“On the west side of Asheville between Patton and Haywood/A community holds on, tries to create a sustainable model, /Relationship-building between people/What can I say: Burton Street?”
-DeWayne Barton “Burton Street Working Together” from 27 Views of Asheville, Eno Publishers, ed.
We have discussed the Burton Street Community a few times this year, especially highlighting the accomplishments of the community’s founder, E.W. Pearson, Sr., but what we haven’t mentioned one ever-looming question in a lot of communities, especially those named for people: Who is Burton, anyway? And how did the area come to be named for them?
The scars of Urban Renewal mark the growth development of Burton Street in the last half of 20th century. The development of Interstates 26 and 240 took out entire streets and homes in the name of highway access. However, today the community is redeveloping, growing, and embracing new models of sustainability. To learn more about the future of Burton Street, check out these resources:
DeWayne highlights a lot of important community institutions in his essay, “Burton Street Working Together,” including Mama’s Fast Food, the Burton Street Community Peace Gardens, the Burton Street School, and more. Many of the locations, (in particular, churches and the Burton Street School) featured in Barton’s prose-poem would have been familiar to people living in the community more than 100 years ago, as well.
Here’s a map of the area as it would have been in 1912, a newly platted suburb called “Park View”:
Before 1922, the area was known as Buffalo Street, however a movement by the citizens of the community changed the name to Burton Street that same year. According to newspaper coverage of the time, more than 20 families in the community approached city officials in an effort to rename the street for John Burton, one of the original founders of the City of Asheville. Even before this movement, Asheville historian F.A. Sondley bemoaned the absence of a street named for Burton, saying “What street in Asheville bears his name? What has ever been done by the town to honor her founder? In fact, how many of Asheville’s people have ever heard of John Burton?”
I must admit, until digging into this issue, I didn’t know who he was either. I suspect that many locals find themselves in a similar boat. This is most probably because biographical information about Burton is scarce to begin with. He is an obscure figure, and though he purchased the original property for the City of Asheville, started the first mill, and surveyed the first plats, even his birth and death dates remain a mystery.
What is interesting about the change, beyond the name’s connection to the town’s founder, is how the change happened. Though it was, according to the newspaper, the “colored residents of Buffalo Street” who made the original petition to city officials (presumably on April 8, 1922, it was reported the following day), further coverage of the name change cited that it was the signed petition of the white residents of the community that secured the change from city officials.
It seems that white residents of the neighborhood may have seen an opportunity to support the efforts of their black neighbors. In 1922, navigating government systems as a person of color would have been much more difficult than for their white neighbors. The brief article explained, “Buffalo extension is a colored section, while Buffalo Street has white residents.” The petition brought forward by the white residents left with this result: Buffalo Street earned the new name Burton Street, but Buffalo extension remained the same.
The 1922 city directory shows that the streets (Buffalo, and Buffalo extension) were very integrated. The idea that one part of the street was an African American section, and one part was white, as reflected by the paper is, overall, misleading. Of the 56 families that lived on Buffalo, 23 of them were African American, a total 41 percent of the community’s households. Here is a snapshot of who lived in what is now the Burton Street Community in 1922 (note that households marked with an * are African American):
As you can see, the very beginning of the list is less integrated than the latter half, but overall the street was a mix of both black and white residents.
Although we don’t know much about John Burton (and there is little hope in finding more), we are always learning new things about the Burton Street Community. Unfortunately, we don’t have many primary sources or archival materials here in the North Carolina Room related to the Burton Street Community, and we would love to have more. If you have a family archive, scrapbooks, school photos or annuals from Burton Street School (You can take a look at the one annual we have preserved by following this link), or memories you would like to share about growing up in this community, we would love to talk to you about how we can help you preserve them in the North Carolina Room here at Pack Memorial Library.
We love sharing our collections with you! We especially like when they get a good workout from researchers, the curious, and even the stray interior designer or stylist! These images and collections are as much yours as they are the library’s. That’s what public libraries are all about!
Come on in and take a look. You never know what you might find!
As a reminder, this post is a part of our 52 Weeks, 52 Communities Series. In this series, we are covering a different Buncombe County community each week. Do you have materials related to Burton Street or some other Buncombe County community you’d like to let us know about? Do you, your parents or grandparents have a good story to tell? Please let us know!!! We want to hear from you! The North Carolina Room is Buncombe County’s Public Archive, we want to help preserve and make accessible the history and culture of Asheville and Buncombe County for all its residents.
This post was authored by Katherine Calhoun Cutshall, a librarian working in the North Carolina Room at Pack Memorial Library.