Asheville Daily Planet
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Dwindling black business ownership troubles civil rights activist
Thursday, 25 May 2023 21:42

Part two of two stories

EDITOR’S NOTE: In part one of this story (appearing in the May 10 edition of the Daily Planet), Matthew Bacoate Jr., a long-time local black civil rights activist, spoke in a May 5 interview with the newspaper that was headlined “Asheville still racist, but better than most U.S. cities, black pundit says.” Because of space limits in the newspaper, the Daily Planet is publishing the story in two parts to be able to report Bacoate’s comments in their entirety. 

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Matthew Bacoate Jr. has, among his key focuses, an interest and desire to re-energize and unify Asheville’s black business community, the long-time local black civil rights activist told the Daily Planet in a May 5 interview.

As he spoke wistfully about the city’s relatively robust black business community of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, versus what he termed a weak showing today, Bacoate asked, rhetorically, “So how can we improve that?”

Answering his own question, Bacoate spoke of his experience when he was a youth growing up in his native Asheville.

“When I accepted a job as a night custodian at Star Lane Bowling in 1959, and eventually became the night manager, I looked at the white experience in bowling and also the negro experience in bowling... At that time, blacks could not bowl in the bowling centers in Asheville. 

“A black entrepreneur bought three not-so-good bowling centers and he attempted to elevate the negro into the game of bowling. But it wasn’t the best conditions.... 

“I said, ‘Here is an opportunity for me to try to forge a new experience for black people in Asheville.’ I looked for opportunities to make things better for black people, which, in turn, makes it better for white people.”

So how does Bacoate view racism around Asheville today? the Daily Planet asked.

“I look at Asheville and other cities as well. However, Asheville has been different from Charlotte, Winston-Salem and other cities because we had a more receptive white community than did many other communities.

“That’s why in 1947, they started a Human Relations Office with black people in Asheville. In 1965, there were white people who came to the forefront to have a more official Human Relations Office to confront problems. 

“In 1969, I took over and I designed a new one and took it to officers of the Chamber of Commerce because housing, employment and business development and the chamber weren’t doing a credible job.

“Some were not so keen on the idea, but most were: ‘Let’s give it a try.’

At present, Bacoate said, “We have very few black doctors — less than three. We have very few black dentists. Very few black nurses in our medical institutions.”

He also lamented, “We have no black-owned grocery stores, clothing stores, ‘super’ stores, automobile dealerships. … 

“We have no ownership in the bulk of those (professional, retail and service) areas. I’m going to venture to say that 90 percent of what the (average) black person needs to live day-to-day, they must purchase” from a white-owned business. 

“This means we (local blacks) have not developed enough to have the mix of businesses, wherein the procurements that we must enjoy... that we must have to live”  have to be acquired from white-owned businesses.

“We (Asheville) don’t have the black businesses... Businesses are open for a profit. But our (black) population is not that big. The black business brings about a certain percentage of that business, but is it enough profit,” he asked, rhetorically.

“We've got 11,500 black people in a city of 94,000 people. In the county (Buncombe County), we have 14,000 black people in a population of 200,000. If Asheville is so racist, the white folks wouldn’t have their doors open where you (as a black consumer) could procure their products and services.

To that end, Bacoate said, “Asheville is one of the more liberal cities in North Carolina.” In contrast, he characterized Raleigh as much more “racist.”

“Asheville is one of the less racist cities, based on my experience.”

In regards to medical care, Bacoate raised the question of  “Who attends to them (black patients)  — black or white doctors?” He said there is not much choice, as there are so few black doctors in Asheville.

Continuing, he said, “We are doing worse in visible, free-standing busineses than we did yesterday. 

“Yesterday, there were over 40 black professional people just on The Block (in downtown Asheville). Today, there are only six black-owned businesses on The Block. Urban renewal did not affect The Block. The advent of the parking garage removed eight or nine businesses (on The Block).”

He added, “Business affected by urban renewal (in Asheville) would have been on the east and Southside.

“Also, when integration came, we (local blacks) didn’t get our businesses in condition where we could compete with other businesses.

“People talk about urban renewal. The jobs that most black people had (back then) did not provide them the resources to keep up their houses, There were supposedly 600 black-owned homes in the urban renewal area that were demolished. That number is debatable. Again, most of the homes” were owned by whites and rented by blacks.

At that point, he compared “black businesses yesterday (in the 1940s, ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s) versus today, noting that the mix of black-owned business today” has dwindled.

For instance, he said there were 11 restaurants on Eagle and Market streets yesterday, while there are none today. Over 40 businesses and professional people were located in The Block yesterday. Today, we have five — and one institution (the YMI) — that’s black-controlled.

“Fifty years ago, we had a robust black business community. It started dying out in the ‘80s. In my estimation, integration had more to do with it than urban renewal.

“Now we had other black-owned businesses, too, like in the Southside, from Biltmore Avenue to Depot Street. On that street alone we had 27 business in the ‘40s to the ‘70s. Now there are none.” 

He added, “The changes were affected by urban renewal and redesign of the thoroughfares.

“In the process, we lost a lot of the major black hotels (The Savoy on The Block), The James Key Hotel (Southside), Bush Hotel (Depot Street).”

Also, Bacoate recalled one or two black-owned apartments, the Conelly Building, a furniture store (run by Ira Angel and the Rev. Lacy Haith),” the latter of which, he said, was “a renowned manual arts (carpentry teacher) at Stephens-Lee High School” — and “Eugene Smith, who owned the only black newspaper (The Southern News) in the city at the time. Angel also owned a real estate firm.” 

He emphasized, “I’m specifying free-standing buildings that had” black owners. 

Bacoate added, “We also lost the Owl Lounge (a three-story building) that incorporated the two bowling lanes that I mentioned earlier, dentist office and nightclub.

“‘Mr. Southside Glenn’ was an entrepreneur with a concrete building on Coxe Avenue and Southside — and he had five automobiles. He had white cab-drivers dressed ‘the part.’

Returning to the topic of racism, he said that, compared to other cities in the United States (to the many cities in which he has visited), “We had more-liberal thinking white people in Asheville than in most places. We didn’t have any racial riots, except in September of 1969 the black students rebelled against the system and the way it was making changes at Lee Edwards High School.

“Asheville has been a city that has had an impressive relationship between black and white people over the years,” Bacoate said.. “I want to give the city and the people credit.

“We don’t have the progress today that we had yesterday because I do not personally see the robust relationship in the black community that we had yesterday,” Bacoate said, in concluding his interview with the Daily Planet.



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