Isaac Coleman
Isaac Coleman

ASHEVILLE — Buncombe County commissioners unanimously approved a package of $500,000 to support the black community after hearing a presentation from residents and community leaders who described many challenges the community faces in trying to lift neighborhoods out of poverty.

Isaac Coleman
Isaac Coleman, a longtime community activist for whom a new Buncombe County fund to fight poverty in the black community is being named.

For the past ten years, white workers in Buncombe County made on average $980 more per month than black workers, said Dwight Mullen, a political science professor at UNC Ashevile, citing data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Mullen has compiled a report on the “State of Black Asheville” along with other professors and students, following a decade of research.

Fact after fact spoke to severe disparities between black residents and their white neighbors:

  • As of 2015, black residents ages 16 and over made up 5.6 percent of the citizens in Buncombe County. Yet they made up 28.1 percent of the average daily population of the Buncombe County Detention Facility that same year.
  • Black-owned businesses made $40,000 in average annual sales in 2012. White-owned businesses averaged just under $400,000 in annual sales in 2012, the most recent year for reporting on this from the US Census Bureau.
  • In terms of income, the federal poverty level for a family of four is $24,450. In Buncombe County, the median income annually for a black family of four is $26,065, just above poverty level. The median household income for a white family is $46,805.
  • About 35 percent of black students read at grade level, compared to 71 percent of whites reading at grade level.

“I don’t know how to get the black students here into my classes at UNCA,” Mullen said, bemoaning the lack of a pipeline to higher education for black students. “We are all paying taxes for these institutions.”

“I hope the funding goes toward our youth in our communities to help build leadership to help them want to go further in school, to encourage our students for college readiness, and for those that aren’t college-bound but want to work in our communities,” said Shuvonda Harper, who spoke out at the meeting along with her son Bentley Harper-Pierce.

Harper added that for students who aren’t college-bound, she hopes the funding can go toward teaching them trades like mechanics that will help them get jobs and support the local economy.

Harper is an office assistant at the Edington Center, where Green Opportunities, a job-training and readiness program, is located. The center is a “diamond in the rough” as Harper calls it, and it also hosts after-school programs that she hopes could benefit from this funding.

Her son, a sixth-grader at Asheville Middle School, helped make a short documentary that was shown at the commissioner’s meeting called “Black Asheville.”

“I wanted to ask people in the black community how they feel about their community,” Bentley Harper-Pierce said.

Community funding

Commissioner Ellen Frost introduced the initiative to the commissioners to start off the evening and expressed her dedication to helping the cause.

“We cannot leave a community behind,” Frost said.

“I’ve been here since 1984 and have never seen Buncombe County Commissioners unanimously support something like this,” Mullen said afterward. In the past, they held a reputation of being the “unapproachable body of government” to get support for the black community, so this was historical to him.

Commissioner Al Whitesides, elected in December 2016, is the first African-American commissioner to serve on the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners. He reminded the crowd that when he was a high school student, like some of those who spoke, “We didn’t have commissioners who would listen to us.”

Health and Human Services Director Amanda Stone formally asked county commissioners for $500,000 annually each year for the next three years to support the community, which the board approved in a unanimous vote.

Called the Isaac Coleman Community Investment, the funding is named after a prominent black activist who held leadership roles within the Asheville Buncombe NAACP and Buncombe County’s Democratic Party.

Funding will come from taxpayers and will be given annually. The goal, as Stone explained, is that the fund would be given every year for three years. Although Tuesday’s vote set up the program, the board would have to approve the fund each year.

“We need at least three years commitment to see this fire catch because it’s about building something new,” Stone said.

Part of the funds will be derived from reallocated unused housing-project funds, which include $325,000.

Not everyone who addressed the commissioners Tuesday agreed that this approach was the best solution to community problems.

“You need to talk to your educators because they’re not doing their jobs,” Jerry Rice, a Candler resident, told commissioners.

Rice doesn’t oppose the funding, but he wants it given to schools, which he believes would help more students than helping this “small community,” pointing to the area of the room where many of the presenters were sitting.

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Amanda James is a contributing government reporter for Carolina Public Press.

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