Story by Ami Worthen | Photos by Ashley Ruzich
Ask almost anyone who visits or lives in Asheville, “Who was George Vanderbilt?” and they will likely tell you that he was the person responsible for The Biltmore Estate. If you ask those same people, “Who was Edward W. Pearson?” they probably won’t know the answer, despite Pearson’s innumerable achievements that helped shape our city. An African-American leader and historical figure, Pearson has a story that has not been in the public eye, unlike those of Vanderbilt, Thomas Wolfe, and Zebulon Vance. With his new venture called Hood Tours, local artist and poet DeWayne Barton hopes to change that.
Hood Tours is an interactive tour focusing on Asheville’s African-American history, present, and future in the areas of arts, environmentalism, and entrepreneurship. The tour takes groups of up to nine people to visit historically African-American neighborhoods with green spaces, public art, and grassroots initiatives.
One does not have to look hard to see the historical patterns of disenfranchisement experienced by African-Americans, and the current day disparities that persist as a result. Stories about these realities of local history are a part of what DeWayne shares on each Hood Tour, and while these stories can be disheartening, DeWayne is quick to point out that the focus of Hood Tours lies in a phrase you’ll see emblazoned on the side of his colorful tour van: The Art of Resilience.
“The Art of Resilience is stamina, creativity, power, determination,” DeWayne says. “It represents the things in Asheville that a lot of times are overlooked or cast in the shadows.” With the goal of shining light on those shadows, Hood Tours highlights historical and current day achievements in each visited neighborhood.
DeWayne says that the fortitude of the African- American community “is something that allows me to stand with confidence on starting this business. It’s the soul of the city. It comes from the practice of suffering and resistance. It is what’s left after the dust clears. It’s that strength to continue to push on regardless of circumstances, regardless of the history. It is power.”
Living in Asheville from 1906 until his death in 1946, E.W. Pearson certainly embodied this gutsiness. Even though he had to contend with racial segregation enforced by the Jim Crow laws, Pearson was able to purchase real estate in West Asheville, which he then sold to African Americans, creating a neighborhood that endures to this day as the Burton Street Community. He also owned an insurance company, a mail order business, a grocery store, and Asheville’s first semi-professional African-American baseball team. He founded Pearson Park, where he held his highly successful Buncombe County District Colored Agricultural Fair annually for 33 years.
Hood Tours offers an opportunity to learn about men and women like Pearson: bold leaders who made significant contributors to our city even though there may not be streets or monuments named after them. Hood Tours also offers the opportunity to learn about the E.W. Pearsons of today. “It’s a tool to encourage and support grassroots social entrepreneurship in historically marginalized communities,” says DeWayne. By hiring people from these communities to be a part of the tour, it serves as a “platform for local talent.” It is also “a vehicle to promote existing African-American businesses and grassroots initiatives.” For example, everyone who takes a tour gets a copy of the Hood Huggers Green Book, a directory of local African- American owned businesses.
With an eye towards community green spaces, art, and neighborhood-based projects, the tour showcases Pisgah View Community Gardens, the My Community Matters Program, and the Hillcrest mural, to name a few. According to DeWayne, Hood Tours is like “a needle and thread that weaves a pattern of connection with community and business.”
Using a mix of poetry, information, and conversation, Hood Tours provides locals and visitors with an educational and inspiring experience of historically African-American neighborhoods, moving through a vibrant, though often challenging, past toward a flourishing future.
Hood Tours tickets are $25 per person. Each tour lasts approximately an hour and a half. Find more information and purchase tickets at hoodhuggers.com.