When Darin Waters was growing up in Asheville, North Carolina, people told him that George Vanderbilt forced blacks off their land to create the Biltmore Estate — some 120,000 acres and a huge chateau in the middle of Appalachia. Waters was told that African Americans had owned most of what became Vanderbilt’s property. Waters also heard that so few blacks had lived in western North Carolina at the turn of the twentieth century that their contributions to society were minimal.

“This is what we all heard growing up,” Waters says.

“And none of this is true.”

In fact, on the corner of Eagle and Market Streets in downtown Asheville there’s a large historic building that houses the Young Men’s Institute (YMI), which has been an educational, recreational, and cultural refuge for African Americans since 1893.

And it probably would never have existed, Waters says, had black leaders and Vanderbilt not worked together.

Photo by Renato Rotolo. ©2009 Endeavors magazine.

On his first day researching the YMI at the Biltmore Estate, Waters mentioned to the archivist that his great-great-grandfather had probably been a freed slave who moved from South Carolina to Asheville in 1850. Waters’ great-grandfather, Louis Waters, had owned an apple orchard in Edneyville. But that’s about all he knew.

For the heck of it, the archivist did a quick database search for Louis Waters. She got three hits — handwritten letters from the 1890s that Louis Waters sent to Charles McNamee, Biltmore’s manager. Turns out, Waters’ great-grandfather had a business and hauled debris off the estate during construction of the Biltmore House. In one letter, Louis asked for his pay in advance so he could buy a team of horses. In another he asked McNamee to renew his contract.

“I was shocked,” Waters says. “Not only was my great-grandfather literate, but he was a businessman, a contractor with a crew, and he was working for one of the richest men in the world. And this is probably how he earned the money to buy the land for that apple orchard, which the Waters family still owns.”

It was an inspiring first day for Waters, a historian and UNC doctoral student. And though he didn’t discover anything else about his family, Waters did eventually find — over the course of six months — what he was looking for.

Vanderbilt did buy some land from black families, but not nearly as much as he purchased from whites such as the prominent Patton family. And blacks were not cajoled to sell out to Vanderbilt. “The letters from the black leaders show it was a mutual agreement,” Waters says. “Vanderbilt paid the black community of Shiloh to move and agreed to build the infrastructure for that new location — a new church, for instance — and the community grew from there. That’s where I was raised; that’s where my brother still lives.”

Then Waters found a letter that Charles McNamee had sent to the Asheville Citizen-Times about how the Young Men’s Institute began. “The traditional story is that Vanderbilt wanted to build the YMI for black workers on his estate,” Waters says. And this became the common refrain passed down throughout the twentieth century. “But Charles McNamee clearly states that the YMI was not Vanderbilt’s idea. It was the black community’s.”

Edward Stephens, who led Asheville’s black public school system, forged a relationship with Vanderbilt and urged him to invest in the YMI, Waters says. Vanderbilt agreed to loan thirteen thousand dollars to black leaders in 1892. He hired architect Richard Sharp Smith, a protégé of Richard Morris Hunt, who had designed the Biltmore House. The same black craftsmen who had constructed Biltmore also built the YMI.

Through a trusteeship, Vanderbilt and McNamee oversaw the institute for thirteen years, Waters says, but the black community had exclusive control of its membership and activities, which included classes for children and night school for adults; Stephens wrote the curricula for them. The YMI had a library, gymnasium, meeting space, and reading rooms. Its leaders invited black singers. It hosted concerts and lectures. Black churches that didn’t have their own buildings met at the YMI. Women had an auxiliary program there. And from the beginning, it was for the entire black community, not just Vanderbilt’s workers.

The institute leased spaces on the ground floor for black-owned businesses — a pharmacy, a restaurant, a dentist’s office, and a doctor’s office. “The YMI became the hub for Asheville’s black business district,” Waters says.

In 1906, Vanderbilt offered the building outright to the black community for ten thousand dollars. “I couldn’t find any evidence that they raised that much money,” Waters says. “But they raised six thousand.” And Vanderbilt accepted it.

