Asheville NC Young Men’s Institute faces millions in reparations

ASHEVILLE – Pregnant at 16, Zianna Hudgens knew she was at a crucial point in her life.

She also knew that she could not navigate alone through the difficulties she was going to face. The help Hudgens found came from a place deeply rooted in the history of a people facing struggles.

At the YMI Cultural Center, she enrolled in the Successful Transitions program, getting advice and help on how to build credit, increase personal savings, and manage finances.

Now, at 19, the high school graduate works for the Mountain Area Health Education Center where she helps set up new offices and trains core staff. At YMI, she is studying phlebotomy where there is on-site child care for her son, Zaven, 2 years old.

Notice:The New Plantation: Blacks in Asheville’s Economy Today

The support she got at YMI has been “extremely beneficial” to her, she said.

“Just in the sense that I didn’t know anything about YMI until I connected with (board member) Phillip Cooper. They just have a lot of resources available for young people that you wouldn’t know.”

It is for the same reason that the center was established 128 years ago when black artisans and laborers coming to Asheville to build the lavish Biltmore Estate found a town largely cut off from them by harsh laws. of Segregation Jim Crow.

Approached by black leaders, Biltmore owner, railroad heir George Vanderbilt, agreed to fund the construction of the Young Men’s Institute, a cultural center in the heart of the African-American commercial district.

The YMI Cultural Center, located on Eagle St in downtown Asheville, is an African-American cultural venue with history exhibits, an art gallery, and performance spaces.

For decades, the building at 39 S. Market St. has served as a refuge and incubator for black residents and culture, supporting professional offices, a public library, and the YMI orchestra. It survived a decline in the 1960s and 1970s. Recently, it has seen efforts to make it more relevant, with programs for young people and those trying to improve their lot in life. As a functioning black cultural center, it is one of the oldest in the United States

But now the 1893 English Tudor-style building with Asheville’s signature pebble-cladding has reached its own pivotal moment, say those charged with maintaining it. Deferred maintenance and outdated spaces mean millions of dollars of work is needed, said YMI chief executive Dewana Little.

Little noted that the building designed by Biltmore supervising architect Richard Sharp Smith was not made of cement, but of earth, like many structures at the time.

“So a tree ended up growing at the back of our building. It broke through the walls and flooded our basement, ”said Little, who started as interim manager in 2018.

The YMI and Asheville Supply & Foundry, 1891.

The basement shoring and some leaks around the roof and the elevator were repaired for $ 160,000. But the entire roof needs to be replaced along with other serious fixes, such as new heating and cooling, plumbing and electrical systems, according to a technical and architectural assessment.

Little said that in order to increase YMI’s ability to provide life-changing services, and also generate income to pay for these services, the center needs repairs, as well as modernization, at a combined price of $ 4. $ 8 million.

Plans call for transforming the basement space now used for storage into a classroom and multipurpose room for rent. On the third floor there would be office space for rent and infrastructure for a future commercial kitchen that could be rented and used for training.

Money from rents and leases can support programs and stabilize finances.

To pay for the work, the center obtained a low-interest loan of $ 2 million from the Self-Help Credit Union. Applications to local government entities obtained $ 800,000 in hotel taxes granted by the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority. After the initial denials, Asheville and the county government are now seeking to designate $ 1 million each from pandemic relief funding, said Phillipe Rossi, senior partner of ASI Ed Services, who is leading the fundraising campaign. .

In response to questions from the Citizen Times, Asheville City Manager Debra Campbell called the YMI a “valued institution” and noted that the city has given the center tens of thousands of dollars a year to fund. its operations.

“We understand that the building itself serves as a cultural centerpiece and represents a sense of belonging for the black community of Asheville,” said Campbell, Asheville’s first black city manager.

A rooftop view of YMI from an undated photo courtesy of Black Highlander Collections, Ramsey Library, UNC Asheville.

“It is possible that funding for this project would be eligible under the American Rescue Plan Act, but we must point out that it would undergo an identical application and prioritization process as other community organizations,” said Campbell.

Other funding for the building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, could come from government grants for historic preservation. Another million dollars will be requested from the foundations. But the rest is expected to come from donations from private groups and individuals, Rossi said.

Beyond the construction work, Little said the YMI wanted to raise additional funds for reserves and help with programming, bringing the total cost to $ 6.5 million.

“Looking at historical documents, I discovered that we never really had any reserves in our last few years for emergencies,” she said. “And the services we provide outweigh the capacity of our organization.”

These include the Real Estate Apprenticeship Program, which helps people of color enter one of Asheville’s most lucrative industries. The diversification of the largely white real estate field also has the benefit of giving minorities better opportunities to buy a home, said real estate agent Stéphanie Estrada, REAP instructor.

“The program believes representation is important. In the sense that real estate is a very personal business. You have to build trust to buy a home.”

Program funds raised can be used for training expenses, which can be as high as $ 2,500 for commercial driver license education, Little said. They can also go to softer – but essential – costs, like work clothes, childcare, transportation, or even allowances to cover wages lost during training.

Hudgens said that kind of support is essential. She recounted how her car was in the store and Cooper, the YMI board member, was able to find her transportation.

“It’s wonderful and hard to believe the number of people out there who want to help young people, and people in general,” she said.

Although Rossi said the main fundraising campaign has not officially started with the public, some initial efforts have already been successful: a Go Fund Me page that has generated over $ 20,000. To learn more about the YMI, visit

Joel Burgess has lived at WNC for over 20 years, covering politics, government and other news. He has written award-winning stories on topics ranging from gerrymandering to police use of force. Help us support this type of journalism by subscribing to the Citizen Times.

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