By Lauren Stepp
Diane Caldwell was raised in an invisible town. As a young girl, she ate hot dogs cooked by Mrs. Stanfield and skinned her knees in the dust bowl by the railroad tracks. Her life in Brooklyn, a black community once spanning the upper side of Seventh Avenue to Ashe Street in Hendersonville, was quite real. And yet county annals suggest otherwise.
“You just have to tell the stories and move forward,” Caldwell says, noting the lack of formal records. Those that do exist are sparse. A record from 1900 frames the neighborhood as “a community of black people living just east of the railroad tracks.”
Personal narratives reveal a richer story. Brooklyn took root in the late 1800s as emancipated slaves sought work unloading boxcars. They settled in shotgun-style houses with tin roofs along a small, clear brook. It is likely that Brooklyn owes its name to this integral water source and popular swimming hole.
In the summer, Caldwell remembers sleeping with the screen door wide open and borrowing sugar from neighbors. “Whatever the need was, people didn’t mind giving,” Caldwell says. “It was safe back then.”
She walked miles to the segregated Ninth Avenue School, socialized at a juke joint called the Homer Davis Café and gathered with family over Coca-Cola and buttery crackers. The community was by no means rich—few homes had indoor toilets—but folks made do by cutting hair at Williams Beauty Salon and selling burgers at Mrs. Maude’s. Many also took jobs at a nearby poultry processing plant.
But life changed in the 1960s. Following the federal policy of urban renewal, Hendersonville offered Brooklyn residents a meager stipend to move elsewhere. Homes were demolished to make way for Green Meadows, an affordable housing development. Though some families moved back, the spirit of Brooklyn had already faded. Today, only personal accounts remain.
“Maybe the most denigrating part of African-American history is the lost, or lack of, documentation,” reads a booklet advertising a Brooklyn and Green Meadows reunion in 2007.
Pack Memorial Library is attempting to remedy this problem. Established in early 2019 and expected to continue through 2025, the Black Asheville History Project seeks to ensure that at least 25 percent of the North Carolina Room’s collections catalogue is reflective of WNC’s African-American communities.
“The disparities in our collection are even more apparent now as more and more attention is turned toward black history,” says Katherine Calhoun Cutshall, collections manager for the North Carolina Room, adding that recent events are leading people to question what “watershed moments in black history they may not know.”
Namely, few of us know about the black communities that have been lost to urban renewal and redlining, and subsequently bleached from public record. “We must preserve what we can,” says Caldwell. “It comes down to instilling the values of Brooklyn. Values made it a community.”
To learn more, visit PackLibraryNCRoom.com