Committee members will advise on trail’s themes, featured content and other aspects of the project throughout its development

Eighteen local residents have joined an advisory committee to provide insight and recommendations on the direction of Asheville’s African American Heritage Trail, a new cultural attraction shepherded by the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority that will connect historic Black communities in and around downtown Asheville.

Expected for completion in 2023, the trail will present sites and stories ranging from well-known landmarks visible in the community today to the unsung heroes and underrecognized achievements and contributions by the Black community in the past.

The committee will advise on the trail’s themes, route, design and featured content for the project throughout the development process. Members will also serve as connectors, promoting awareness of the trail and recommending ways to activate the project within the community once it is complete.

With deep local knowledge and varying age demographics, committee members represent an array of lived and professional experience, from history, culture, education and the arts, to Black business owners, consultants, champions, and community organizers.

Descendants of some of Asheville’s most influential Black residents also serve on the committee, including Clifford W. Cotton II, grandson of E.W. Pearson, and Andrea Clarke, granddaughter of James Vester Miller.

Pearson was an early 20th century entrepreneur and civil rights leader known as the “Black Mayor of West Asheville,” encouraging and influencing African American neighborhood development and creating Asheville’s first Black semi-professional baseball team. His many contributions also including establishing a local branch of the NAACP, serving as its first president.

Miller, a once enslaved African American turned master brick mason, built many of Asheville’s most remarkable structures in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, forming his own successful construction company during the years of Jim Crow racial segregation.

In addition to Cotton and Clarke, committee members are: Shana Adams, Matthew Bacoate, Anne Chesky Smith, Claude Coleman Jr., Katie Cornell, Tiffany DeBellott, Debra Flack-Weaver, Joseph Fox, Traci Freeze, Aaron Griffin Sr., J Hackett, Dewana Little, Demetra Roddy-Harris, Georgia M. Shannon, Tarah Singh and Sarah Williams. Aisha Adams of Equity Over Everything assisted in creating a process for establishing the committee.

Initiated by local African American community development organization River Front Development Group, the African American Heritage Trail is funded by the Buncombe County TDA’s Tourism Product Development Fund grant program using occupancy tax revenue collected from overnight visitors. Explore Asheville will promote the trail on its marketing platforms to preserve, share, and amplify the stories to a broad audience.

Although the trail is funded by the tourism authority and produced by Explore Asheville, its authenticity and ultimate success are dependent upon involvement from the community. The advisory committee, along with presentations, listening sessions, surveys, and last fall’s weeks-long display of sample storyboards at the YMI Cultural Center have all offered opportunities for public engagement and will continue throughout the trail’s development.

“We are glad to be moving forward with this much-needed project that celebrates and shares the legacy and contributions of African Americans in our community,” said River Front Development Group Executive Director Catherine Mitchell. “We are deeply appreciative of the commitment of these advisory committee members to preserve and protect Asheville’s African American history and culture.”

“Our hope is that the trail will be a platform for residents and visitors to follow, embrace and understand important Black stories in our community,” said Vic Isley, president and CEO of Explore Asheville and the Buncombe County TDA. “It’s part of our collective effort to engage and invite more diverse audiences to Asheville, and importantly, connect those guests to local neighborhoods, diverse businesses and entrepreneurs – creating more opportunities for all to win.”

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Kathi M. Petersen, Director of Public Information