Asheville's YMI Cultural Center Is Very Black and THAT Is A Good Thing.

Interview by Jefferson Ellison, done in partnership w/ AVLtoday.

It's a strange thing to talk to yourself. But as my mother always says, "I talk to myself when I'm looking to get an expert opinion" and when it comes to the YMI Cultural Center I am as close as you're going to get.... in this interview.

The YMICC - as we call it - is a part of my story. It's where I took piano lessons for 14 years, where I joined a community jazz band, where I performed for community events, and where I engaged with Black Asheville. And now, they are a client of our creative agency and a neighbor to our new store. So like a chicken on a farm, I've come home to roost. Originally, I wanted to speak with the YMI's Executive Director, Dewana Little. But due to her busy schedule and my rumored procrastination, we could not get her in time for this series. But because this is the last week of our partnership with AVL Today, I wanted to make sure we shine a light on an amazing institution that has held space for me my entire life and continues to hold space for the progression of Black culture and the cultivation of Black people.

The YMICC is arguably the oldest African-American Historic Site in the country. At over 125 years old, it exists as a safe haven and conduit for Black culture and the Black experience. What makes the center such an interesting conversation is that it's possibly the first personification of Black and White people agreeing on the needs of the Black community. The center was funded and founded by the Vanderbilt family in an effort to see if the Black community could "handle" the "responsibility of citizenship." Condescending? Yes, But also a poignant point of what it means to be active in your community, to have American promise, and to thrive. Even a society that refused rights to the Black community saw that the first step in Black liberation could be found within the resources, agency, and autonomy of the people. And so while it's not my place to speak on behalf of this giant legacy, it is my honor.

What is the YMICC? What is the mission?

The YMICC is the epicenter of Black Asheville. It‘s an art museum, an equitable landlord, a concert hall, a performance space, a co-working space, a safe space, a brave space and a Black space. The mission is to elevate the Black community through cultural, economic, and leadership development and activities. 

Many people don’t realize the YMICC is associated with the Biltmore story? Can you explain that?

Mr. Isaac Dickson and Dr. Edward Stephens approached George Vanderbilt in 1892 to provide an institution for the black construction workers employed at the Biltmore Estate “to improve the moral fiber of the black male through education focusing on social, cultural, business and religious life." In 1893, the YMI’s doors opened. After efforts of the African American community, the Vanderbilt estate was paid $10,000 for the building in 1906. The center, known as the Young Men’s Institute or YMI was the true center of the civic, cultural, and business life of Asheville’s black community. It featured a gym, bathing facilities, public library, and classes for children and adults. In 1905, the YMI Board of Directors raised $10,000 within six months to purchase the YMI from George Vanderbilt. By 1910, the organization had its own orchestra. The multi-use building was the center that churches, schools, and civic organizations used for gatherings. A variety of businesses and institutions kept offices in the building too.

As an organization, you’ve been very clear that your goal is to progress Black culture. Why is that? Equity should be restorative, honest but most of all, specific. Especially in a city like Asheville where disparities are so high and the Black community is shrinking. So to stay true to the mission and legacy of the YMICC, we have to remain committed to the people we serve and do what's best for them.

In your opinion, what is the state of Black Asheville? I won't bore you with my opinions. I will only tell you that I love Asheville and I love Black people. Here are some facts around Black Asheville, form your own opinion:

The national average for nonwhite residents is ~38 percent; the Asheville area has an average of 20 percent (14 percent metro area), making Asheville one of the least diverse cities in North Carolina. 90 percent of Asheville visitors identified as white.

African-American students make up 25 percent of the Asheville school district’s population, but make up 64 percent of its disciplinary referral.

Only 18 percent of Black students received proficient grades in their end-of-course testing versus 89 percent of white students, a gap of 71 points.

In recent years, only 2.7 percent of city contracts went to minority owned businesses

The average Black-owned business in the Asheville area has average annual sales of ~$40,000, which is only one tenth  of the average annual sales of white-owned businesses.


How can Asheville improve the relationship with Black people and Blackness as a whole?

By being empathetic, honest, and effective. Asheville knows the facts. Asheville sees the reality. Asheville needs to govern itself by a desire to be better in the eyes of those who suffer. And don't stop until you get there.

The YMICC is a historic site as well as a teacher and keeper of Black history. Many people in different communities think that the Black narrative is rooted too much in history. Why do you think it’s important to teach Black history and to continue to look backwards?

Black history contextualizes the Black experience and personifies the Black narrative. Without history, you can misinterpret the present. But when you walk in an existence that is affected by choices made 100, 200, 400 years ago, history is very important. One may argue, that until Black history stops affecting the Black present, Black history will always be relevant...and even then

What is your hope for the YMI? To continue to do what it has always done. Advocate for Black people. Take up space. Better the community.

You are in the middle of a capital campaign? Tell us more about that. What does that mean? What is it for? The YMI is aiming to raise $3,000,000 to continue the work that we do, restore our historic building, and expand our programming. If you believe in what we do, you can donate here.