Henry Robinson wrote in 1992 about his childhood community of Southside–a mournful eulogy really, to a place that no longer exists–that the sprawling community “stretched over 400 acres from Biltmore Avenue westward to the French Broad River.” Robinson informs us today that it was “the largest residential area for African-Americans in Asheville and a melting pot of people with varying backgrounds and lifestyles–from the educated to the illiterate. There was no central area of poverty. Pockets of substandard houses and apartments mixed with neatly kept homes and lawns.”
“Black people then, as opposed to now, owned a variety of business ventures on the Southside. But by the mid-1960s, they were gone, perhaps forever.” [Asheville Citizen-Times May 25, 1992.
Any African American native who grew up in Asheville prior to the 1960s (those now in their 50s and up) can not take their children or grandchildren and show them where they lived, went to school, got their hair done, went to the movies, grabbed a Cola, the favorite milkshake hop, had their first date, went to the grocery, got a hotdog, the funeral parlor where their relatives’ services were held, and for many, the church where they grew up. They can not show their offspring the hillsides, creeks and dirt paths they wandered. Place is gone. A way of living is gone. They can only tell these things from their memories.
One Place Still Remains: Rabbit’s Motel
Fred “Rabbit” Simpson, nicknamed Rabbit because he could run so fast, opened a small motel and diner in 1948 at 110 McDowell Street. His place originally had a sign with blinking neon lights shaped like a rabbit. Simpson started the diner because, according to his family, “he was tired of being shunned from other places, turned away with a shake of the head, glaring eyes, or sometimes words–verbal assaults that left a mark, a welt on his self-esteem.” [Asheville Citizen-Times July 16, 1995] Rabbit’s offered “Real Home-Cooked Meals” as the simple sign read. Deep-fried meats, cornbread, macaroni with lots of cheese and a glass of buttermilk. Soul Food. Rabbit’s Restaurant and Motel was listed in the The Negro Motorist Green Book, that gave traveling African Americans safe places to stay across America prior to integration. The restaurant operated through 2004, over 50 years, and suffered a fire in 2019.
A New Beginning, For Rabbit’s and For Asheville
In June 2018 SoundSpace Asheville–Claude Coleman, Jr. and his business partner Brett Spivey–closed on the property. The original family knew the property’s location was valuable, but held off on offers. Coleman had researched the history of the restaurant and motel, and from that, began to have a vision much larger than the site for a musician’s studio, that he was originally looking for.
“It started out as an idea for a practice space, and it’s turned into this sort of larger than life idea for the restoration, paying tribute and honoring the history of this place. It’s a little personal to me, because the history of Blacks in Asheville is kind of rough,” Coleman reflects. Although the city is known in some circles as being a sort of liberal, diverse oasis in the cultural desert of the Bible Belt, it’s still a very geographically segregated city, and there’s a lingering pain among many residents who saw their neighborhoods taken over in the name of progress while their families were relocated to housing projects and undesirable neighborhoods.” [Quote from https://glidemagazine.com/, July 17, 2018.]
Speaking with Mr. Coleman recently, he talked about coming from a place that had not experienced Urban Renewal. Mr. Coleman and SoundSpace Asheville want to be a part of this community: valuing and honoring African Americans and their contributions to the Southside neighborhood.
And, by the way, let’s ALL support Southside Rising, a community organization that is responding to gentrification and working to build a community that works for everyone.
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 Southside 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? 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.
Post written by North Carolina Room librarian Zoe Rhine.