant from the Tourist Development Fund designed to upgrade the board room, auditorium, and art gallery, including upfitting for audio-visual systems. And there are a few foundational issues to be addressed, as well: there has been some flooding in the basement during recent years—whether related to all the nearby construction, or subsidence, is uncertain. And so the YMI has launched a capital campaign aiming to bring in $1.25 million for overall building maintenance and upgrades.

Such funding will allow the organization to reclaim the 5,000-sq. ft. basement by turning it into a self-sustaining space housing tenants while also ensuring that street-level commercial spaces are not affected by flooding.

The YMI building itself is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is affiliated with National Historic Preservation Fund.

Leadership

A native of the “Southern Tier” of New York that includes Binghamton and Elmira, and a graduate of Alfred University, Chairman Thomas came to Asheville as Assistant Director of Admissions at UNCA in 1992. He became closely engaged in dealing with the academic gap between white and black students, and worked with UNC Asheville on Project Creed, a program for rising third-grade black males.

Thomas is now General Manager of Upstaff Personnel, which grew out of Green Opportunities as a temp-to-permanent staffing agency. He’s also a realtor with Mosaic Realty. He considers his service with a nationally registered historic cultural center to be “an honor, quite overwhelming. [We’ve watched] the ebbs and flows and historical aspects of the institution over the years. Now I want us to establish a foundation as a functioning board that can create that reconnection with community.”

Community support

Though not a membership organization (in which members have voting rights, etc.), the YMI does anticipate developing a general membership that will offer access to events and galleries, as many other nonprofit and cultural organizations do. Until that structure is created, however, the goal is to reengage the community in other ways: helping with planning, encouraging supporters to be “ambassadors,” volunteering on committees, and bringing the broader community back through the doors. And, ultimately, provide a pool of potential committee members and future board members drawn from among those who will help guide the organization.

Thomas says, “We’re asking, ‘What does the community want?’ To answer that, we have to ask the people.” In doing so, adds Little, “Sometimes the community’s responses will determine what we do, how we follow through with our vision.”

The elephant in the room: gentrification on The Block

Historically, Eagle and Market Streets were the heart of Asheville’s black business district, adjacent to the East End community where African Americans lived in a virtually segregated but thriving neighborhood.

With Urban Renewal (“Urban Removal,” as many call it) in the 1960s and ’70s, residents were displaced and businesses closed. But the YMI, along with a few other institutions—Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church and the Ritz Restaurant—held on as anchors for the historic community. The city’s leadership at the time promoted the rationale of “clearing the slums,” but many families lost their only investment, their homes, without feeling they had been fully compensated, and many struggled to rebuild lost equity.

Then, as now, as plans evolved to “redevelop” The Block beginning in the early 2000s, the demographics have changed. Where black patrons used to gather for meals, haircuts, and social life, now the vast majority of the area’s patrons are white. Many of today’s newer apartment renters, as well as guests at The Foundry, have no knowledge of The Block’s history, and are surprised to discover the nation’s oldest African American Community Center in the midst of “their” neighborhood.

For example, says Little, “We’re hosting a Youth Fashion Show next month, and we don’t want black youth harassed for hanging out on the street. People moving into the DelCardo apartments are not aware of what they’re moving into: the historic black business district. But we’re not going anywhere.”

Some of the YMI’s leaders are talking with members of City Council to figure out the best ways of informing people of the area’s history, because one way or another, white newcomers “will simply have to deal with it.”

Members of the YMI Cultural Center Board

  • Anthony Thomas, Chair/President
  • Macky Bah
  • Joseph “J” Hackett
  • Nina Ireland*
  • James Love*
  • Monica McDaniel*
  • Julia McDowell*
  • Calab Owolabi
  • Iindia Pearson
  • Troy Taylor* (Nex)
  • Sherman Williams
  • DeWana Little

* Joined the board in January 2019

J. Hackett is Executive Director of Green Opportunities.

Monica McDaniel, a writer with two books in print, is a playwright, director, and producer. Her family-oriented drama, Left Behind—Reflection, was the first production ever to sell out the opening weekend at Asheville Community Theater.

Julia McDowell works out of the Eagle-Market Development, building through the block-by-block program established by EMDCC director Stephanie Twitty. She is also president of the nonprofit group Jus’ Folks, and serves on the board of Just Economics.

Iindia Pearson, Board Vice Chair, is a residence counselor for the Housing Authority, owner of Miss P’z Catering and Delicious Dogz, and a self-described “Karaoke queen.” Her professional training was in finance, and she sits on the board of Pisgah Legal Services.

Troy Taylor (Nex) is a hip-hop scholar and cultural curator whose work focuses on “the 7 to 9 elements of hip hop encompassing both music and visual arts.”

For further information about upcoming developments, programs, and events, or to support the YMICC, please contact the center directly and/or visit the YMI Facebook page.

YMI Cultural Center
39 South Market Street,
Asheville, NC 28801
Call (828) 257-4540 or visit Tuesday–Friday 12 noon–4 p.m.
www.ymiculturalcenter.org

 

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