Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Hell's Half Acre

At the corner of Sycamore and Valley streets, in what is now part of Asheville’s East End, was a neighborhood known politely as The Acre and more widely as Hell’s Half Acre. The 1883-84 edition of the Asheville City Directory described “The Acre” as a “polite abbreviation” of the more usual name. “Its denizens,” the directory said in a footnote, “are entirely of the African Race.”

Sometimes the name of a place indicates what people think of people in that place. It could be that Acre residents were poor. Given who they were, and when, it is more than likely that they were poor. Whether poverty is what made the area hellish is less clear. There were plenty of poor neighborhoods in Asheville at the time – some surrounding the mill areas by the French Broad River were among them – but the directory did not see fit to give those areas derogatory names.

It seems probable that the “Hell” of “Hell’s Half Acre” owed itself to the racial identity of its residents, given that the name was provided by whites, who wrote the directory’s copy.

I’ve long wondered how Asheville’s African American neighborhoods got started. So far I've found no text that addresses this bit of history. My supposition is that at some point a white landowner with interests in having black laborers nearby set aside (or sold) land and allowed (given the place and time allowed is sadly but probably the right word) African Americans to build there. Something like this scenario may have been the seed of an expanding community.

The name “Hell’s Half Acre” corroborates what I’ve thought. The name describes an area, as a section of a farm’s acreage, set aside like “God’s acre,” for a public cemetery, or “Lord’s acre,” the produce from which would go to a church or to feed the poor. The whites of the day put a negative spin on the area, so instead of “God’s acre,” it was “Hell’s” “Half” acre, cutting it down by association and by area.

The 1883-84 directory lists nearly four-hundred “colored” residents of Asheville, the following of Hell's Half Acre: Sam Bryant, Alf Burgin, Sawney Fowler, Henry Hopkins, James McMahon, Bannister Midgett, Henry Robertson, Andy Slaughter, John Wellington, James Whitson, and T.T. Geo. Williams. My guess is there were others; these were all that year who made it into the book.

Obviously, there’s more work to be done. But it is interesting to learn even a little about the early distribution of races in Asheville. The directory said that in addition to The Acre, African Americans (which it refers to as “colored,” with the exception of the note above) were also “scattered” along the Beaucatcher slopes east of town (on the edges of what is now East End) and near Academy street (now Montford), in the areas of Short and Hill, which were also historically black.

But a cursory look at the names and addresses in the book indicate that African Americans (designated with a "c") also lived outside of the three areas, including several residents who lived in the northern part of the city, which came in time to be exclusively white. When I get a chance I’d like to go through the list and place all African Americans near as possible on an early map of Asheville and see just how concentrated races were then.

In some southern cities of the day (such as Charlotte and Atlanta, residential patterns were “salt and pepper” until the codification of Jim Crow laws in the 1890s that ushered in an era of strict segregation. But clearly that was already on its way in Asheville by the mid-1880s.

The image above is a detail from a Sanborn insurance map of Asheville (the link may require that you access it from a library). This map is from 1896 and shows the area of Asheville near the intersection of Sycamore and Valley. By now, of course, a larger area of East End is associated exclusively with African Americans. The part of Sycamore that intersected with Valley became South Beaumont Street; Valley Street became what is now South Charlotte Street. Much of the area called Hell's Half Acre is now occupied by the city's physical plant.

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