In McNamee’s letter to the Citizen-Times, he says that Vanderbilt’s investment was a business transaction, not a gift. But records in Biltmore’s archives show that Vanderbilt contributed close to thirty-two thousand dollars over those thirteen years — nearly one million dollars in today’s currency. Vanderbilt paid for a kindergarten program for black boys and girls. He paid for the building’s upkeep and the salary for the YMI’s general secretary.

“This organization was unique because it was based on the YMCA, and Vanderbilt could have made it a YMCA,” Waters says. “But he clearly wanted the African American community to have exclusive control.”

And this decision allowed the YMI to hire several prominent leaders after Edward Stephens, including John Love, an Asheville native who went on to teach in the public schools of Washington, D.C. William S. Trent, the YMI general secretary in 1906, became president of Livingstone College.

Today’s YMI doesn’t have consistent membership records from back then, Waters says, but he did find that Alfred Manley, one of Spelman College’s more successful presidents, had been a member.

“I didn’t know any of these people before I started this research,” Waters says, “or what they contributed to society.”

Waters’ findings fit nicely into his dissertation. They also served as the basis for a book he’s writing — his first project for a nonprofit he started called the Institute for Historical Research and Education, which tells the stories of little-known organizations and people. Waters will also help the YMI create exhibits to tell its story.

One reason why he chose the YMI as his institute’s first project is that its story flies in the face of what historians previously reported — that Southern blacks at the turn of the twentieth century had little say or influence over their daily lives. “When you study Asheville you see this bustling town in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains with an African American community that is not isolated from the rest of the town,” Waters says. “They’re actively engaged in what’s happening there, so much so that they’re coming up with their own ideas about what they want to do.”

Back at Biltmore’s archives, Waters discovered more about Vanderbilt’s philanthropy, including how he helped individuals such as Harvey Higgins, a young Biltmore butler who dreamed of becoming a doctor. Vanderbilt paid for Higgins’tuition, books, and travel costs for attending Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina. Then Vanderbilt covered costs when Higgins attended medical school at Shaw University and saw to it that Higgins would do his residency in New York. Higgins eventually became a prominent doctor in Providence, Rhode Island.

“What I find interesting is that, according to historians, white philanthropists focused a lot of their money on southern Appalachia after Reconstruction because they thought there weren’t many African Americans there,” Waters says. “But in Asheville, you have two very prominent white philanthropists — Vanderbilt and George Pack — supporting African American initiatives.”

Waters says that, in some ways, such efforts to engage the black community could be boiled down to appeasement to keep things calm for northern tourists who began coming to Asheville in droves when the railroad was built. But he also says that the black community, which was small and fairly easy to ignore, took full advantage of the appeasement. Still, Waters is convinced that the black community and white philanthropists, including Asheville’s own Patton family, worked together for the betterment of Asheville despite threats from some white folks.

Waters found a letter from Edward Stephens, who, along with a white teacher, had received an anonymous written threat on his life. Stephens, before the YMI was built, forwarded the note in a letter to Charles McNamee, who responded by saying that he and Vanderbilt knew how difficult things were for blacks, but that in time, they hoped, race relations would improve. Waters says that Vanderbilt’s decision to fund the YMI may have been an effort to improve race relations.

“Some historians might argue that there’s a degree of paternalism in all this philanthropy, and I would probably say, yeah, there was,” Waters says. “But Vanderbilt is interesting to me because he did all this without any fanfare. Many other people — Carnegie, Rockefeller — helped others and supported different things. But the only thing most people know about Vanderbilt is that house he built in the mountains.”

Darin Waters is a doctoral student in the Department of History in the College of Arts and Sciences, and is executive director of the Institute for Historical Research and Education. In 2008, Governor Mike Easley appointed Waters to the North Carolina African American Heritage Commission, which is charged with advising and assisting the state’s secretary of cultural resources in the preservation, interpretation, and promotion of African American history, arts, and culture. Waters received funding for his research from the Kimmel Foundation in Asheville and from Thomas Klingenstein of New York City.