Join Buncombe County Special Collections for a reception to celebrate the completion of a mural honoring James Vester Miller, African American community leader and brick mason.
Miller is responsible for some of the most iconic brick buildings in downtown Asheville, and undoubtedly shaped the built environment of the city.
Born in Rutherfordton, NC in 1860, James Vester Miller was the son of an enslaved mother and a slave owner father. His mother, Louisa, moved the family to Asheville following Emancipation. Miller was never formally educated—he refused to attend school, electing instead to spend his days visiting construction sites, where he immersed himself in the trade. Despite his lack of formal education, Miller possessed a natural intelligence that lent itself to his later success as a brick mason and contractor. He would prove to be a master builder, working first as a contractor for the Coxe and Millard families, and later establishing his own company. By 1900, Miller and Sons was among the leading construction companies in Asheville. His buildings are distinctive for their artisan brickwork, which made Miller one of the most sought-after contractors for architects like Richard Sharp Smith.
Some noteworthy structures built by Miller and Sons include:
The Scottish Rite Cathedral and Masonic Temple, St. Matthias Episcopal Church, Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, the Young Men’s Institute building, the Asheville Municipal Building (today the police station/fire department), St. James AME Episcopal Church, and Hopkins Chapel AME Zion Church.
Miller built a 15-room home in the Emma community of West Asheville which he called “Out Home,” where he raised 6 children with his wife, Violet. He had three additional children with his partner, Ida Friday Clark. Six of his sons became master bricklayers as well; one son, Dr. Lee Otus Miller, became one of Asheville’s first Black physicians. One of Miller’s daughters, Annie Mae Miller, lived to be 101 years old and is responsible for many of the family’s stories.
Community memory in Emma recalls Out Home as being a hub for the community, as the Miller family kept a tradition of sharing crops and products such as jams, sauerkraut, and meat among Emma residents throughout the early 1900s.
Miller also established Violet Hill Cemetery in West Asheville, which he named in honor of his wife. They are both buried there, along with many members of the Miller/Clark families and other distinguished members of Asheville’s Black community.
Andrea Clark, granddaughter of James Vester Miller, is a photographer who documented life in the East End neighborhood before urban renewal. Born and raised in Cambridge, MA, Andrea came to Asheville in 1968 to live with her father in the East End. Her photographs reflect an exploration of her roots, and into a world very different from the one she had known in New England. Clark has made significant efforts in recent years to revive her grandfather’s legacy in Asheville’s historic memory, which resulted in the creation of a walking tour that highlights his work.
Thanks to the support of the ArtsAVL “Art Builds Community” grant, artist Jenny Pickens worked in partnership with Clark and local students to paint a mural of Clark’s grandfather.
Join us on Saturday, August 26th at 2pm at Buncombe County Special Collections to see the mural unveiled! We will hear from the artist, and learn more about James Vester Miller and the James Vester Miller Historic Walking Trail.
The mural will be on display in the lower level of Pack Memorial Library through December 2023.