Celebrating James Vester Miller
By Lauren Stepp
Growing up in Massachusetts, Andrea Clark had heard tell of her grandfather, an African American man by the name of James Vester Miller who built some of Asheville’s most iconic buildings in the 19th and 20th centuries. But it wasn’t until she moved south in the late 1960s that she truly understood the magnitude of his legacy.
“When I came here, I knew the stories my father had told me about this family,” says Clark, who is best known for her award-winning photographs of Asheville’s East End before urban renewal. “But I didn’t know the extent of my grandfather’s work.”
When Clark moved to Valley Street, she stayed with her 96-year-old cousin. On Sundays, when the two went out to eat, her cousin would point out countless homes, churches and businesses that “Pa” built.
Those structures included the likes of St. Matthias Episcopal Church, the Asheville Municipal Building and even The Young Men’s Institute Building (YMI), which was designed by Biltmore architect Richard Sharp Smith.
Inspired, Clark vowed to formally recognize her grandfather’s contributions to Asheville. Doing so took several decades, but finally, after receiving a grant from CoThinkk, she launched the James Vester Miller (JVM) Historic Walking Trail last June. This month, Clark is encouraging locals to follow the trail to honor Juneteenth, a holiday celebrating the emancipation of slaves.
“Maybe 10 percent of Asheville’s Black history is actually acknowledged,” says Clark, “my grandfather’s work included.”
Fittingly, the JVM Trail guides visitors past some of Miller’s commissions, including the J.A. Wilson Building on Eagle Street. Built in 1924 for J.A. Wilson, a black entrepreneur who ran a barbershop, the building soon became a hub of African American businesses. According to the 1927 Asheville City Directory, three doctors had offices there, including Lee Otus Miller, Miller’s son. Other tenants included real estate agents, hairdressers and dentists.
Today, the J.A. Wilson Building is a cornerstone of The Block, a predominantly Black-owned business area. The edifice is also a testament to Miller’s ability to overcome adversity.
Born to an enslaved mother and white father in 1858, Miller entered this world not long before the country launched into civil war. After the Emancipation Proclamation, his mother moved her three sons from Rutherford County to Buncombe, where Miller spent much of his youth picking up odd jobs at construction sites and learning the trade of brick masonry.
In adulthood, he started his own company—Miller and Sons Construction—and specialized in churches and commercial buildings. Miller left an indelible mark on Asheville, because of both his talents and his character. According to Clark, “He should’ve been the mayor of Asheville,” because of his willingness to help others, no matter the problem.
“It’s important that young people hear his story,” she says. “It’s the story of how a Black man found his passions and built a city.”
For more information, including the trail route, find the James Vester Miller Historic Walking Trail: Asheville on Facebook and Instagram.