The Colored Agricultural Fair, creation of African American community-builder Edward W. Pearson in 1913, had flourished in a period of “uplift.”
The widely popular fair was one of many civic accomplishments of West Asheville’s Burton Street neighborhood, halved by Interstate 240 during urban renewal.
The uplift ideology, says Burton Street native and UNC Chapel Hill scholar Darin Waters, was a carryover from the 1880s, when people such as George W. Vanderbilt believed in Booker T. Washington’s improvement program and the notion of an admired but separate black culture.
Vanderbilt funded the construction of Asheville’s Young Men’s Institute in 1892. Two prominent white ministers from New York — the Rev. Louis M. Pease, who established what would become the Allen Industrial School here, and George Erdman — helped connect Vanderbilt with Edward Stephens, principal of the African-American Mountain Street School.
Stephens was born in the West Indies and educated at Oxford. He spoke five languages.
He wrote Vanderbilt’s business manager, Charles McNamee, about the violence being threatened against the white women who were educating African Americans in Asheville. It went counter to the uplift idea.
When the women packed up to leave, Stephens wrote, “some ‘leading citizens,’ realizing the seriousness of this step, urged them not to depart.”
Eventually, African American leaders throughout the South “had come to understand that they were not being seen as full and equal citizens,” says Waters. “They developed the Victorian ideology of thrift and hard work as a way to enhance the manhood of African American males and the hope, that by doing that, whites would begin to see them as worthy of their full citizenship rights.”
In 1900, North Carolina enacted an amendment that made passing a literacy test a requirement for voting — the “disenfranchisement amendment.”
Charles B. Aycock, the Democrat who won the election for governor that year, advocated the amendment and, at the same time, made speeches to black groups about his wish to support African American schools, businesses, and communities.
In Asheville, the African American response was different than elsewhere. In contrast to the large black sections of many towns and cities, Asheville had several pocket neighborhoods. Plus, it had a tourist economy.
“No one’s going to want to spend their money or their leisure time in a place where you’ve got volatile racial issues,” Waters noted.
Pearson’s fair, with the support of local politicians, became a “city affair,” Edna Ford said in a 1991 interview. “The whole city participated, just like Bele Chere.”
Ford’s father, Lester Carson Bell, was an early homebuyer in the Burton Street neighborhood and, in many capacities, an assistant to Pearson.
Pearson’s daughter, Iola Byers, recalled that the fair took place “once a year in September around the second or third week. He’d have the big show with rides and a carnival.”
“Daddy was traveling a lot with the lodge meetings,” Byers recounted, “and mother and we (children) would run the grocery store while he was gone.
“And then he always had a little old pool table in the back and had a piccolo (jukebox) in there so the kids could dance. One thing is, Daddy provided the only recreation that the blacks had way back yonder in the whole of Asheville because he started with the fairs…and then every holiday — on the Fourth of July, Labor Day — he’d bring a band in.
“Incidentally, he’d got turned out of St. Paul Church on the Fourth of July. Right over there on Monroe Circle he built a pavilion and had a band in there at night and had the young folks out there dancing.
“And they had all the women and men…up in church the next week, and they turned Dad out of church because he had the young folks over there dancing. They had the greasy pole and all kinds of things like that. Every holiday, he’d plan something. He had the fair until 1946, when he died — on July 4.”
His son, E.W. Pearson Jr., fulfilled the commitments for the fair’s last year, 1947.
Rob Neufeld wrote the weekly “Visiting Our Past” column for the Citizen Times. This column originally appeared Aug. 15, 2011.
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